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.

Looking back over a marriage of nearly three decades, I am thankful that I married before going down that road. Now as a college-educated, doctorate-holding woman, I can attest that marrying young (at age 19) was most beneficial: to me, to my husband, and to the longevity of our marriage. Our achievements have come, I am convinced, not despite our young marriage, but because of it.

Our marriage was, to use Knot Yet's terminology, a "cornerstone" not a "capstone." Once that cornerstone was set during the semester break of my sophomore year of college, I transformed from a party girl into a budding scholar. I earned my college degree then two graduate degrees. My husband made music, built things, earned a teaching certificate, and became a teacher and coach. We lived in several towns, two states, countless apartments (and—for six long weeks, a relative's basement), owned a junkyard's worth of beat-up cars (including two, not one, but two Pacers), and held down numerous jobs on our way to financial and social stability. We were poor in those early years. Not food stamps poor, but poor enough to be given groceries by our church without having asked. The church gave us $200 once, too (which is exactly what that second Pacer cost). We held down terrible jobs and then got better ones. Like all couples, we worked and played and worshipped and prayed and travelled and fought together. And sometimes apart. We planned and prepared for children that naughtily never came. We offered our home instead to needy animals and stray college students, and eventually to my own aging parents. 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 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.

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Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and a contributing writer for Christianity Today

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