Blog   Marriage & Parenting

Valentine’s, Ashes, and Marriage

gold balloon spelling love on a white background

February 14’s commemoration of the third-century Roman St. Valentine spurs many American couples to celebrate their affection with flowers, chocolates, fancy dinners, and sometimes even a marriage proposal. However, this Valentine’s Day, fewer young American adults will celebrate as couples. Pew reports that about one-third of women under 30 and a staggering 63% of men in the same age group are single. According to Dr. Brad Wilcox’s new book, Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, “The marriage rate has fallen about 65 percent in the last half-century.” Recent Census data found that American marriage rates are at an all-time low, with only 33 in every 1,000 unmarried American adults getting married, compared to 35 in 2010, and 86 in 1970.

As fewer people are getting married and increasing numbers of Americans are struggling with loneliness and depression, this February 14 is a good time to reflect on what could be connecting these trends. What is love? How are love and marriage connected? Why isn’t marriage enticing anymore? Are we loving well?

Unintended Consequences

As part of the equal rights focus of the last century, many of our mothers and grandmothers bought into feminism’s pressure to go to college, start intense careers, and match men’s earning potential, at the expense of marriage and children. Men were not exempt from this societal rewiring. Our insistence that women don’t need men, and that men’s instincts to fight, defend, and protect, especially on behalf of the women they love, are toxic, essentially told men to stop loving. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many of them have.

Today’s younger generations are living the reality that some of the best-laid plans to supposedly make men and women more equal are actually making it harder for women to thrive in the ways most of them would prefer—as wives and mothers. While surveys continue to find that women would like to be married, adult females are also placing greater importance on careers as “key to living a fulfilling life,” according to Pew. On the other hand, an assortment of factors—from prolonged adolescence to dropping college graduation rates among men—contribute to a dating pool that is seen as less desirable.

Pursuit of Happiness

According to the most recent Gallup data, married adults are by far the happiest of any relationship status. Since 2009, the differential of happiness between married and unmarried adults favors marriage by at least a dozen percentage points and as much as 24 points. This is true regardless of age, race, gender, or educational attainment. Household income is also closely linked with marriage, as married households boast a higher average income than any other household scenario. Interestingly, marriage rates, and particularly marriages with children, appear to be more closely connected to lower rates of “deaths of despair” (such as suicide, drug or alcohol poisoning, or overdose) than college attainment, age, or race.

We see that marriage is incredibly beneficial, but how do we return to a culture that values it?

Valentines Ashes

This year, a unique calendar convergence may point us in the right direction. February 14, 2024 is both St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. For many Christians, this means that heart candies, chocolates, fancy dinners, and other decadent celebrations will be replaced by the austerity associated with the beginning of the Church’s penitential season of Lent. At first glance, this seems like a dichotomy of incompatible occurrences, but in God’s divine providence, it is actually one of the most appropriate pairings.

Lent is a season of reflection, sacrifice, and repentance of sins. Christians are called to step back from the things of the world, to do a self-examination on the status of our relationship with God and others. Like Christ, who spent 40 days in the desert being tested before beginning His earthly ministry that culminated in His ultimate mission to save the world, we are called to spend 40 days reflecting and preparing for the mission God has called us to in this life. What does it mean to love? Christ, who is Love, demonstrated it for us—it means sacrifice, it means giving of ourselves, it means an unselfish commitment to the greatest good of another. Chocolates, candy, and flowers, while beautiful and touching, don’t quite have the same depth. Valentine’s Day, with its ashes, joins the two beautifully.

True Love

St. Thomas Aquinas defined love in his Summa Theologica as willing the good of another. That is a dramatic departure from the soulmate or checklist mindset popularized by today’s rom-coms and match-making apps. Our cultural shift to a perfect soulmate mentality of marriage, while charming for blockbuster success, can make the successful marriages most of us hope to have more difficult to forge. As anyone who has been married can attest, romantic feelings ebb and flow, and setting unrealistic or unattainable expectations can lead to disappointment and relational despair.

As Dr. Brad Wilcox recently wrote in the New York Times, by definition, a soulmate ought to always be easy to love. The idea that a person fits into your life, preferences, desires, and needs in the exact perfect ways of a soulmate means there is no need for you to ever sacrifice or adjust. Even those who haven’t been married know that no human interactions are that neat and tidy. True relationships, particularly marriages, embrace a deeper, ultimately more stable and enriching, truth. Love that reflects the One who is Love—Jesus. In much the same way that Christ taught us how to pray, He taught us how to love. We are to will the ultimate good of the other, no matter how uncomfortable it is, no matter how far from that ultimate good they currently are, no matter how high the price might be. Love even unto death. Willing the good of another can be difficult. It might start with flowers and butterflies, but it always ends with the cross that brings Christ’s resurrection.

The reality is that we no longer raise generations with a mind and heart oriented toward discerning who and what they will serve. It is now far more common for younger generations to be looking for that “perfect” individual who can and will serve them. One-night stands are nothing more than selfish, short-term gratification. For all the good that comes with it, online dating has made the dating default one of picky dehumanizing selfishness that seeks a completed checklist rather than a human encounter. How many of us would have married our spouse if he or she had to fill out our non-negotiable (sometimes superficial) must-have checklist before the first date? There is no room for growth, grace, or sacrifice. The focus is on trying to puzzle together two complete, independent lives into a single frame, rather than taking a mishmash of assorted art supplies and creating a beautiful new masterpiece together.

Get Married

Dr. Wilcox may be onto something in his book, which I mentioned earlier. The recipe for the happiness and meaning that can save our world may actually be as straightforward as getting married. Couples who marry, especially those who go in with a mindset of “we-before-me” and forge “family-first” marriages, are much more likely to stay married and enjoy both personal and societal success on almost every psychological and material metric.

Why is this? It is because God created man to be in communion, in community, in family. There are numerous ways God calls his children to reflect and live His love and truth in the world, but the reality is that most will find the greatest fulfillment and true joy in the vocation of marriage. And the reality is that marriage is the most foundational building block of society. From families come communities, churches, neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, states, regions and countries. If families cease to exist or are built on sand—chocolate and flowers—rather than on Christ the rock—sacrificial love—society is doomed.

Let’s encourage younger generations to embark on life as adults with a partner beside them, rather than pining for an elusive soulmate that checks all the boxes. Focus on the biological, psychological, and emotional realities about family formation instead of the pursuit of secular material acquisition and accolades. Let’s make marriage and family a key ingredient in building a successful life, rather than viewing marriage as an optional cherry on top of a successful life. And let’s embrace the ashes that come with real sacrificial love that reflects Christ’s love for His bride, the Church.


Receive Our Legislative Alerts