Celebrations: Too many choices equals too few marrriages

Invited to any weddings lately? Grab the opportunity to attend before they become a rare occasion.

At least that’s what scholars such as Charles Martel, computer science professor at U.C. Davis, suspect after carefully analyzing data prepared by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project on U.S. marriage rates since 1960.

The statistics are eye-opening: From 1970 through 2008, the U.S. marriage rate has declined from 76.5 to 37.4 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women. And the rate of decline is accelerating. Creating a trend line, Martel comes up the astounding conclusion that if the current tendency continues, sometime between 2028 and 2034 the U.S. marriage rate will reach zero!

Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Preposterous? Of course. People will surely continue to get married. But we can’t ignore the reality of the precipitous decline in the numbers of those choosing to walk down the aisle.

In 1960, 72 percent of those over the age of 18 were married. According to the Pew research center, that number today is 51 percent. Marriage rates declined even more for young adults.

What happened?

Some blame the Great Recession for marriage falling into disfavor. But the trends that are making records today got their start decades ago, and they’ve consistently followed the same downward path through economic ups and downs.

The simple truth seems to be that people just don’t seem to want to commit. And I have my own theory for this contemporary sorry state of affair.

My research is only anecdotal and I have no proof to back up my claim, but I think that rather than a new cultural aversion to the state of matrimony there’s something else going on. Wedded bliss is still an ideal.

But what we’re seeing is the result of TMC — too many choices — a concept derived from the findings of a remarkable study by Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar, in a research paper entitled “When Choice is Demotivating.”

For 10 years, Iyengar has been analyzing the concept of making choices. For her research, she and her staff ran a test where they set up a free tasting booth in a grocery store, with six different jams. Some 40 percent of the customers stopped to taste; 30 percent of those bought some.

A week later, they set up the same booth in the same store, but this time with 24 different jams; 60 percent of the customers stopped to taste; only 3 percent bought some. Having too many choices made them 10 times less likely to buy.

TMC leaves us afraid to make any decision lest we then have to live with the subsequent discovery that we made the wrong one.

Once having committed, we’ve opted out of the ability to make any more judgments — and just look at how many options we left on the table that might have been better. We end up preferring to do nothing rather than have to live with pangs of remorse over a possibly wrong decision.

The age of globalization, the Internet, the dating services that offer access to people literally from around the world present the unmarried with unlimited choices.

This fear of committing is not only self-defeating, but from a spiritual perspective ignores a fundamental truth.

Our tradition teaches us that God is the greatest matchmaker. The Sages ask: What has God been busy with since creation? Their reply: He occupies Himself with the holy task of arranging marriages. Human happiness is a heavenly goal. The Torah teaches us that God intended everything to be tov, good, and “It is not good for a human being to be alone.”

In Yiddish there is a beautiful word that expresses this concept of a divinely decreed soul mate: It is beshert. We all have a beshert and God in His infinite goodness makes certain to place that person in our path at some appropriate point during our lifetime.

And that perspective can make all the difference in the world when we cope with the paralysis induced by TMC.

I’ve spoken to countless singles who all assure me they want to get married. “What’s holding you up then?” I ask. The response is almost always the same. “I’m still not sure if I can’t do better.” Their commitment phobia isn’t based on being dissatisfied with the people they’ve met. It’s simply the fear that once they say yes they can no longer keep looking for a superior partner — so they continue their search.

The paralysis induced by TMC is an affliction we desperately need to overcome in order to preserve the ideals of marriage and family. Yes, singles need to choose wisely, but equally important, they need to choose.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is an author, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and rabbi emeritus at Young Israel of Oceanside. This article previously appeared in aish.com.