The Case for Getting Married Young

It can be beneficial to make marriage the cornerstone, rather than the capstone, of your adult life.

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A compelling case can be made for the advantages, particularly for college-educated women, of delaying marriage until after the mid-twenties, as Eleanor Barkhorn recently wrote here. As a math-phobic English professor, I'm not one to wrestle with statistics, but I believe a robust case can be made, alternatively, for young marriage.

There are costs to delaying marriage, a phenomenon that has reached a new threshold, with the average age of marriage for men reaching the historic high of 29 and women 27. New research from Knot Yet, a project that explores the benefits and costs of delayed marriage in America, points to some of the risks of waiting so long to marry. While delayed marriage does have economic benefits for college educated women and is credited with bringing down the overall divorce rate, the news isn't all good:

  • While men and women are waiting longer to marry, they aren't waiting quite so long to have children. The average age at which a woman first gives birth (25.7) is now earlier than the average age of first marriage (26.5), a phenomenon Knot Yet calls "The Great Crossover" and which brings with it all of the well-documented concerns that surround the rearing of children outside of wedlock.
  • Unmarried twenty-somethings are more likely to be depressed, drink excessively, and report lower levels of satisfaction than their married counterparts. For example 35 percent of unmarried men say they are "highly satisfied" with their lives compared to 52 percent of married men; among the women that report being "highly satisfied" with their lives, 29 percent are cohabitating, 33 percent are single, and 47 percent are married.

Of course, the basis for marriage has changed considerably over the course of history, and the changes in the ages at which people marry merely reflect these shifting foundations. For much of human history, marriage was based on economic expediency, its purpose being political and financial maintenance or gain. Then in the modern age, as an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on the individual, the ideal of the companionate marriage arose. The basis of the companionate marriage was neither "romantic love" (a la the Arthurian legends and Romeo and Juliet) nor economic and political expediency. Its foundation was a "reasonable love" that made two people well-matched partners (companions) for marriage, one which carried with it obligations including, but also going beyond, the temporal realm of the private household. Central to the companionate model of marriage was the revolutionary idea that a woman should have a choice in whom she married because of the indelible role her husband would have on her faith practice for the rest of her life. Influential Christian writers such as Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson advanced this model of marriage in their works, effectively popularizing the idea of women choosing their marriage partners for themselves so as to wisely fulfill their Christian vocation in marriage.

Of course, the social and religious motivations behind these models of marriage have been in decline for some time. As Derek Thompson described here recently, there is now less economic incentive to marry than ever before. The religious framework for marriage is also crumbling. Marriage has become, therefore, to use Thompson's apt term, "hedonistic," based on the exponential amount of pleasure—material, emotional, sexual, familial, you name it—that can be derived from the coupling of two individuals.

Under the hedonistic model of marriage, it makes sense to stay single long enough to accumulate the things that can be brought into an eventual union as a kind of experiential dowry. Knot Yet's study confirms this:

Young adults are taking longer to finish their education and stabilize their work lives. Culturally, young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a "capstone" rather than a "cornerstone"—that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.

Interestingly, in a 2009 report, sociologist Mark Regnerus found that much of the pressure to delay marriage comes from parents who encourage their children to finish their education before marrying. One student told him that her parents "want my full attention on grades and school." But such advice reflects an outdated reality, one in which a college degree was almost a guarantee of a good job that would be held for a lifetime. This is no longer the case. Furthermore, with so many students graduating from college with knee-buckling debt, they have worse than nothing to bring into a marriage. Indeed, prolonged singledom has become a rolling stone, gathering up debt and offspring that, we can be imagine, will manifest themselves in years to come in more broken, or never-realized, marriages.

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Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

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