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.