Sara and Sam are 30 years old. They have been married for five years and find themselves overwhelmed by his new social entrepreneur business, her online blog and home business, their two small children and big dreams. Sara finds herself engaged with social media and unable to find a way to connect with her husband. He is struggling himself with pornography and juggling the stress that comes with his lifestyle. Both are lonely, tired. They wonder if marriage is just not working, as if marriage were an entity itself doing the work for the pair, rather than assessing what they are each contributing to the demise of their shared dreams. It’s just not what they thought it would be…marriage, that is.

Generation Y, (consisting of those known as millennials), is documented countless times as being narcissistic, immature, and interested only in immediate and short-term gratification. Such statistics inform as to why this generation boasts higher divorce rates than every generation beforehand. In fact, they are more likely to divorce in the first two years of marriage (Raso, S., 2011) than any previous generation. That’s just six months beyond the 18-month brain fog known to accompany most infatuations and infidelities. But, with five years under their belts, it seems that Sara and Sam are beating the odds for their generation.

Though a millennial is likely to agree that they want life-long love and to passionately pursue a soul-mate that was made just for them, anyone born between 1980 and 2000 is set-up with a disadvantage towards what it takes to sustain a healthy marriage (thanks to pop culture and lack of modeling from parents). Millennials had the most divorced parents and it became their norm (thanks to the Baby Boomers and early Gen-X’ers). Brainwashed by their introduction to a digital world and reality TV, the emotional, relational, and neurological development of Millennials is different than generations before. Some of these differences are very good: Higher levels of innovation, tolerance of others, passion, to name a few. And yes, some are not so good: Unrealistic, and therefore, unmet expectations, poor work ethic, and a whole lot of distraction.  

Hello, over here.

Time Magazine wrote a fascinating, and perhaps sobering article in May of 2013 called “The ME ME ME Generation” (http://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/). In this article, author Joel Stein lays it out:

“Here’s the cold, hard data: The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20’s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982. Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance. They are fame-obsessed: three times as many middle school girls want to grow up to be a personal assistant to a famous person as want to be a Senator, according to a 2007 survey; four times as many would pick the assistant job over CEO of a major corporation. They’re so convinced of their own greatness that the National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60% of millennials in any situation is that they’ll just be able to feel what’s right. Their development is stunted: more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse, according to the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. And they are lazy. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80% of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60% did.”

While these statistics are disheartening, they are not necessarily surprising. Not only have there been hundreds, if not thousands, of articles published with similar figures in the past five years, but many middle-aged adults are dealing with the reality of this in work places, family units and the broader community. Though the delivery of this data is direct, it tells us that this generation, the one often mentoring and teaching our young children, has some serious concerns. We should pay attention.

Paying attention helps us have compassion for millennials and millennial couples trying to make it, rather than remaining stuck in our own judgement and intolerance of them.  Simon Sinek encourages us “older and wiser” folk to have empathy because millennials are a product of their systemic environment, including overly-tolerant parenting and a digitally-induced world. This is all served up alongside a challenging emotional state of impatience.

Due to the increase of violence, pornography and general over-stimulation within our culture, millennials have technology-induced ADD and many have higher levels of symptoms similar to PTSD. Researchers now have data that suggests even viewing a traumatic event can cause PTSD symptoms in a quarter of those viewing the material, without ever actually experiencing it first hand (Ramsden Study, 2015). This can be true for a person at any age, let alone during a key time of brain development (ages 1-24 years old). Couple these statistics with an insatiable addiction to video games, violent media, and over-exposure to horrific news events we ingest on a daily basis, and it is a wonder that millennials are hopeful enough to even make an attempt at marriage!

Limitless outlets to our global community have unfortunately increased individual exposure to raw trauma, cyberbullying, Facebook depression, and more. This is really just the tip of the iceberg. Becoming a “brand,” rather than a fully developed human being, is far too common for the general millennial population. Some who are reading this might think, “What’s so wrong with that?” Other millennials are sighing with relief as they recognize these tendencies and realize they are not alone. Check out The Marriage Millennial Proposal as a sample of what we are collectively facing within our culture. We are drowning in a lukewarm boiling pot, but we do have the power to change this trajectory. 

Though Millennials have found themselves digitally “connected” to more people than any other generation, (thank you, social media), researchers are finding that they feel more alone and unknown than prior generations. They are living a life of detachment, and this reality leads to higher rates of suicide, anxiety, depression, addictions and lower levels of stress tolerance, relational skills, and overall life satisfaction. Face-to-face relationships still out-weigh a digital reality, however. We must convey this truth and teach it to millennials. We can start by modeling it ourselves. Relationship building skills, like good eye contact, focused attention, listening, meaningful touch, and consistent care and comfort, will always breed a healthier person and relationship than 1000+ followers or likes on social media. The problem is that we are now teaching these skills to college freshman in their seminar classes as they are not entering post-secondary education with them in tact. We’ve got some catching up to do.

For those millennials that make it past the dating apps and Netflix nights, marriage, in and of itself, is still full of challenges. A great marriage requires resiliency in the face difficulty and consistent effort over a long period of time — qualities that millennials just are not equipped with. Marriage also relies on a framework of “we” rather than “me,” which many say has been eroding over the past few generations (Kellers, 2011). So what are we to do about this?

A great marriage is like staying hydrated. Not that I am good at this, but I have heard that it’s better to sip a little bit a water throughout the day, than waiting until dehydration is felt within the body or presents as another physical challenge, like a headache. Though water tastes so good when you are quenched, the feeling does not last. You must replenish regularly and hydrate consistently. It’s the slow and steady approach, but one that is less and less trendy. This needs to become the new “old” norm for how we approach relationships, especially long-term marriage.

In leadership cultures, we use terms like “hardiness” or “the resiliency factor.”  Older, seasoned adults can help by giving millennials devoted time and focused attention. This can temporarily break the cycle of conditioned response and detachment that millennials struggle to escape from themselves. We can also offer modeling of basic skills like:
-time-blocking
-prolonged attention span
-anxiety and stress reducing skills
-emotional and sexual regulating
-identity formation
-relationship & communication skills
-reframing the ideals of marriage
Though this may sound like we are suggesting the apocalypse is happening, hope lies in awareness, ownership, and movement toward purposeful change.

Millennials have a passion to change the world and a capacity to do it. As the largest generation on earth (over 80 million), they are impacting every sector of culture by their innovation so we are asking them to take the time to invest in their marriages, what we believe is still a tried and true foundation for thriving children and society. 

Studies have shown that millennials are less likely to seek counseling before they divorce. Wisdom says, we always have a choice. Sometimes the choices are made for us and we have to choose how we respond, but in most cases, a healthy brain and a healthy person can move from paralyzing ambivalence and avoidance to options and solutions.
Marriage has so many benefits!  Read “The Meaning of Marriage” by Tim & Kathy Keller to discover what those are. More than anything, the history of moving through life with one person is something that is rare and hard to exchange.  We believe helping millennials in marriage is a divine call. Re-thinking how “we” can be better than “me” might be the start of something beautiful.  Jeff and I know this first hand and are helping others to experience it too.

5 Things to Remember if you are a Millennial and Married (or want to be):
1. Get mentors who value marriage and can walk with you step by step, allowing your reality TV models to be less impactful than the real life ones you have dinner with.
2. Practice time-blocking and focusing your attention on one task at a time. Try technology-free moments in your day where you breathe deeper, notice the world around you more, and look in the eyes of another human being.  Re-train your brain to be calm and enjoy calm.
3. Know your story and do the work needed to heal.  One-fourth of all women have sexual abuse in their history. One-third of men have some type of abuse in their history. One-fourth have been affected by social medial factors like cyberbullying, and most have been exposed to pornography by the age of 10.  We like to say the effort to get your “baggage” down to carry-on size before marriage is so worth it!  A quality and skilled professional counselor can help you get there.
4. Find 5 couples who have stayed married over the years. Have them share their stories and advice for the hardships they have moved through. It will bust the Instagram ideals we all think are out there and ground your expectations in reality.
5. Believe life-long love can happen.  Do something hard and practice working at it daily. This kind of inspiration and practice will help you when times get harder during marriage. It’s inevitable. An example might be signing up for a marathon and joining a training team. Remember, it’ slow and steady.

Written by Jeff & Terra Mattson, co-founders of Living Wholehearted, LLC
Leadership Consultant and Clinical Director/Marriage and Family Therapist