Should We Bring Back Young Marriage?

Marrying young isn’t for everyone, but there are good reasons it should be considered.

How controversial is the idea of marrying young? Just ask Julia Shaw. When her essay on early marriage, “Marry Young: I got married at 23. What are the rest of you waiting for?” appeared at Slate April 1, not only did it provoke a number of angry, personal comments, but one reader even tracked down Shaw’s work number to call and yell at her.

The general thought in society today is that marriage should be delayed to allow for greater maturity and until the parties are “established.” Some argue, however, that there are compelling reasons to reconsider young marriage, including biological reasons.  But for young marriage to be successful, other things about the way marriage is prepared for, viewed, and treated by society at large must also be revisited.

Shaw, who did not write the Slate article’s headline or subhead, said she was shocked by the volume and intensity of the reaction to the piece.  There has also been a lot of positive responses to the story, she said, from readers who found the story thought-provoking as well as from other young marrieds who said they could relate to what Shaw had to say.

Shaw wrote the essay to encourage readers to take a fresh look at young marriage. “To be sure, marrying right is more important than marrying young,” said Shaw, research associate and program manager for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.  “I’m not advocating that you should marry at some arbitrary age: in fact, I say that I’m against artificial timelines.  But the problem I see nowadays—at least in my peer group—is not too many 19 year-olds marrying.  The problem…is people [are] arbitrarily delaying marriage because they haven’t met certain personal and professional milestones—and that’s not a good reason.”

There can be no doubt that greater maturity and being “established” make a difference in terms of aiding successful marriage.  The average age for first-time marriage is at an all-time high—27 for women and 29 for men—and is widely credited with lowering divorce rates.

“I think there is a case to be made for 20-something marriage,” said Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project . “There is a strong body of evidence that those who marry in their teens are much more likely to get divorced than anybody else.”  Wilcox stressed that the research on age and marriage is suggestive, not definitive. 

However, there is reason to think that it is not the age of marriage that is key, but rather pushing against the current trend of adolescence continuing into the late 20s, while fostering greater support from larger family and community.

What nature is telling us

Father Michael Orsi, former director of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Camden, NJ, said he believes 18-26 is a good age range for marriage, with the male ideally being at the higher end of the age range. According to Orsi, to delay marriage is to frustrate nature. “Your body is telling you at a certain age that you are ready for a relationship with the opposite sex,” he said in an interview with CWR.

Along these lines, there are also health and practical matters to consider.  The biological clock is ticking for women and men alike, as “men and women who wait are more likely to have kids who have disabilities or some other type of challenge,” said Wilcox. “There are links between men’s age and autism in the child.” As a result of men and women marrying later, some of them have had to enlist medical or technological help in order to achieve pregnancy, with sometimes dubious results.

Christians and social scientists aren’t the only ones starting to question the status quo. In an article last year in The New Republic, science editor Judith Shulevitz described fertility treatments she underwent in her late 30s. She eventually gave birth to a child with developmental delays and, during visits to therapists, noticed that the majority of the other mothers there were also older.  After doing some research, she concluded that manipulating biology so older parents can have children will ultimately upend American society—“For we are bringing fewer children into the world and producing a generation that will be subtly different—‘phenotypically and biochemically different,’ as one study I read put it—from previous generations.”

Then there are the social consequences. Delaying marriage can also lead young people, who are at the height of their fertility, into a lifestyle that could hamstring future relational happiness. “You may start cohabitating, and then no relationship will be important or sacred to you,” said Orsi, who added that “you may also become set in your ways.”

Some parents cohabitated themselves, so they are unwilling to hold their children to a moral standard they couldn’t achieve themselves, said Orsi, who served on the Marriage Tribunal in his diocese.

On the other hand, while heeding the biological call is important, Christians have the simultaneous duty to be chaste, which—as Dr. Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, points out—can lead some to make the mistake of marrying just for sex. Character and friendship are important, and sometimes parents, siblings, grandparents, or other family members or spiritual mentors are in a position to provide much-needed advice.

Putting off marriage in America today

Today, many young people are putting off marriage to finish college and embark on careers, oftentimes at the behest of parents and other family members, including people of faith. Msgr. Cormac Burke, former judge of the Roman Rota, the High Court of the Church, writes about canon law at his website, and says a materialistic culture influences when and why people decide to get married. “Today over-prolonged college studies tend to push people to marry later. Perhaps even more powerful is the feeling that one should wait until being able to count on a combined salary that will ensure a ‘decent’ standard of life,” said Burke. “This latter factor reflects today’s materialistic approach to life.”

According to Wilcox, various studies indicate that one downside to marrying in your 20s is that women who do so tend to make less money than women who marry in their 30s. As Shaw wrote in her Slate article, at one time “I thought I would get married, but it would be later after a flurry of accomplishments.… Looking back, my artificial, rigid timeline of success almost derailed my real happiness.”

“You don’t need all these luxuries,” said Orsi, who now serves as chaplain and research fellow in law at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida. “It is based on materialism, which is a terrible way to feed a marriage.”

However, a large number of young Americans are putting off marriage, not because of professional desires or materialism, but because of economic and cultural realities. But while these young people are delaying marriage, many are not putting off having children. According to research by the Marriage Project, this group consists mostly of high school graduates who may or may not have a little college education. Many of these women, wanting the fulfillment of motherhood, are having children with men they either do not want to marry or believe are not ready for marriage. The economy is definitely affecting this group, as Middle American men are having trouble finding and keeping jobs, and many entry-level jobs now require college degrees. This financial instability is diminishing their opportunities to marry. As more women choose to go it alone with regard to childrearing, researchers are discovering a unsettling trend: men raised by single mothers do not fare well economically and socially, and are less attractive potential spouses. These single men go on to father boys out of wedlock who are less attractive to potential marriage partners further down the road. Meanwhile, the children of these Middle Americans are being exposed to a constantly changing slate of adults within the home, which is not good for their wellbeing.

The reality of financial pressure

A major strain on young marriages, particularly in today’s climate, is the economy. “Parents are more likely to give their single 20-something [financial] support, but balk at helping a young couple,” Wilcox said. Many parents fear their children’s unhealthy dependency more after they are married than before. Other extended family members could step in where there is a need, but don’t. There is a false notion of marriage today that a married couple is suddenly completely autonomous.

Is there a better way? In a 2009 article for Christianity Today, Regnerus argued that Christians need to start being “missionaries to the married” with their financial resources. According to Regnerus, who converted to Catholicism since publishing the article, parents should not withhold resources from children to keep them from marrying at a certain age, and once a couple is married, family members and parishioners should be generous to them when there is financial need. Along the same lines, young couples should not be embarrassed about asking for or accepting help. “Marriage missionaries,” particularly extended family and church parishioners, could be especially helpful in making young marriage a reality for Middle Americans, who may need assistance with anything from groceries during a layoff to financial aid to pursue an education.

Wilcox said other ways young marrieds can receive the support they need is for older couples with successful marriages to mentor them, and for there to be regular preaching and teaching on marriage in churches, as well as marriage retreats.  For young people who are not from intact families, extended family and Christian mentors can step in and impart wisdom and advice on marriage, childrearing, and finances. This support system could also be put to good use in encouraging young men and women to seek out and marry suitable partners.

Making young marriage work

In her now famous speech, “Contraception Why Not?”, Dr. Janet Smith refers to the many times she has heard from married students about how, at some point in the marriage, one of the spouses takes a drive, not really sure if he  will go back.  But there are two people at home: one of whom he may be angry with, and another who is innocent and without whom he cannot imagine living.  The presence of a child strengthens the pull to return home.

One of the greatest enemies to happiness in marriage today is calculation, according to Msgr. Burke. “I would refer this especially to the prevailing calculated approach to the question of having children,” he said. “Children? Well, maybe one or two. And of course not for four or five years—until we have settled down and really get on. The trouble with this is that, in Nature’s plan, children—precisely in the first years of marriage—are the main support a couple needs to keep their initial love going and growing.”

“Children bond marriages,” Orsi said. “Dying to yourself for the sake of the child leads to dying of the self for each other.  When you have a common project in life, parents grow to love each other.”        

“Romance is not enough,” adds Burke. “Too many couples today just keep looking at each other until they rub the glamour out of their eyes. Whereas the plan of Nature is that, within those first few years precisely as the glamour goes, they are no longer just looking at each other but looking out together at the children which are fruit of their union and love. For the sake of our children, we must learn to get on. That is Nature’s plan, but if there are no children there…”

But raising children is itself a challenge at times.  One way family, friends, and parishioners can assist, and be the supportive community that nurtures young marriage, is to show generosity, both in word and deed, toward the children who come along.  Not pressuring young marrieds about family size and being generous about babysitting and other forms of assistance can provide a lot of support.

“A successful marriage is not a two-person enterprise,” Wilcox said. “It needs the larger community counsel and support.”

But what about those divorce rates?

But what about those statistics correlating younger ages with higher divorce rates? “Typically speaking, the highest risk for divorce involves marrying under age 20,” said Regnerus in an interview with CWR. “If you’ve got good social support, then marrying [in your early 20s] should be fine, and perhaps even ideal.”  

Also bear in mind that marital age never actually causes divorce, Regnerus wrote in a Washington Post column. Instead, it is usually an indicator of some other problem, “usually immaturity,” which could be evident at any age, or “impatience with marital challenges,” which can usually be worked out with the proper guidance and support of family members and mentors.  

Courtney, who is a happily married mother of five and lives in the South, married her husband when they were both 22. She said her parents have provided good social support in her marriage.  They are very supportive of their son-in-law, and have always treated and spoken of him charitably. Plus, she knew her parents held her to certain standards. “I knew I would not be able to come home with my suitcase for just any reason,” she said. “It would have to be something really serious.”

Since immaturity can be a big challenge to young marriages, what can parents do to foster maturity in their children and prepare them for marriage? According to Orsi, parents need to nurture a sense of responsibility in them. In America today, “people are still kids until they are 30 years old,” he said. “Encourage your kids to get jobs—go to McDonald’s, go to Starbucks.”

Parents do a lot to feed materialism by giving their children too many material things, Orsi said. Parents should tell their children, “If you want an iPad, an iPhone, you need to go get it yourself.”

Although immaturity can lead to divorce, it is not grounds for a declaration of nullity in the Catholic Church, according to Msgr. Burke.  “The relevant canon, 1095.2, speaks not of immaturity, but of a ‘grave lack of discretionary judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations,’” he said.  “All of us have certain immature traits. People marrying at the age of 20 or 22 will not have the maturity they should have acquired 10 years later. If a person has reached the legal age of marrying, a declaration of nullity under 1095.2 could only be considered if their lack of judgment were pathologically grave, for instance, if it could be shown that a person of 21 had the mental maturity of a boy or girl of 12,” Burke said.

Rotal jurisprudence draws these essential rights and obligations from the three basic properties of matrimony: exclusivity, permanence, openness to offspring.  An isolated or even repeated fault against these (for example, lapses of fidelity) would not be proof of consensual incapacity.

“A declaration of nullity would hinge on proof that at the time of consent, the person was incapable of minimally understanding, or of carrying out, the duty involved,” Burke said. “The papal addresses to the Rota have repeatedly insisted that this could only happen in the case of a grave psychic anomaly.”

In addition to the premarital counseling and pre-Cana retreats offered in Catholic churches, some of the best pre-marriage prep is going to take place in the Domestic Church. The best thing parents can do to prepare their children for marriage—young or otherwise—is to be a good example of marital faithfulness and generosity. “If they see that their parents have been really committed to each other, through thick and thin, and are happy in that mutual fidelity, there is the most convincing argument that to marry can be, should be, a real commitment,  a generous happiness,” said Burke. “Perhaps that is the main factor that can help (young people) overcome the calculation mentality.”

“That sort of home-schooling is vital for young people growing up today,” he said. “Parents who dedicate themselves to establishing it, are doing absolutely the best they can to help their children be firm in their pre-marriage relationships and happy in their eventual marriage.”

Early marriage may not be for everyone. However, in a time when 48 percent of first births are to unmarried women, and cohabitation is becoming a more popular option than marriage among Middle Americans, it might be a good idea at least to prepare children for the possibility of an early marriage, and encourage them if they are clearly called to it.

One thing seems to be certain, and that is our culture has changed.  “In the past, people were getting support from family and friends in married life,” said Wilcox.  “The focus was also on being good spouses in a family-centered world. We don’t live in that world anymore.”

Christians, however, have always been called to be countercultural, and perhaps now is the time to focus on creating the type of community that encourages and nurtures young marriages.

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About Leslie Fain 21 Articles
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons. You can follow her on Twitter here.