Bucking the Trend and Marrying Young

04.27.2013, 10:31 PM

One married friend of mine, who just completed a master’s program and had her son two days before my son was born, told me that one of her grad school study buddies would often give her a hard time about being married with a baby at the age of 24.

“Your life must be so depressing,” she would suggest, before mentioning all of the pretty things at Banana Republic that a young married mom simply couldn’t afford (or have occasion to wear). Which did at times make my friend, who considered herself to be relatively happy, wonder if she should be depressed.

However, at another time, this same study buddy told my friend, “You are the only person I know who is not on mood enhancing drugs [by which she meant medication for depression].”

In the “Knot Yet” report, one trend emerges most clearly: young adults are delaying marriage, even as many of them are not delaying children.  Indeed, “The Great Crossover,” as the report terms it, is that “for women as a whole, the median age at first birth (25.7) now falls before the median age at first marriage (26.5).”

As a researcher in small-town, working-class Ohio, this is the world I’m in. Many of my new friends and acquaintances are unmarried with children. Take for instance, Stephanie, who my husband and I wrote about here.

But it’s not the world I came from. Like my friend above, many of my friends from high school and college are engaged or married. And many of the married ones are pregnant or have children. And most of them, like me, are around the age of 25. (My husband and I married right out of college at 22 and 21 and we went to a lot of similarly aged friends’ weddings that summer and the following summers. This summer my 22-year-old brother is marrying his high school sweetheart.)

My husband and I certainly didn’t feel pressure to marry. In fact, my dad had reservations, and living in New York City made us feel a bit crazy for marrying so young. And I don’t think that my friends felt pressure to marry either. Thankfully, there is the recognition today that the single life can be deeply meaningful, too.

So why did we?

I think a big part of the answer lies in the fact that most of my friends are part of a strong faith community, which gave us support, confidence, strong social trust, and good marriage models, something which I blogged about here and here. I know that for my husband and me, having a loving community that supports us makes a huge difference in our marriage. We’ve noticed that we have a lot more arguments now that we’ve moved to Ohio and face the task of having to make new friendships and join a new community. When you feel isolated, it is a lot harder to be happy with yourself or your spouse.

So while it’s certainly not my intention to say that everyone should marry young, it’s my anecdotal experience that devout young Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons make up “counter-communities” that are not really following the larger marriage and family trends.

In my early twenties, I went to more lingerie and bridal and then baby showers than I did night clubs. My alma mater is The King’s College, a small nondenominational Christian college, which was then located in the Empire State Building. The students there are young, smart, hip New York transplants—and yet it’s not uncommon for those who fall in love during college to marry shortly after. (You can see some really beautiful engagement and wedding videos from some 20-something TKC alum, filmed by the uber creative “Finding Muchness films” here.)

Some well intentioned skeptics might ask, “But aren’t couples who get married young at risk of divorce? How will they find themselves and true happiness?

Actually, the facts suggest that my friends stand a much better shot at lifelong love and marital happiness than many people think. Consider the following findings reported in the “Knot Yet” report.

  • According to sociologists Norval Glenn and Jeremy Uecker, who examined five data sets, “the greatest indicated likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at ages 22-25.”
  • The “Knot Yet” report finds that among couples who married at 30 or above, only 8 percent divorced within the first ten years of marriage—but a whopping 50 percent of women were “not very happy” in their marriage.
  • By contrast, among couples who married between 24-26, only 14 percent divorced, and only 20 percent of women said they were “not very happy” in their marriage.
  • Furthermore, couples who got married between 20-23 were more likely to get divorced than couples who got married at 30 or older (34 percent vs. 8 percent), but they were just about as likely to report that they were in a “very happy” marriage (46 percent vs. 42 percent).
  • Finally, compared to their unmarried peers, married persons ages 20-28 report higher levels of satisfaction with life, less depression, and less drunkenness.

Furthermore, many of my peers who married young also waited to have children until they married and are deeply religious, both of which greatly lower their chances of divorce, according to the 2012 State of Our Unions report (see the section “Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower than You Think”).

And a 2010 study of 2,035 married couples by Brigham Young University researchers found that people who wait until marriage to have sex—as is the case for many of my friends—reported the happiest sex lives, the best relationship communication, the most relationship satisfaction, and the most relationship stability. These findings were true even when controlling for things like religiosity, education, length of marriage, and number of sexual partners.

The upshot is that it’s time to retire as a general rule that the longer you wait for marriage, the better your chances at a happy marriage. For many couples—particularly young couples with strong social support—the rule is simply arbitrary.

 

Cross posted at KnotYet.org. 


28 Responses to “Bucking the Trend and Marrying Young”

  1. Mont D. Law says:

    (—the rule is simply arbitrary.)

    All rules are arbitrary, everybody’s mileage may vary. No one marries expecting to divorce and no one who wants to marry doesn’t because of any statistic written anywhere ever.

    So much of this, on every side, is not really about individual choices and outcomes at all. It’s about proving one way of living is better than another. But to a certain extent it’s all smoke and mirrors because people are people and they don’t make decisions based on social good or statistical likelihood.

    All this – my way is the best way and everyone would be better off if they just did what I said – doesn’t really solve anything. Because given any personal choice at all people will do what suits them. Statistically it would be better if all children born to poor people were adopted by rich people. But, given a choice, most people don’t look at their new born and think – my child would be better off without me.

    Even Ms. Lapp did what she wanted to do. In the face of the statistical reality and parental advice she still young. Parsing the statistics, as she does in this post, is not the reason she married young it’s the reason she thinks you should.

  2. Philip Cohen says:

    HEADLINE: “After careful reflection, writer determines own life is model for others.”

  3. Diane M says:

    @Philip Cohen – You’re just being nasty. Bloggers and journalists often start off an article on something by talking about their own experience. It makes it more human and interesting to read.

    Look around and you’ll find tons of blogs that start this way about remarriage or being a working mother or divorce or caring for an elderly parent or what to do when your kids get the flu.

    The important issue is whether or not the journalist then uses statistics and studies in a valid way. If you have a valid bone to pick on that, do so.

  4. Diane M says:

    Amber Lapp – small clarification question – how can the study about couples who wait until marriage and their sexual satisfaction control for number of sexual partners?

  5. Diane M says:

    Amber Lapp and others – my big question for future studies and the data is: what about couples who got together early on and lived together and then got married? How do they look in terms of divorce and marital satisfaction?

    I ask because I think one of the issues here is how much of this has to do with meeting your life partner early on.

    “many of my peers who married young also waited to have children until they married and are deeply religious, both of which greatly lower their chances of divorce”

    So could being religious or having children after marriage be the important factor here, not age?

  6. Diane M says:

    Anyhow, here’s what I think is the central issue in all this.

    If you marry younger, you are more likely to be happy in your marriage. It is really worrisome to see that 50% of women who married later were not very happy in their marriages.

    On the other hand, the risk of divorce in the first ten years is nearly twice as high if you marry young.

    It looks like the trade-off is if you marry when you are young, the chance you will divorce goes up 6%, but the chance you will be unhappy goes down 30%. So should you risk being really miserable because you divorce or should you risk having a “not very happy” marriage?

    Anyhow, I am off to do errands and clean the house (not very Sabbathy, I’m afraid). So I hope others will comment. It’s an interesting topic.

  7. mythago says:

    I find it interesting that 25 is now defined as “marrying young”. When did 25 become a “young” age to marry? It strikes me as less a description of a social phenomenon (“marrying young”) and more as a way to skew a socially-conservative argument: repackaging the college-to-courtship-to-marriage conveyer belt as hip individualism, with a wink and a nod about ‘your sex will be hotter’ thrown in.

    The current ages may be a ‘historic high’, but that’s also more than a bit misleading; age of marriage for women dove in the 1950s, but before and after that age of marriage always hovered in the early to mid 20s for women (and was never below 25 for men).

    By the way, it’s actually not very persuasive to present studies that supposedly support your position without any links or information where they can be looked at directly. For example, the abstract to the Glenn and Uecker paper you mention is very clear that marrying at 22-25 is not magical: “The negative relationship beyond the early to mid twenties between age at marriage and marital success is likely to be at least partially spurious, and thus it would be premature to conclude that the optimal time for first marriage for most persons is ages 22-25.” And the BYU study didn’t really find that waiting until marriage to have sex was the key to the “happiest” sex lives; even if you assume the sample is representative (which is questionable).

  8. Diane M says:

    @Mythago – “I find it interesting that 25 is now defined as “marrying young”. When did 25 become a “young” age to marry?”

    Since the median age to marry is now 26 for women, I think it’s okay to put 25 in the young category.

    This is an interesting link on the median age at first marriage in America since 1890. The 1950s were a low, but the median age for women was never as high as it is now.

    One other change is that the age gap between husbands and wives seems to have decreased, at least judging by median age at first marriage.

  9. Myca says:

    Since the median age to marry is now 26 for women, I think it’s okay to put 25 in the young category.

    Interesting. I would take exactly the opposite lesson. Since the median age to marry is now 26 for women, 25 is well-within the mainstream.

    I mean, would you call a marriage at 27 “marrying old?”

    —Myca

  10. Diane M says:

    I think we’re worrying too much about how it sounds – saying someone married young or married old sounds like maybe there’s a problem and you’rd doing something odd.

    From the point of view of studying marriage, the question is, if people get married in group A (age 20-25), group B (25-30), or group C (over 30), does it make a difference to their chances for divorce and/or happiness?

    We advise people to not marry in their teens, but should we advise them to not marry in their early 20s? should we advise people to wait until they are 30? should we advise people to consider marrying before 30?

    The conclusion of the study was that there is no reason to tell people to avoid marry in their early 20s.

    They didn’t come up with an ideal age for marriage in general.

  11. mythago says:

    I think we’re worrying too much about how it sounds

    Very interesting that as soon as a rhetorical point is shown to be weak, suddenly we ought to stop talking about it and talk about something else.

  12. Mont D. Law says:

    ( It is clear that in the United States in recent years, the later marriages as a whole have been at least as likely to survive as the moderately late ones and much more likely to do so than the earliest ones.)

    But the study seems pretty clear that early marriage is more likely to end in divorce.

  13. Diane M says:

    @Mythago – No, the rhetorical point isn’t weak it’s fairly strong. The point is about the effects of marrying between age 20 and 25 versus marrying after 30. Marrying in your early 20s is associated with a happier marriage but a higher chance of divorce than marrying after 30.

    The people who did the study talk about that as marrying young or later. If you don’t want to call it marrying young because you don’t think it’s young, call it something else. I just don’t want to get hung up on whether that’s marrying young or not. It’s younger than everybody else.

    The important point here is that it’s fine for people who are 20-25 to get married.

    “I think we’re worrying too much about how it sounds

    Very interesting that as soon as a rhetorical point is shown to be weak, suddenly we ought to stop talking about it and talk about something else.”

  14. La Lubu says:

    A few thoughts:

    Not everyone has access to a ready-made community, a la religious community. Where do the irreligious or “spiritual, but not religious” go for community? A bunch of places, but we have to cobble together community from that, and all the while people are moving away to different communities—like the body replaces its cells every seven years? People are replacing their friends faster than that—try every four or five. Realistically, a faith community is only open to those from or who practice that faith; it’s not prescriptive.

    There is a tremendous difference between life options for those with college degrees and those without. For people without a strong family history of college graduation, early marriage often derails college and/or career plans. Early marriage means pressure to have children before one is ready (not just from one’s spouse either, but the spouse’s family as well). Early marriage can easily mean one person gets prioritized while the other gets deferred dreams.

    So yes, there are good, solid reasons why a person shouldn’t get married until he or she gets where he or she wants to go—and if that includes college or something similar (“similar” meaning: involving a lot of concentrated effort, expense and/or travel that isn’t conducive to romantic partnerships), that means postponing marriage until one is into one’s mid-20s. And if it doesn’t include college or something similar, then the tradeoff is poverty jobs–low wages, no benefits, no semblance of job security (which will bring its own marital challenges, especially if the couple has children).

  15. Diane M says:

    “For people without a strong family history of college graduation, early marriage often derails college and/or career plans. Early marriage means pressure to have children before one is ready (not just from one’s spouse either, but the spouse’s family as well). Early marriage can easily mean one person gets prioritized while the other gets deferred dreams.”

    LaLubu – These are just things that might happen. I don’t think it makes sense to decide not to marry because it could derail your career plans. You have control over what you do after you marry. And I really don’t see why early marriage would mean one person gets prioritized. I think that comes more with having kids.

    Also, it seems to me that if getting married is going to mean you stop having a career and put your partner first, you’ll still do that at age 25 or 30.

    And if you postpone marriage to get somewhere in your career, you’ll also have to postpone romantic relationships. I think people are often just living with someone without getting married and the relationship still affects them and their career.

    “And if it doesn’t include college or something similar, then the tradeoff is poverty jobs–low wages, no benefits, no semblance of job security (which will bring its own marital challenges, especially if the couple has children).”

    This I don’t see. I mean if you don’t try to get education of some sort, you won’t do well financially, but getting married or not isn’t the issue.

  16. Mont D. Law says:

    (These are just things that might happen. I don’t think it makes sense to decide not to marry because it could derail your career plans.)

    Which brings us back to where I started. This discussion of statistics is meaningless. People do what suits them. No real person makes decisions like this based on statistics, the greater social good or the advice of their elders. People won’t see themselves as failures. They say exactly what Ms. M. wrote above. These are just things that might happen.

  17. hello says:

    Although David B. and Elizabeth M. have admirably changed their views over the course of this blog’s existence it appears as though the commentators never do. I still enjoy Family Scholars but it is almost not even worth it to read the comments because the positions of the commentators are so entrenched that I could write their comments for them and no one would know the difference.

  18. mythago says:

    I just don’t want to get hung up on whether that’s marrying young or not.

    I realize you may not want to, but the discussion you are having is different than what the post is about.

  19. Mont D. Law says:

    (I still enjoy Family Scholars but it is almost not even worth it to read the comments because the positions of the commentators are so entrenched that I could write their comments for them and no one would know the difference.)

    How delightfully meta. To comment on the uselessness of commenting. I’m constantly surprised at how much cleverness and innate superiority can exist in one individual. Your friends and family are truly blessed.

  20. Diane M says:

    @Mythago – “I realize you may not want to, but the discussion you are having is different than what the post is about.”

    I really don’t get what you are saying here. What do you think the post is about? What do you think the discussion we are having is about – both from what you are saying and what I am saying?

  21. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law “This discussion of statistics is meaningless. People do what suits them. No real person makes decisions like this based on statistics, the greater social good or the advice of their elders.”

    I think you’re basically right, but that there is still some use in talking about statistics. People generally get married when they find the person they want to marry, not when they are the right age.

    However, there is an idea in pop culture now that you should not get married “young” and that you should wait until some time when your act is together/you have seen life/you have gotten to a certain point in your career, even if you meet someone you like enough to marry. So I do think a study showing that early marriage is not a disaster can counter this.

  22. La Lubu says:

    You have control over what you do after you marry. And I really don’t see why early marriage would mean one person gets prioritized. I think that comes more with having kids.

    When you are married, you have less control over what you do than when you are single, because there’s another person involved.

    Here’s the thing—not every person is going to have an early marriage be a disaster. There are traits, both personal and cultural, that can make early marriage work out just as well as later marriage (as Amber pointed out). But…not everyone shares these traits, and not everyone can acquire the situations/scenarios that make early marriages work out for the better (rather than the worse). Because:

    there is an idea in pop culture now that you should not get married “young” and that you should wait until some time when your act is together/you have seen life/you have gotten to a certain point in your career, even if you meet someone you like enough to marry.

    is true. It really is easier to make a marriage work when both parties have their ‘acts together’, have experienced more of what life has to offer, have been responsible for themselves as adults, have explored and/or expanded their boundaries of the possible, have learned important lessons from both the positive and negative experiences in their adult lives (i.e., when they actually have some control—children don’t have control over the course of what they experience), have taken the time to separate what they really want versus what is expected (or not expected) of them, and have built a foundation for the further direction of their lives. Age correlates positively with all of these things.

    People from my SES don’t tend to have a really clear idea of where they want to go in life as young people fresh out of high school. Their experiences up to that point are more limited than young people from higher SES backgrounds. Even when they have an idea of what/where they’d like to go, they have no personal models for that—they’re the ones forging the path. Sometimes with a lot of resistance from family and friends.

    Meanwhile, marriage comes with a set of expectations. Expectations from one’s family and cultural background that don’t always match up with the direction a person wants to (or even can) go in one’s life. So, for people from my SES, marriage really can bring an additional set of struggles that even living together does not (because living together doesn’t carry the same set of expectations).

    Young people from my SES tend to change their trajectory more than young people from higher SES, because if they leave home (and most of ‘em do), they’re being fast-forwarded through a whole new set of experiences than they’ve had before. For example, of the fairly sizeable crowd I hung out with in high school, I was the only person who had traveled to more than one other state (about half had never left Illinois, or ever left a 50-mile radius of home). I was the only one (other than people who graduated high school and entered the military) who had ever been on an airplane. That sort of thing. When you realize the range of possibilities, it can literally change your mind. And usually does.

    So. It’s not necessarily about age, per se, as much as it is about the constellation of traits that positively correlate with age, such as having made concrete plans as to one’s direction in life and having made some forward motion on those plans. It’s also about what personal and cultural expectations both partners have of marriage. Where I’m from, marriage is about “settling down”; about literally reducing one’s explorations of life. Does it have to be that way? No, of course not. But if someone from my cultural background marries young, he or she is going to have an uphill battle trying to maintain that not-quite-settling down against a great deal of opposition and naysayers.

  23. Mont D. Law says:

    (However, there is an idea in pop culture now that you should not get married “young” and that you should wait until some time when your act is together/you have seen life/you have gotten to a certain point in your career, even if you meet someone you like enough to marry.)

    But since we agree that this idea has zero impact on the behaviour of individuals why is it an idea that requires countering?

    (So I do think a study showing that early marriage is not a disaster can counter this.)

    But the study doesn’t do that. It confirms the foundational idea that you’re claiming it counters, earlier marriages end in divorce more often than later ones. So if divorce is the disaster marrying young is still courting it.

  24. Anna Cook says:

    Going back to your original post, Amber, I am struck by how large a role religional and subcultural (or community?) expectations and perceptions play in the notion of what’s marrying “young” and what the responsible thing to do is.

    I grew up and went to college in western Michigan, a fairly culturally conservative area, within a solidly middle-class culture. Within school, church and social circles there was definitely an expectation that aspiring/”good” children should wait until they were done with college before marrying. So getting engaged or marrying in high school or shortly after was considered premature or “young” and worrying.

    But getting engaged in college was really the done thing, as they say, and in college my friends talked about the peer pressure to get engaged by senior year and to be planning your wedding for shortly after graduation. Obviously, many people didn’t due to lack of partner and/or prioritizing other things for the time-being (graduate school, travel, etc.), but there was definitely a culture that expected serious relationships toward the end of college that would eventually lead to marriage and babies.

    This is just to say that microcultures exist across the U.S. and many of us aren’t getting the message that we should be waiting until our thirties to marry and have children — in fact, we’re experiencing cultural pressure to do so much, much earlier. For many of my friends, making the decision to say “no” to marriage and insist on their desire to finish college or complete a graduate degree before becoming parents was bucking the norm within their community.

    I know high school sweethearts in my cohort who are still (I hope happily married and parenting!) in their mid-30s; I also know high school sweethearts whose “early” marriages were a poor decision for both people. I don’t think age has to make or break a relationship — but I also don’t think WHEN you get married is a magic bullet to success either way — “early” or “late.”

  25. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law “But since we agree that this idea has zero impact on the behaviour of individuals why is it an idea that requires countering?”

    Well, I guess I don’t agree that it has zero impact. I guess I’ll have to say it may have some impact for some people.

    I think it’s always important to know the truth. So if a pop culture idea is wrong, it’s worth correcting, even if all that does is take the pressure off people who marry at a different time from their peers.

    “(So I do think a study showing that early marriage is not a disaster can counter this.)

    But the study doesn’t do that. It confirms the foundational idea that you’re claiming it counters, earlier marriages end in divorce more often than later ones. So if divorce is the disaster marrying young is still courting it.”

    No, the study shows clearly that early marriages can be a good thing. They increase your chance of ending up in a happy marriage.

    There’s a trade-off – you increase your chances of divorce if you marry young, but if you wait, you increase your chances of an unhappy marriage. Given that the increased chance of divorce aren’t that large, maybe marrying in your early 20s is a reasonable risk.

    And, as Amber Lapp points out, if you marry younger you get to have the benefits of marriage for a longer time.

    I think this gets at an important question – are divorce rates the only measure of the success and health of marriage? The divorce rate has gone down, but this is partly because some people are living together, having children, and breaking up instead of divorcing. Is this really better than if they had married, even if an extra 6% of them had ended up divorcing?

  26. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – “It really is easier to make a marriage work when both parties have their ‘acts together’, have experienced more of what life has to offer, have been responsible for themselves as adults, have explored and/or expanded their boundaries of the possible,”

    But then are people mature enough to live together or have any dating relationship before they have their acts together?

    Are they mature enough to commit to spending the next 20 years of their lives taking care of and financially supporting a child?

    I feel very strongly that if you are not mature enough to make a marriage commitment, you are not mature enough to make the parenting commitment. Parenting is more work and changes your life more profoundly. A husband or wife can help you grow, a child needs you to be there for them.

    (You might not have a good partner to commit to, but if you are just not old enough to do it, you’re not old enough to be a parent.)

    In my experience, the idea that you have to know where you are going before you fall in love and build a long-term relationship is just false. People can grow up together and help each other. You will continue to grow and change after you marry, too. What you need is a partner who you can work things out with and a commitment to spending time together, etc.

    I would advise people to finish college before marriage or to get some kind of training and a job. I support couples living together, but maybe we should be encouraging people to wait until they are 21 to do that.

    What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to be completely together and over 25.

  27. Rhonda says:

    I feel very strongly that if you are not mature enough to make a marriage commitment, you are not mature enough to make the parenting commitment. Parenting is more work and changes your life more profoundly. A husband or wife can help you grow, a child needs you to be there for them.

    This is a nice ideal, but you can’t accidentally get married, while you can accidentally become a parent. While I agree that ideally, couples should be married before they have children, that doesn’t always happen. Education goes a long way in preventing accidental pregnancies, and in preparing for responsibility.