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.