It is generally accepted in today’s society (and with today’s divorce rate) that it’s preferable to take as much time as possible to choose a life partner, especially in urban areas chock full of young professionals. Conventional wisdom tells us to wait on marriage, take our late teens and early twenties to get to know ourselves, develop our careers, learn to live on our own and “sow our wild oats” before marching down the aisle.
But in an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago, 23-year-old David Lapp makes the case for marrying young. He married his wife Amber when she was 21 and he was 22, much to the chagrin of their parents. The two self-described “college-educated, professionally aspiring young adults in New York” bucked the social script of waiting on marriage, despite the fact that both still had college debt to pay off and neither had a lucrative job.
“Social scientists frequently note that “early marriage” is the No. 1 predictor of divorce. Additionally, the average student graduating today has about $23,000 in debt, and money problems don’t exactly help a marriage. It’s not surprising, then, that many young couples hook up and shack up instead of tying the knot. The median age at marriage today is 28 for men and 26 for women.
So what’s a young couple, in love and committed, to do? Was our decision to marry in our early 20s shortsighted and irresponsible?
First, let’s take a closer look at that term “early marriage.” While it’s true that teenage marriages are a significant predictor of divorce, it turns out that marriages of people in their early to mid-20s are not nearly as much at risk. According to a 2002 report from the Centers for Disease Control, 48% of people who enter marriage when under age 18, and 40% of 18- and 19-year-olds, will eventually divorce. But only 29% of those who get married at age 20 to 24 will eventually divorce—very similar to the 24% of the 25-and-older cohort. In fact, Hispanics who marry between the ages of 20 and 24 actually have a greater likelihood of marital success (31% chance of divorce) than those who first marry at age 25 and older (36% chance of divorce).
Further, a recent study by family scholars at the University of Texas finds that people who wed between the ages of 22 and 25, and remained married to those spouses, went on to experience the happiest marriages. While the authors caution against suggesting that 22 to 25 is the optimal marrying age for everyone, their finding does suggest that ‘little or nothing is likely to be gained by deliberately delaying marriage beyond the mid twenties.'”
First of all, I really have a problem with using any kind of statistic to determine the relative success or failure or happiness quotient of a marriage. “People who wed between the ages of 22 and 25…went on to experience the happiest marriages.” How do they know that? Happiness is so subjective. If you ask me on a given day whether I’m happy in life, my answer will be tainted by the kind of hair day I’m having, whether I’m feeling challenged enough at my job, what the weather is like outside and how bloated I feel from having eaten an entire bowl of overly-salted popcorn the night before.
Also, whom are they asking? My parents are married, but as far as I know, nobody has ever knocked on their door and asked them to rate their happiness quotient. In fact, I don’t know any married couples whose relative happiness has been surveyed. Obviously, a divorce rate is measurable and it denotes the failure of a marriage. But a lack of divorce doesn’t necessarily suggest a successful or happy marriage, and I think it could be argued that a number of people who married very young in our parents generation because it was the “thing to do” stayed in their marriages because that was also the “thing to do,” despite the fact that one of two parties turned out to be gay or a cheater or just unhappy in general.
I also have a problem with the study Lapp quoted as saying that “little is to be gained from deliberately delaying marriage beyond the mid-twenties.” On that contrary, I think for a lot of people, there is much to be gained. When I was 21, I was still convinced that I was in love with someone who had zero romantic interest in me at all, and I had the “ew, boys” attitude about anyone who did. I was insecure, I had never had a full-time job, and I had never experienced what it was like to actually enjoy being single and on my own. I look back on those times and laugh at the person I was in terms of emotional maturity, and I can only imagine the kind of person I would have chosen to marry at that stage in my life. He would have been really good looking, probably, and a real asshole too.
I’m not saying everyone is like me, and I know a few people that did marry young and have been successful in their marriages so far, and I applaud those people. But I think it would require a great deal of work and a great deal of luck for two 21-year-olds to get married and just happen to grow and develop in the same direction, navigating their careers and their maturing ideas of what they want out of life. It seems like a “fingers-crossed” kind of situation, unless you’re the kind of person who really, really knew what you wanted and who you were at a young age. Throwing a bunch of statistics at people and citing the success in your own young marriage does not make a strong argument for early marriage in general.
“As focused as we young adults are on self-development, what if the path to that development is actually learning to live with and love another person? We may be startled to find that the greatest adventure lies not in knowing oneself as much as in knowing and committing to another person. Sure, freedom is great—but as John Paul II reminded us, ‘Freedom exists for the sake of love.'”
Again, I disagree. Relationships do promote self-development, but I don’t think they can outright replace the kind of self-development and introspection you experience by learning to live on your own. The advantage of waiting to marry is that you can have your cake and eat it too– you will learn to live with and love another person, but you will do so after you’ve learned to live with and love yourself. Ick, I’m starting to sound like a self-help book. Moving on now.
In conclusion, I enjoyed Lapp’s article and I’m thrilled for him that he married young and “beat the odds” (although he hasn’t even been married a year…so… I guess we’ll check back with him in 2012?). But I don’t find his argument for marrying young compelling. I think he’s the exception, not the rule.
What do you guys think? Does he have a point? Do you buy his marriage statistics?