The Case for Marrying Young?

Over at the Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, pushes back a bit against the regnant sentiment that modern marriage is an institution best entered into after one has already established professional and financial bona fides (a “capstone” instead of a “cornerstone,” to use her terminology). Using her own experience as someone who got married at 19, she writes:

It was not the days of ease that made our marriage stronger and happier: it was working through the difficult parts. We learned to luxuriate in the quotidian, to take wonder in the mundane, skills that have become even more valuable in our prosperous years. We invested the vigor of our youth not in things to bring into the marriage, but in each other and our marriage.

I don’t present my story as some sort of textbook case of the exception that breaks the rule. Indeed I know of many marriages more like than unlike ours. The research cited here, as well as the example of my marriage and many others, points to a model of marriage that is more than the sum of two selves, and at the same time advances both individual and societal good by transcending procreative, economic, and hedonistic purposes. Such a model of marriage reflects the conclusion [sociologist Mark] Regnerus drew from his research,

“Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life.”

It’s important, of course, that people enter into marriage with some level of maturity and self-possession, for one’s own sake and that of the other person. But the greatest gift of marriage—even beyond financial security, children, or career success (because for some, these may never come)—is the formation that occurs through the give and take of living in lifelong communion with another.

Now, two big caveats here. One, I’m spectacularly unqualified to offer direct perspective on this issue, as I’m a few weeks from 30 and unmarried (I prefer to think of my love life as a case of market failure). And two, I’m always a bit wary of socializing the analysis of what are intrinsically individual decisions and circumstances. It’s not as if we can divine a marriage age that suits everyone in all times and places. Your mileage may vary.

That being said, the underlying analysis (including that extremely important proviso in the final paragraph quoted above) strikes me as more often correct than not. My best friend married shortly after his 24th birthday. My brother was 21 when he headed to the altar. In both cases, sharing the burden of life’s formative years strengthened their marital bonds rather than attenuating them.

Indeed, it’s always struck me that trying to clear as many roadblocks as possible from your personal life before getting married is spectacularly bad preparation for wedded life. Marriages get tested in moments of adversity. It’s a definite plus to know your spouse’s foxhole psychology on the front end.

I wonder if, in some respects, the delay in marriage (the average marriage age is now 27 for women and 29 for men) isn’t my generation’s over-correction for the foibles of their parents. Talk to millennials who spring from broken homes and one of the things that will strike you is their reverence for intact marriages. A startlingly high number will tell you that they’d rather remain unmarried than have to experience a divorce. This breeds a lust for control — a notion that, by maximizing their satisfaction with every other aspect of life first, they’ll minimize the possibility for the sort of grievances that could eventually upend a marriage down the line.

In some senses, it’s a variation on the “you can have it all” mindset. It’s “you can have it all — as long as you get the sequencing right.” But, to Professor Prior’s point, not having it all is actually what life’s all about. And a generation that bridled at their parents’ too-casual approach to marriage may be shortchanging the institution by being too relentless in their pursuit of its perfection.

  1. Barbara Kidder

    This is a persuasive article, and confirms my ‘gut’ feeling on this subject.

    Marriage is always a maturing experience, and there is much to recommend starting the process at a young age!

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  2. PsychLynne
    Troy Senik, Ed.: …  not having it all is actually what life’s all about. · · 3 minutes ago

    Wow!  Every word in this column is spot on! 

    I work with a lot of grad students, my husband and I have done pre-marital mentoring at various churches, and “not having it all” is a definite key.  Our advice centers around two things:  first, your spouse can’t meet all your needs and it is setting yourself up for failure to expect them to do so; second, re-evaluate.  What worked early in your marriage, or with a certain set of circumstances, or before kids, or after more than one kids, or in one location, or one job, or whatever, won’t work as smoothly in another setting…don’t panic, just re-evaluate and come up with a new plan and be willing to give it a few tweaks before you accuse your spouse of not supporting you : )

  3. Indaba

    The best years of your youth are great to share with the same person when the wrinkles crease your laughter and the waistline is not as slim. Shared memories can go a long way.

  4. Jack Warren

    This is one of those things I certainly feel and hope is right. I will tell you one thing though, I probably need to go into the Marines at 18 and have someone kick my immature butt. However, getting married at 21 to my dear wife certainly helped me to grow up quickly. And having someone that I’ve always considered my compliment has helped me greatly in my growth.

  5. Tom Meyer

    Very interesting article (and a genuinely healthy addition to the marriage debates).  A few quick thoughts:

    • The current age of first marriage is almost certainly too late; as Troy said, there is likely some pendulum-swinging going on here.

    • I can pull stats later, but my recollection from reading both Red Families vs. Blue Families and Coming Apart is that those who marry later are generally more successful (and married longer than) than those who marry earlier.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that many early marriages are the result of unplanned pregnancies, which skews the results.  That is, a disproportionate number of people who marry young do so under less-than-ideal circumstances and their marriages are (on average) less successful.
    • That said, the people I know who married young by choice are disproportional successful and happy.

    My lovely fiancee and I are getting married in May, and I only wish I found her earlier; it would have done us both tremendous good.

  6. GLDIII

    Troy

    I married my high school sweetheart as soon as one of us finished college. That was 33 years ago with a five year betrothment as we both attended the same college (ie daily interaction, no field playing). To say we have not learned to grow together would be an understatement. So I guess it is easy to agree with Ms Prior from just personal observation. However that does not mean that there are not issues that still get hammered out even after 38 years. Happily ever after is a myth.

  7. Troy Senik, Ed.
    Tom Meyer: 

    • I can pull stats later, but my recollection from reading bothRed Families vs. Blue FamiliesandComing Apartis that those who marry later are generally more successful (and married longer than) than those who marry earlier.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that many early marriages are the result of unplanned pregnancies, which skews the results.  That is, a disproportionate number of people who marry young do so under less-than-ideal circumstances and their marriages are (on average) less successful.

    • That said, the people I know who married youngby choiceare disproportional successful and happy.

    This is a key distinction and my original post probably suffers from a lack of differentiation where this is concerned, since I only had the by-choice marriages in mind (Prior’s original piece actually talks about the fact that the average age of first childbirth is now lower than the average age of marriage). Tom is surely right. We have to consider the voluntary, marriage-before-children unions of young people as a distinct class from the shotgun weddings to do any meaningful analysis.

  8. RadiantRecluse

    My husband found this article over the weekend and shared it with me.  Both of us agreed that the formative aspect of our marriage was the making of us.  Absolutely no regrets for marrying young. 

  9. tabula rasa

    I was 20 and my wife was 18.  A bit too young, but nearly forty-one years later, we have five grown and responsible children.  Best of all we have eight grandchildren.  And we still love each other.

    Do the math:  if you want to enjoy your grandchildren, you have to marry relatively early.  Grandchildren are way more fun than their parents. 

    Two more comments:

    For those who say “I just can’t afford to get married,” I say (with obvious exceptions) that’s a crummy, self-absorbed excuse.  Being poor together is generally good for a marriage, so long as you’re working together toward some higher goals.

    The soul mate theory of marriage is bunk.  Sure, you need to find someone with whom you’re generally compatible and attracted to, but there are a lot more than one in the world.

    Get married, have kids.

  10. Barkha Herman

    Should I make the case for multiple corner stones plus a capstone? (jk)

  11. skipsul
    Barkha Herman: Should I make the case for multiple corner stones plus a capstone? (jk) · 1 minute ago

    Only if you’re planning to build a campus :’)

  12. skipsul

    Married at 23, right out of college while my wife was still in grad school.  Had our first kid 18 months later.  Better to have kids while you have energy and stamina.

    When we married we had nothing, so everything since has been added together, and our lives and carreers have been built together too.  Much to be said for that.

    Besides, it’s also much harder to meet people the older you get.  Those of our friends who put off marriage and serious dating before now are shopping amongst the divorced and the damaged goods.  Much harder to bond with someone who was already burned once or twice, or has a kid with custody issues, or has a career and doesn’t want to risk it by moving, or has bought a house on their own.

  13. Mike LaRoche

    Roger Miller said (or rather, sang) it best: “It’s my belief pride is the chief cause in the decline in the number of husbands and wives.”

    By the way, I am unmarried and I will turn 38 in exactly one month.  Having personally seen many marriages fraught with strife and betrayal, I do not regret it.

  14. Merina Smith

    We married just before I turned 20 and my husband turned 24.  At the time I would have preferred to marry after finishing college, but he was headed across the country to start law school and the time seemed right.  We built our life together and have never looked back, except to enjoy happy memories after nearly 37 years.  I have since had the opportunity to become way overeducated. 

    Two of our kids (who are charming and attractive, naturally) have had a hard time finding spouses, I think in part due to the upheaval of dating and courtship patterns these days.  IMHO family patterns worked better when everyone assumed that people would marry young and make a life together.  This has a demographic upside as well.  We had 5 kids over 15 years, but are now empty nesters and young enough to do lots of other things, both professionally and for fun, and the best part is that we have many years to enjoy our grandchildren. 

  15. The Cloaked Gaijin

    image001_2.jpg

    Marrying young…  That’s how you determine which states vote Republican.

  16. EThompson
    Mike LaRoche: By the way, I am unmarried and I will turn 38 in exactly one month.  Having personally seen many marriages fraught with strife and betrayal, I do not regret it.

    My husband and I were married in our thirties and based upon some of the- ahem- unsuitables one seems to be attracted to in their rip-roaring twenties, I’m glad I waited.

    Interestingly, my parents, born of the June and Ward Cleaver generation, always encouraged their children to wait and mature a little before making a serious committment. I can honestly say we’ve all benefited from that sound advice.

  17. Barbara Kidder
    The Cloaked Gaijin

    Marrying young…  That’s how you determine which states vote Republican. · 16 minutes ago

    How telling…

  18. Mike LaRoche
    EThompson

    Mike LaRoche: By the way, I am unmarried and I will turn 38 in exactly one month.  Having personally seen many marriages fraught with strife and betrayal, I do not regret it.

    My husband and I were married in our thirties and based upon some of the- ahem- unsuitablesone seems to be attracted to in their rip-roaring twenties, I’m glad I waited.

    Interestingly, my parents, born of the June and Ward Cleaver generation, always encouraged their children to wait and mature a little before making a serious committment. I can honestly say we’ve all benefited from that sound advice. · 2 minutes ago

    That is certainly good advice.  And you’re absolutely right about the unsuitables one meets in one’s twenties.  I wonder, though, if by now my heart has become too hardened and whether I have become too set in my own ways.

  19. Larry3435
    Troy Senik, Ed.

    My caveat paragraph pretty much covers this, no? I’m not being prescriptive at all (which should be obvious given my own background). I’m simply defending younger marriages from their critics. There’s no one right answer. But there is an option that I think is unfairly tarred as the wrong answer.

    As for “spectacularly bad,” I’m referring to the utopian tendency that says “I don’t want something unless it’s flawless.” As a critic of making the perfect the enemy of the good, I stand by that characterization. · 8 hours ago

    Phrased like this, Troy, I have no disagreement.  And the “critics” of marrying young are certainly no better in my view than critics of waiting.  I just think the best answer to those who criticize marrying young is not to criticize the opposite approach, but rather to say “None of your business.”  Which is all I was saying.

  20. Tom Meyer
    The Cloaked Gaijin

    Marrying young…  That’s how you determine which states vote Republican.

    That’s an absolutely fascinating chart, but….arrrrgh the scaling is obnoxious!  Utah’s bar has got to be a dozen times longer than Massachusetts’, despite the former being only* 50% higher.

    * Which, mind you, is a lot.  But still!

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