Bucking the Trend and Marrying Young

by Amber Lapp

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One married friend of mine, who just completed a master’s program and had her son two days before my son was born, told me that one of her grad school study buddies would often give her a hard time about being married with a baby at the age of 24.

“Your life must be so depressing,” she would suggest, before mentioning all of the pretty things at Banana Republic that a young married mom simply couldn’t afford (or have occasion to wear). Which did at times make my friend, who considered herself to be relatively happy, wonder if she should be depressed.

However, at another time, this same study buddy told my friend, “You are the only person I know who is not on mood enhancing drugs [by which she meant medication for depression].”

In the “Knot Yet” report, one trend emerges most clearly: young adults are delaying marriage, even as many of them are not delaying children.  Indeed, “The Great Crossover,” as the report terms it, is that “for women as a whole, the median age at first birth (25.7) now falls before the median age at first marriage (26.5).”

As a researcher in small-town, working-class Ohio, this is the world I’m in. Many of my new friends and acquaintances are unmarried with children. Take for instance, Stephanie, who my husband and I wrote about here.

But it’s not the world I came from. Like my friend above, many of my friends from high school and college are engaged or married. And many of the married ones are pregnant or have children. And most of them, like me, are around the age of 25. (My husband and I married right out of college at 22 and 21 and we went to a lot of similarly aged friends’ weddings that summer and the following summers. This summer my 22-year-old brother is marrying his high school sweetheart.)

My husband and I certainly didn’t feel pressure to marry. In fact, my dad had reservations, and living in New York City made us feel a bit crazy for marrying so young. And I don’t think that my friends felt pressure to marry either. Thankfully, there is the recognition today that the single life can be deeply meaningful, too.

So why did we?

I think a big part of the answer lies in the fact that most of my friends are part of a strong faith community, which gave us support, confidence, strong social trust, and good marriage models, something which I blogged about here and here. I know that for my husband and me, having a loving community that supports us makes a huge difference in our marriage. We’ve noticed that we have a lot more arguments now that we’ve moved to Ohio and face the task of having to make new friendships and join a new community. When you feel isolated, it is a lot harder to be happy with yourself or your spouse.

So while it’s certainly not my intention to say that everyone should marry young, it’s my anecdotal experience that devout young Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons make up “counter-communities” that are not really following the larger marriage and family trends.

In my early twenties, I went to more lingerie and bridal and then baby showers than I did night clubs. My alma mater is The King’s College, a small nondenominational Christian college, which was then located in the Empire State Building. The students there are young, smart, hip New York transplants—and yet it’s not uncommon for those who fall in love during college to marry shortly after. (You can see some really beautiful engagement and wedding videos from some 20-something TKC alum, filmed by the uber creative “Finding Muchness films” here.)

Some well intentioned skeptics might ask, “But aren’t couples who get married young at risk of divorce? How will they find themselves and true happiness?

Actually, the facts suggest that my friends stand a much better shot at lifelong love and marital happiness than many people think. Consider the following findings reported in the “Knot Yet” report.

  • According to sociologists Norval Glenn and Jeremy Uecker, who examined five data sets, “the greatest indicated likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at ages 22-25.”
  • The “Knot Yet” report finds that among couples who married at 30 or above, only 8 percent divorced within the first ten years of marriage—but a whopping 50 percent of women were “not very happy” in their marriage.
  • By contrast, among couples who married between 24-26, only 14 percent divorced, and only 20 percent of women said they were “not very happy” in their marriage.
  • Furthermore, couples who got married between 20-23 were more likely to get divorced than couples who got married at 30 or older (34 percent vs. 8 percent), but they were just about as likely to report that they were in a “very happy” marriage (46 percent vs. 42 percent).
  • Finally, compared to their unmarried peers, married persons ages 20-28 report higher levels of satisfaction with life, less depression, and less drunkenness.

Furthermore, many of my peers who married young also waited to have children until they married and are deeply religious, both of which greatly lower their chances of divorce, according to the 2012 State of Our Unions report (see the section “Your Chances of Divorce May Be Much Lower than You Think”).

And a 2010 study of 2,035 married couples by Brigham Young University researchers found that people who wait until marriage to have sex—as is the case for many of my friends—reported the happiest sex lives, the best relationship communication, the most relationship satisfaction, and the most relationship stability. These findings were true even when controlling for things like religiosity, education, length of marriage, and number of sexual partners.

The upshot is that it’s time to retire as a general rule that the longer you wait for marriage, the better your chances at a happy marriage. For many couples—particularly young couples with strong social support—the rule is simply arbitrary.