Sunday, October 2, 2011

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas, Right? Thoughts on Life Before Marriage

More people are getting married later and later. Last I read, the average age at marriage for men in the US was 28 and for women it was 27. (Clearly, women in their 20s dig older men.) There is an obvious and interesting implication of this that I first a sociologist talk about around 12 years ago. He noted that there exists this increasingly long period of time in human development between when people are sexually maturing (I only mean capable of having sex and making babies) and when people are settling down into marriage. It’s really pretty amazing to think about this. It has huge implications, since the average person is not settling into marriage until 15 years after when they become interested in, and capable of, having sex.

15 years. Hm. What can happen in 15 years? Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you are aware that the answer is really, “quite a lot.” I’m going to ignore a number of interesting and related issues that I will discuss in coming blog entries (things like age at marriage and how young is too young, and the complications in life from having children from different partners).

What I want to focus on here is Vegas. Does what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas? As a side point, it’s an interesting marketing campaign they have going, especially in contrast to their prior years where their marketing was oriented toward getting people to think Vegas was a fabulous place to take the family. Call me suspicious, but I suspect the different ad campaigns were written by different people.

I’m not actually much interested in Vegas but I am interested in the Vegas mindset. The core idea, of course, is that what happens in Vegas does not touch the rest of your life. It’s a no-harm, no-foul, place with a firewall around it. You can do whatever you like in Vegas and it won’t affect the rest of your life. I have a theory about this. It has two parts.

Part 1. What happens romantically between the ages of 18 and 34 (or whenever a person settles down in marriage and family life) affects the rest of life.

Part 2. People are now more likely to believe than in the past that what happens before they settle down will not affect their prospects for life-long love and happiness.

Part 1 is really pretty easy to document. Part 2, then, is the hypothesis that matters here.

Being a geek who like’s gadgets, I decided one day to draw some figures on my iPhone that depicted this theory. In the first figure, what you see is a green line, increasing over time. Let’s say that depicts idyllic growth when it comes to romantic relationships and marriage. Things are smooth and growing toward the future.

Next, let’s make that green line kind of wiggly, because almost no one’s life is as smooth as depicted in that first picture.

Now, contrast that drawing with the next, that has a red line with serious ups and downs in romantic life.

I can be a more specific about the jagged red line. It represents taking the path in life where any or all of the following happen:

- Having children before marriage
- Having children before marriage with more than one partner
- Cohabiting with more than one person prior to marriage
- Having a number of sexual partners (for some, a lot of sexual partners)
- Cohabiting with a partner before marriage, especially before having mutual plans for marriage

Scientifically, all of these things are associated with greater risks. Of course, there are some people who experience all of these things and life turns out fine, anyway. And there are others who avoid all of these things and struggle a lot once they marriage. Nothing is destiny here, but these things are reliably associated with greater risks for struggles in marriage and/or divorce.

Now, take a look again at the last drawing above. You may not have noticed it, but it expresses my theory about what I think many people believe. Note that it suggests that one can go through their 20s and follow that red line up and down, and when ready to settle down, be right back on the green line as if nothing happened in between. That’s Vegas. It’s a visual depiction of the belief that “whatever I do in my love life before I settle down has no bearing on the rest of my life.”

I think something like the next drawing is closer to the truth for too many people. It shows one’s future options being affected. It suggests that what happens in the Vegas of romantic lives in earlier adulthood doesn't stay in Vegas for some people. In fact, for some, what happens in Vegas might not even stay in Nevada.

There is a parallel to this way of thinking in the computing world. Geeks know that you can create what are called virtual machines within a computer that can be used to surf the web or do whatever, and whatEVER happens in that virtual computer will affect nothing else about the real computer. No virus or Trojan-horse program or anything else can touch what matters. It’s walled off. In fact, some refer to this as a sandbox, conveying the idea that there is a container for playing within that you can simply leave when done. Not even a grain of sand will stick to your foot.

In thinking about this, I’m suggesting something pretty simple and not very radical. More people should think about what is going on in their love lives, go more slowly, and make the best decisions they can, rather than letting things slide in ways that put their futures at risk.

Vegas wants you to think you can do whatever you want and leave with all your options intact—all your options except for having as much spending money or savings as you had before you got there. Obviously, they want you to leave with a lighter wallet. But is real life like Vegas? Is there a magical place in a person’s love life where nothing they do matters to their future prospects? That’s what Vegas is selling: The illusion of a place without risk or consequence to the rest of your life. How about you? Do you think that life works that way?

Here’s one recent editorial making the case that life may not be like Vegas, after all. Click here.