Your 19-year-old daughter comes home from her first semester of college. She’s glowing. You’re thrilled that things are going so well, until she explains. “Mom, Dad, I have some great news. I met someone wonderful, and we’re getting married this summer!”
What should you tell her? Finish your education first? Throw him back, and wait until you’ve developed some maturity? Or should you congratulate her, and be pleased that you raised the kind of daughter who can commit to a lifelong relationship?
Social science of course cannot answer this question, since individual circumstances differ so dramatically. What social science can tell us is the age at which, statistically, people are most likely to forge marriages that stand the test of time.
The Sweet Spot: Mid-20’s to Early 30’s
In when-to-marry debates, conservatives sometimes push for earlier marriage, while liberals more characteristically advise people to bide their time. (Remember the uproar that followed when Princeton Mom Susan Patton flouted this orthodoxy?) It turns out they’re both right, or you could say, both wrong.
This study, recently published by the Institute for Family Studies (using data obtained from the National Survey of Family Growth from 2006 to 2010) examines people’s likelihood of divorce in relation to the age at which they marry. With respect to early marriage, it confirms a trend that’s long been evident in American society. Couples who marry young are more likely to divorce than those who wait until at least their mid- to late-twenties. Sorry, Daydream Believer, but your odds aren’t the best.
The plot thickens, however, when we move further along the graph. As people move through their twenties their divorce risk falls. But then in the early thirties, the trend line starts to rise again. By the late thirties the incline is steep, meaning people who marry that late once again incur a significant divorce risk. Sorry, Mindy Lahiri, but you too have reason to be concerned.
The best time to marry then (from the standpoint of avoiding divorce) appears to be sometime between one’s mid-twenties and one’s early thirties. Of course nobody can be certain that they will find someone suitable to marry in precisely that period. (Your 19-year-old daughter may make that point if you oppose her wedding plans.) Fertility health may be another consideration, and from that standpoint, 25 is a more promising age than 33. (This affects men too, in case you were wondering.) Forging stable relationships, however, appears to be easiest if you avoid marrying early, but also make sure not to wait too long.
The Challenges of Late Marriage
It should go without saying that no reasonable person would make such a significant decision purely on the basis of a sociological trend. Still, it raises some thought-provoking questions about marriage in America, especially in a period where young people are becoming evermore reluctant to settle down.
Why aren’t young people opting for marriage as they used to? One reason is a lack of financial or career stability. Young people who are burdened by debt or nervous about job potential may not feel they are in a position to think about the responsibilities of marriage and family. Contemporary culture now also embraces a much broader range of lifestyle choices, which until recently were widely rejected. This reduces peoples’ incentive to marry, since they can pursue romantic and sexual fulfillment without the commitment of tying the knot (though the results, obviously, are not guaranteed). As marriage gets lost in the early-adulthood shuffle, many people may find that they aren’t sure how to get married, since there is essentially no consensus about what dating and courtship should involve.
The result is that people can spend quite a long time establishing themselves in adult life before they get serious about marriage. One challenge for the late-married, then, may be the way people can become “set in their ways” as they move into their thirties. People who marry in early adulthood have a chance to decide together what their adult life should look like. By the late 30’s, major decisions have been made and adult habits have been formed. Reconciling those may prove challenging for people who have spent years catering only to their own tastes and preferences.
Another possible factor would be the shrinking of the “candidate pool”. People who prioritize marriage and are temperamentally disposed to it are probably more likely to marry in their twenties. Those who are irresponsible, fickle, or bad-tempered may wait, owing either to a fear of commitment or to the lack of opportunity. The late-marrying may be more likely to divorce because, in general, they were always the sort of people who were more liable to divorce.
One interesting thing about the study was the large number of factors for which it controlled. So, for instance, it’s long been known that family structure, education, religiosity and sexual history tend to affect divorce rates. That’s still true, but the age-related trends seem to hold regardless. They also hold for both men and women. It doesn’t follow, then, that the relationship between age and divorce can be explained through any of the more obvious correlating factors.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice If We Were Older?
For millennials thinking about marriage, this advice may be maddening in its specificity. Delaying is a risky gambit, but settling young still doesn’t appear to be the ideal. Many conservatives may find this last point to be the more irksome, since they often favor early marriage as the antidote to a shallow and increasingly oversexualized youth culture.
I’ve never been an opponent of early marriage. My parents were undergraduate-aged when they married, and I think anyone looking at their marriage and life would have to agree that things worked out. In that spirit, I would generally advise young people to focus on finding the right sort of person, rather than fixating on the ideal age. It’s foolish to break up with a wonderful person at 22, blindly trusting that another will be on hand at 30 when you think you will personally feel more prepared.
Having said that, I feel fortunate to have found love in my mid-twenties, such that I married right in the “sweet spot”. (I was 27 and he was 31.) It was a good time to tie the knot, and it put us in a strong position to build a life and start a family together.
We were not established. I was in graduate school, and he was finishing out a mediocre 3-year teaching contract. Our debts were modest but we had no savings. On the other hand, we were educated and had some work experience. We could apply for serious jobs without getting laughed out of the room. Also, we had both lived on our own for a few years, but only a few. We didn’t have nice furniture yet, but we knew that laundry doesn’t do itself.
After the wedding things started to fall into place, the next few years brought a decent job, a home, and shortly after that, a baby. As the responsibilities increased (we now have four children), we were able to find the resources to keep pace. By “resources”, I don’t just mean money. It takes all kinds of skills and resources to manage a sizable family. Money helps, but so does patience, emotional stability, and ingenuity at addressing unexpected challenges. We don’t have the benefit of a large circle of helpful (and nearby) extended family, so it was important for us to be both stable and adaptable. Once the children started arriving, it was essential for both of us to know that our marital relationship was secure, and that our spouse had an adult-size capacity for handing complicated tasks and responsibilities.
Not Established But Establish-able
Although many cultures see adolescent marriage as normal, young couples in these cultures are typically enmeshed within larger, supportive networks of family and friends who can watch children, help with housework, and give advice as needed. That can offer newlyweds a little more “breathing room” if they need time to mature into capable adults. We didn’t have that luxury, and many other American couples don’t. So while I won’t say that I couldn’t have managed so much responsibility at a younger age, I think it definitely helped to have few extra years’ worth of maturity and life experience before I found myself routinely juggling dentists’ appointments, rug stains, toddler tantrums and mile-long grocery receipts all in the same afternoon.
Also, to be perfectly honest, I really cherish the memories from my earlier twenties, when I first traveled the world and then spent some years engaged in a serious study of philosophy. I’m grateful I got to do those things. They were wonderful! I’m equally grateful, though, I didn’t hang onto them so long that I missed my chance at marriage and motherhood.
Of course every life goes differently. My husband and I have taken on more responsibility than some couples (four children!) but have also had our share of good fortune. Even so, I suspect our case is a reasonably good template for showing why the “sweet spot” is so sweet: at the time we married, we were not established, but we were establish-able. We made our major adult decisions together, but we were able to do that relatively early in our marriage, rather than trudging through several anxiety-ridden years of debt and insecure employment (or of long-delayed childbearing, which raises a separate set of issues).
“Not too soon but not too late” is a hard balance to strike, and people who will only marry under “ideal circumstances” are liable to end up alone. Still, the fact remains that marriage can be difficult. It’s good to have the odds in your favor. If you know any 25-year-olds, perhaps you should send them this study. They’ve hit the sweet spot. Now it’s time to start thinking about wedding bells.