Early Marriage and Life Satisfaction

by Barbara Ray


By now it’s no surprise that young adults are delaying marriage. Somewhere around 1980, the age of marriage started to creep up. Not surprisingly, that delay corresponded with increasing education levels of women and the declining opportunities for working-class men in the workforce, as well as the coming of age of a generation that saw first-hand the fallout of divorce.

As the world has become more competitive, thanks to globalization and a shifting market that requires higher skills to stay ahead of the game, young people realized they needed more education if they were to make a go of it. So they stayed in school longer, and began to put off marriage until they were financially and emotionally ready.

The delay comes with benefits. The divorce rate is falling as fewer people rush into marriage, and women’s earnings are significantly higher than their peers who marry early.

And yet… those who are married are happier and healthier than those who are not. My happily divorced friends are not so convinced, but  research increasingly bears this out, including the findings in “Knot Yet.”

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time talking with young adults and poring through interview transcripts about relationships and marriage. I came away with the clear sense that young people are pretty leery of marriage while at the same time aspiring to it. They want to eventually be married, but wonder, what’s the rush?

Sure there were exceptions. Those from my home state of Iowa, for example, spent a lot less time dithering over marriage. As Heather* (her name has been changed), a single mom who recently married at age 29 put it, “That’s what you do in rural areas. That’s what you spend all your time doing—looking for someone to marry and have a family with. People want to settle in.”

However, on the whole, young adults were more like Reed, whom I talked with last week. Reed is 27, with a BA in media and communications. He and his girlfriend of four years are living together in Washington, DC, while she attends graduate school. He has a desire to get married, but he also sees marriage as a broken institution.

“I’ve seen broken marriages my whole life: my parents, my parents’ friends were divorced, and steadily more got divorced as the years went on. So it starts to seem like marriage is almost detriment: why get married if we love each other?”

“My generation and the one behind me,” he says, “are more concerned about building their individuality. They’re actively seeking long-term relationships but they’ve also maybe been through relationships they thought of as long-term, but they changed or their partner changed. So people are more reluctant today to get married because they recognize that it might not last. They recognize that marriage is this scary prospect and they’d rather get to know themselves and each other first before making that commitment. Actually, it’s not so much that marriage is so scary, but that divorce is such an ugly experience.”

And yet, the research shows that they might be happier if they just tied the knot–when they’re in a committed and happy relationship like Reed and his girlfriend are. As the “Knot Yet” authors find, compared with their married counterparts, single or cohabiting men and women are significantly more likely to report that they are depressed. They’re more likely to report drinking to excess, and they’re less likely to say that they’re highly satisfied with their life.

Among married men aged 24-29, for example, 52% report being very satisfied with their lives. This compares to 35% of those who are single and 35% of those who are living with their girlfriend. The same patterns holds for couples with children. (This of course, as the authors note, could be the case that happier and better adjusted people are better catches and thus more likely to be married. Correlation does not equal causation.)

A March 14 Pew Research survey adds further support for marriage as a route to greater well-being. As the report notes:

“Among mothers with children under age 18, married moms are happier overall than unmarried moms. … There is also a significant gap in happiness between working and non-working mothers: 45% of non-working mothers say they are very happy, compared with 31% of mothers who work either full or part time. When other factors (race, ethnicity, income and education) are taken into account, marriage is a significant predictor of a mother’s happiness while employment status is not.”

So what is it about not delaying marriage that leads to happiness? In a Huffington Post Q&A with Stevie C.Y. Yap, author of a recent study on marriage and happiness, finds that marriage can act as a buffer for people. As Yap says, marriage “protects against age-related declines in happiness.”  Any reader over 40 knows what he means by that. “So it doesn’t make you any happier than you were prior to marriage, but it seems to protect against the decline of your happiness that would have been if you didn’t get married.”

So could marrying early give you a built-in cheerleader and ballast against the inevitable disappointments and downsized expectations that life brings, especially in this crazy, competitive, confusing decade that is now the 20s and into the 30s?

Candace certainly thinks so. Candace is an exception to the larger trend. She married at age 23 because she had always wanted a big family.  She is at age 32 a mother of six with another on the way.

“I think as a married couple you encourage each other, and when there’s not someone there to encourage you, life can get hard. A single person has to do everything themselves. I’m not an advocate of typical roles, but whoever is working, it helps for someone to be getting the meals, or keeping the house cleaned up, or paying the bills. As much as friend can be there for you,” she says, “it’s not the same. They have their own separate lives, doing their own thing. Your spouse is your ultimate cheerleader.”

And, she says, “Part of loving someone is having that encouragement and putting the other person above yourself. You find more joy in that.”

Putting someone ahead of yourself. Hmmm.

The Knot Yet reports notes another thing. The greatest likelihood of being in a good marriage is among those who married at ages 22-25. The Knot Yet authors are referring to a study by sociologist Norval Glenn and colleagues reported in a special issue of the journal Social Science Research, titled “Marriage and Family in the New Millenium(unfortunately behind a paywall).

Glenn thinks the marriage quality is higher because the young couple more likely shares common memories and family traditions, as well as a common faith, and they have more frequent sex. Glenn and coauthors say that while it’s “premature to conclude that the optimal time for first marriage for most persons is ages 22–25. However, the findings do suggest that most persons have little or nothing to gain in the way of marital success by deliberately postponing marriage beyond the mid-twenties.”

So I guess the question for those in their 20s in a relationship that feels strong and good isn’t “what’s the rush?” but instead, “why wait?”