There is a “demographic time bomb” about to explode in Japan.
The population of Japan is predicted to drop from 127 million people to 88 million people by 2065, and to 51 million by 2115. Last year, in Japan, there were less than a million births for the first time in recorded history. Soon, Japan will have almost as many senior citizens as able-bodied workers. Japanese economists are terrified. Why is this happening? Are Japanese couples simply having fewer children, or is something else going on?
Something else is going on.
The number of Japanese men planning to marry has dropped from 67% to 39%, and the number of Japanese women planning to marry has dropped from 82% to 59%. This kind of change is not totally unheard of—over generations and across the centuries, attitudes toward marriage have fluctuated dramatically. However, this change hasn’t happened over three centuries or even three generations. It has happened in just three years.
Dear Marriage, young people in Japan are no longer divorcing themselves from each other; they’re quickly divorcing themselves from you.
And Japan is just the canary in the coal mine.
I’m writing this letter to you because most of humanity appears to be writing an entirely different kind of letter to you: a Dear John letter. Increasingly, it seems, we’re planning to end our relationship with you. We’re splitting up with you, and young people in particular are leaving you en masse. Walking out. Moving on. The whole thing is very complicated—the end of every relationship always is—but as a marriage researcher and marital therapist, here’s my analysis:
People are leaving you because you didn’t give them what they wanted.
I know the feeling. You didn’t give me what I wanted, either.
When I got married, I wanted you to make me feel like I was an adult. I thought marriage and maturity were synonymous. I wanted to feel like I had arrived. But my arrival at the marriage altar was just another beginning. That has been difficult to accept.
When I got married, I wanted you to make me feel finally stable in my life, secure in my own skin, and safe in the world. And yet, slowly, I discovered you to be dangerous, in the way any unpredictable adventure is dangerous. In marriage, we are asked to give our all to something that may end up in disaster. There is very little stable, secure, and safe about that.
When I got married, I wanted to feel loved. My wife is one of the most unconditionally loving people on the face of the earth, and yet very rarely have I been satisfied by her love. The truth is, no one can make us feel loved until we have first decided we are loveable. And that’s a decision no other human being can make for us. It’s an inside job.
But more than anything, when I got married, I wanted you to make me happy. I’d carried a stubborn seed of sorrow in the center of my heart for exactly one quarter of a century, and I wanted to feel something better. I still want you to do that for me. And I’m beginning to believe you might actually be able to bring me joy, but only if I’m willing to walk the path to happiness upon which you would lead me, not the many other paths I would stubbornly tread.
So, Marriage, that is both my personal and professional opinion: I believe your relationship with humanity is on the rocks because you’ve failed to give us what we want. We are a vending-machine world: for awhile, we put our quarters into the marriage slot, and when what we wanted from you got stuck dangling in the little metal coil, we smacked the side of you for a few generations. And then, when what we wanted didn’t finally drop into our hands, we started walking away.
However, though we think you are to blame for our problems—that you have failed to serve us—the truth is, while you have been utterly faithful to us, we have not been faithful to you. And like most reconciliation, our relationship to you can begin healing right now, if we are willing to make a confession, and if our confession is this:
We have used you, and we are sorry.
And then, after the confession, a new question:
Rather than asking, “What do I want from marriage?” we must begin asking, “What does marriage want from me?”
In other words, Marriage, we must ask, “What is the path to true, enduring joy that you have been asking us to walk all along?” I’m twenty years into marriage now, and I’m beginning to think that path is called surrender.
Submission? No, not submission. Submission implies that its opposite—domination—is also present. So, no, not submission.
Surrender to each other? No, not even that, not surrender to each other. Rather, this:
Mutual surrender, to our humanity.
Two people, stumbling their way toward happiness, by becoming more human, together. More aware of their arrogance. More aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle violence they perpetuate in their search for peace. More aware of how they long to be seen and yet hide themselves away. More aware of their anger and fear and shame.
Then, one day, ultimately, more aware of the light that lies beyond all that darkness. The light that is not the exception to our humanity, but the very source of it. The light at the center of each one of us. Surrendering, together, until the light within one comes so close to the light within another that they are no longer certain where one light ends and the other begins.
Marriage, I believe this is what you want from us, and I believe the good news is this: it is also, slowly, what we are coming to want from you. We just don’t know it yet.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.