Contradictory as it may seem, while couples who marry in their late twenties and thirties are somewhat less likely to divorce than those who marry in their midtwenties, they don’t appear to be happier. True, some research finds that they argue less often and less intensely,20 and this is consistent with the research on marital stability. Nevertheless, these couples do not appear to be happier. One recent study by sociologists Norval Glenn and Jeremy Uecker examined five different large data sets and concluded that “the greatest indicated likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at ages 22–25.”21 All things considered, the tradeoff of more stability for more passion may be worth it for some, but it may nevertheless represent a loss in happiness on the whole. The research also suggests that couples who marry in their twenties have more frequent sex and are more likely to hold a common faith and share common memories and family traditions22—all factors that foster high marital quality. Our own analysis of the 2003–2004 National Fatherhood Initiative’s marriage survey23 suggests that women are most likely to be happy when they marry in their midtwenties (see Figure 12). All things considered, the tradeoff of more stability for more passion may be worth it for some, but it may nevertheless represent a loss in happiness on the whole.
Marriage delayed may have some other emotional and social downsides. Twentysomething men and women who are unmarried—be they single or cohabiting—report more drinking, more depression, and lower levels of life satisfaction than do their married peers (see Figures 13a, 13b, and 13c). This holds true for parents as well, as shown in Figures 14a and 14b, which indicate that cohabiting and single parents—both men and women—are generally less satisfied with their lives and more depressed than married parents.
As we have seen, women’s earnings go up with their age of marriage (see Figures 7 and 8) , in part because delayed marriage allows women to pursue education, training, and job experience before they start a family. But the situation for men is a little different. According to Figure 15, among men in their midthirties, those who had married in their twenties had the highest level of personal income, though the precise pattern varies by education. (This doesn’t take into account men’s household income, which was highest for men who had married from ages twenty-seven to twenty-nine.) Men who had never married had some of the lowest levels of personal income—lower even than those who married before age twenty. These results are consistent with research that the responsibility ethic associated with marriage makes men, including twentysomething men, harder, smarter, and better-paid workers.24
The associations between marriage and age of marriage to relationship quality, social and emotional well-being, and future income generally hold up, even after we control for social and economic factors such as race, ethnicity, education, and family background. But we cannot rule out the possibility that some of these associations are simply due to the type of young adults who marry in their twenties. Happier, sexier, and healthier people may enjoy earlier prospects. Nevertheless, if nothing else, these results suggest that the young singles flitting across our cable-TV screens do not have the market cornered when it comes to happiness and well-being (and, in the case of young men, higher incomes).
21 Norval D. Glenn, Jeremy E. Uecker, and Robert W. B. Love, Jr., “Later First Marriage and Marital Success,” Social Science Research 39 (September 2010): 787–800, 787.
22 See ibid.; Naomi Schaefer Riley, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Rotz, “Why Have Divorce Rates Fallen?”
23 See National Fatherhood Initiative, “With This Ring: A National Survey on Marriage in America” (conducted 2003–2004), http://blog.fatherhood.org/with-this-ring-survey.
24 See Avner Ahituv and Robert I. Lerman, “Job Turnover, Wage Rates, and Marital Stability: How Are They Related?” Review of Economics of the Household 9 (June 2011): 221–249.