JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we are going to discuss, [what our guest refers to as] a “crisis of trust” among younger generations that is hindering younger adults from committing to marriage and family life. We will also discuss how this same trust issue [might be] contributing to the devastating opioid drug crisis we see in America today.
Our guest is Amber Lapp, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, which explores how working class young adults form relationships and families. She blogs at IBelieveinLove.com and has written for numerous media outlets including, The Atlantic Online, First Things, and The Huffington Post.
Amber Lapp, welcome to Family Policy Matters! It’s great to have you on the show.
AMBER LAPP: Thank you, John! Great to be here.
JOHN RUSTIN: Amber, as we begin, explain for us what is different today about younger generations when it comes to relationships, marriages and children compared to say the more seasoned among us?
AMBER LAPP: We know that young adults are, in general, delaying marriage. So, the average age for women is now 27 and for men it’s 29. Yet, even though they’re delaying marriage, they’re not necessarily delaying having children. They’re more likely to have children outside of marriage. So overall, 48 percent of first births are to unmarried women—most of them in their 20s. And these trends also diverge along class lines. So, they have a strong effect in working class communities, among young adults with no four-year college degree. And, I think, underlying a lot of these trends is this crisis of trust.
JOHN RUSTIN: So, what do you mean when you talk about a crisis of trust?
AMBER LAPP: When my husband and I first moved to a working class community in Southwestern Ohio in 2010 to interview young adults about their relationships and experiences of having children and starting families, we were just struck by how often these young adults would talk about trust issues. And to be honest, we didn’t really know what that meant exactly. Both of us are from very high-trust backgrounds. But 71 percent of the young adults that we were interviewing brought up this idea of trust issues and said that it affected their relationships. And over time as we’ve been doing follow-up interviews with this sample of young adults, we came to see that this crisis of trust is incredibly significant in the way that they form relationships. And there’s kind of three levels of this trust:
So I think that a lot of times this crisis of trust is a very rational response to life circumstances. But it does have a tragic effect on the ability to form a stable attachment to another adult and to have that committed marriage.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s very interesting. And I know as we look at comparing the young adults of today versus those of a generation or two ago that seem to have, at least in some senses, more stability and more trust that you’ve just talked about… I think as we look back over recent decades, we’ve seen the sexual revolution, the increasing growth in the divorce rate, […] the drug culture in America has grown more and more. It seems that all of these things have certainly fed into the concerns, the hesitancies and this lack of trust that you talked about.
AMBER LAPP: Yes I think so. And maybe I’ll just go down the list of those three that you mentioned and say a little bit about each one. As far as the sexual revolution goes, I think one of the legacies of that is just the way it has complicated the courtship script, or in other words, the path from just meeting somebody to being in a committed relationship with them. It is not very straightforward anymore. It can often be very ambiguous and I think that can make it more easy for people to get hurt emotionally because of the differing expectations and just not really being sure of the status of the relationship. And there’s a recent book by Lisa Wade called American Hookup, and she also addresses some of this. And so I think that can contribute to this crisis of trust when young adults are repeatedly getting hurt in relationships. And then the divorce revolution: I think that for many of the young adults that my husband and I interviewed, this was perhaps the route of their trust issues, as they would put it. For example, one young man I spoke with said that what really messed him up—he just felt messed up—and he said what really messed me up was not having his dad in his life. And he said, “Of course, it’s going to make me grow up and feel like I can’t trust nobody.” And this was a very common sentiment for young adults to say their parents were divorced or maybe their parents had never married at all and they had an estranged relationship with one of their parents, and that template for trust then was missing. And then with drugs: I mean, there are obvious reasons this would contribute to a lack of trust, you know drug-related crime and even the way that someone is struggling with addiction and [you] love them but yet you don’t know if you can believe what they’re saying. That has a profound effect. That’s something my husband and I, since moving to the town that we live in, have struggled with because some of these young adults who we’ve come to know and love are also struggling with heroine addiction. It can be very difficult to know when someone is telling you the truth. So, that does do something with your trust that you have, the way you approach life and if you’re trusting or not with other people.
JOHN RUSTIN: As we’ve [already] talked about, the delay of marriage—and you said that now, on average, young women are waiting to get married until they’re 27 and men 29. We hear about the changing dynamics in relationships as well. We’ve heard about couples sort of “sliding” into marriage once they start cohabitating or living together. But you have found that there are an increasing number of couples who have actually just sort of fallen into relationships without any real direct intention of doing so. Talk about this phenomena a little bit and what you think it means for couples and marriage and family in our current structure.
AMBER LAPP: There was a question that we asked couples that we thought would be a very straightforward question of, “Tell me when did your relationship begin, and how did that happen?” And a lot of times we were met with kind of blank looks and people really had to stop and think. And then they would say this thing of, “Well, it just happened. It just kind of happened.” One young woman told me about how her boyfriend literally moved in one outfit at a time. They never really had a conversation about whether or not they were dating or you know what to call each other, but he spent the night one night and slowly would just kind of move in one outfit at a time, as she said. Another person described spending the night together and then they just never left each other so they figured that they were in a relationship. I think this can mean that sometimes people will end up feeling stuck in a relationship that they would not have really chosen had they taken the time to get to know the other person first. And often, there’s this exhaustion that comes from not having clarity about the status of the relationship and the expectations. And it’s just kind of heartbreaking.
JOHN RUSTIN: One of the things that really shocked me in your observations is that for some young people—I guess as they expressed it to you—that things like handholding and sharing emotions, having discussions and kind of being deep and authentic and transparent with each other, at times was more difficult and even felt more intimate than actually being sexually active. How is that possible?
AMBER LAPP: That was actually an observation by Lisa Wade in American Hookup, but I also did see that in my own interviews. I think that people sometimes have sex in such an anonymous and callous way in order to make it clear that they are seeing this as a meaningless act, as just a hookup, and so then cuddling and handholding, or a tender kiss on the cheek, those actions still retain symbolic meaning as tokens of affection and of love because they require this vulnerability. But the hookup culture has really created this distinction in some people’s minds between having sex as just a meaningless act versus having some sort of intimate act that shows affection.
JOHN RUSTIN: Amber, as we wind down our discussion today, I do want to end on a positive note—assuming that we can do that, and I certainly think that we can—and just give you an opportunity to tell our listeners from your perspective, how can we as a culture, how can we as older adults and mentors, and even younger adults who are friends of people who may be living with these issues of trust and broken relationships and things of that nature, how can we help to foster an easier and healthier path for our peers, our friends, our children even who are young adults, to becoming committed in relationships and doing things, and approaching each other in such a way that young adults really seem to want these days but may be struggling to figure out to implement?
AMBER LAPP: That’s a great question. I think that one thing to remember is that the solution is not just one thing, but many things. So, I like to think of it as a marriage ecology: you know, everything from having better marriage preparation and character formation; to quality mental healthcare; to better beliefs and values about love, sex, happiness and marriage; to jobs and fair work scheduling; and too like involvement in church or a place of worship; and kind of a sense of purpose and meaning that can come from belonging somewhere. And so, I think that can start with friendship and breaking through class lines, forming friendships with those who are most affected by these trends, and then working in solidarity with those people to address these issues, as opposed to kind of swooping in with a pre-packaged program and trying to implement it. But really coming along side young adults and understanding what it is they feel is blocking the path to marriage and the stable marriages and families they want. Because I think that is the hope that we can hold on to. Survey after survey show young adults still value marriage. They still want marriage. And so as we approach this other culture, we can use that as a starting point and say perhaps we don’t have to expend as much energy convincing people that marriage is good—or at least many of these young adults—but we can put effort into coming alongside of them and giving them kind of a place and permission to voice those values they have for marriage and to pursue marriage and to trouble-shoot those obstacles together. And one practical way to do this is there’s a program, I Believe in Love. The website is IBelieveinLove.com. And I’ve had the opportunity to do some work with them and they have a mentor program that involves inviting young adults to share their stories about finding and keeping life-long love. And it’s just been really neat to form some friendships with young adults who have had difficult family backgrounds, but who really want marriage. So, I would encourage people to check out IBelieveinLove.com.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. Amber, we’re just about out of time. But I also, in addition to IBelieveinLove.com, is there another website or websites that you would suggest and recommend that folks visit to learn more about your great work and your research?
AMBER LAPP: I do blog regularly at the Institute for Family Studies’ blog. So, that is ifstudies.org.
JOHN RUSTIN: We’re very grateful for all the super work that you’ve done. Thanks so much.
AMBER LAPP: Well, thank you very much! It’s been a pleasure to talk with you today.
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