Are Gen Xers Just Trying Marriage on for Size?

Jan. 25, 2002 -- When Vanessa Mobley got married at 22, neither she nor her husband quite knew who they were yet — but it didn't take them long to discover that they were two people not meant for each other.

The newlyweds separated after one year, and by the time Mobley was 26, they had divorced. Mobley describes it as sort of a botched experiment with a positive outcome.

"I view the marriage as a rehearsal," Mobley told Good Morning America. "Now I am ready to play the part better because I can expect more of people and they can expect more of me … We, as generation Xers, live in a culture of new beginnings where we can fix anything."

A new book says that an increasing number of 20-something couples are getting into so-called "starter marriages," childless unions that end in a sheaf of divorce papers within a few years.

Defining the Starter Marriage

In her book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony author Pamela Paul defines starter marriages as first-time marriages that last five years or less and do not yield children ( Read an excerpt). Obviously, no one thinks that they are embarking on a brief marriage on the way in, but Paul, an editor at American Demographics magazine, asserts that this type of marriage is a growing trend among Gen Xers.

The government doesn't track "starter marriages," but Paul cites Census Bureau statistics showing that in 1998 there were more than 3 million divorced 18- to 29-year-olds. There were 253,000 divorces among 25- to 29-year-olds in 1962. Meanwhile, the average age of first marriages has risen to 25, compared with 20 in the 1950s.

Paul says that most young couples who divorce early rush into marriage for one of two reasons: either they have finished school and are living with their parents and want someone else to cling to, or they are very successful power couples who feel that they need a great marriage to complement their fabulous careers and looks.

Can’t See Beyond the Aisle

The author's interest stems, in part, from personal experience. Paul's own first marriage ended in divorce within a year of tying the knot. For the book she conducted interviews with 60 starter marriage veterans.

The underlying factors that lead to starter marriages are often economic uncertainty and global instability, both of which prompt people to look toward marriage as a stable thing, Paul said. But there are personal factors, too.

"When people go into their starter marriages, their eyes are focused on the wedding day, and they don't give much thought what is going to happen in the next 50 years," Paul said.

With their eyes fixed on the prize — the wedding day and the reception — they somehow miss the long-term commitment that is supposed to follow the walk down the aisle.

Starter marriages also often involve the first children of the divorced generation, Paul said. Though their parents got divorced, this group believes that they will not, though at the same time they realize it is a viable option.

"The baby boomer sort of really challenged the idea of marriage and transformed the whole institution of matrimony so it is interesting to see how the next generation handles it," Paul said.

Better Luck Next Time?

The good news is that the older and wiser divorcees wind up with the tools and experience needed to make the second trip down the aisle more lasting and rewarding, Paul said.

Mobley says she now has a better understanding of the non-negotiable qualities that she is looking for in a husband.

"I am more sober and less dreamy now about marriage, and I know what a relationship is like," Mobley said.

Paul said she found that many starter marriage veterans are wiser for their experience.

"The biggest lesson people can learn from their own divorces was how to get married again and how to get married for a lifetime."

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