Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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June 1st, 2010

Is Getting Married Later in Life a Problem?

Some social scientists argue that it is



Today, the median age of marriage is 26 for women and 28 for men. Is that too old?

An increasingly vocal group of social commentators are concerned that by delaying marriage until our mid-to-late-20s or early 30s, we’re encouraging behaviors like premarital sex and cohabitation that are undermining the success of our unions. In a provocative piece in the September issue of U.S. Catholic, John Van Epp, PhD, president of LoveThinks, LLC, and author of How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk, argues that young adults should stop delaying — and start searching for a spouse sooner rather than later.

In principle, I agree. Being proactive about the search for a spouse is a good thing. I’m thrilled to celebrate the marriages of those who find their true love in college. And yes, there is something to be said for “growing up together” and sharing many of those formative memories from your early 20s. Cohabitation and premarital sex aren’t great for stable unions. But I still take issue with Dr. Van Epp’s argument that we as a society need to encourage early marriage. And I think you might have some strong opinions, too.

Check out both pieces (mine below and Dr. Van Epp’s here) and then fill out the questionnaire below his piece on U.S. Catholic. I’ll share your responses in a future column.

Dr. Van Epp says later marriage is a problem — and wants us to get married younger. Here’s why I disagree:

  1. More Americans are going to college and graduate school than ever before — and that’s a good thing — but education also delays marriage by a few years.Research shows that college graduates are more likely to marry — and more likely to have stable unions — than less educated Americans. According to economist Betsey Stevenson, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, college educated women are less likely to divorce and more likely to describe their marriage as “happy,” regardless of their income.Said Prof. Stevenson in an interview in Newsweek, this is in no small part because college graduates tend to get married a bit later: “When a man with only a high school degree marries by age 20, there’s a 49 percent chance that he will be divorced within 10 years,” she said. “Compare that with the man who gets married in his mid-30s who has a college degree. Ninety percent will still be married 10 years later.”
  2. Want more proof that getting married older and wiser is good? There’s plenty out there!According to economist Evelyn Lehrer from the University of Illinois at Chicago, as age at marriage rises, the probability of divorce falls. Straight through the 20s, every year seems to make a small difference in preventing eventual divorce — and beyond the late 20s, the curve flattens out — but doesn’t change direction. So getting married in your late 20s or early 30s (or beyond) does NOT increase your odds of divorce.
  3. And let’s get personal for a second: Statistics aside, what if you don’t find your true love in college? Most of us don’t meet our true loves in college. So when Dr. Van Epp holds this out as an ideal — in part because he and his wife met in college and married after their junior year — it makes the rest of us feel even more “behind” in the love department than we already do. And the last thing we need is more pressure to make as important a decision as marriage (Indeed, what we need is more thoughtful discernment.)
  4. You can still be dating purposefully — with an eye toward marriage — and not get married until your late 20s or 30s. I was a student of the changing dating and marriage patterns in the United States, so I assure you, I was dating purposefully starting at age 22. I dated wonderful guys as I got my master’s and Ph.D but none of them were quite right. I did online dating and wrote endless columns about my adventures as a single girl in New York City (as many of you remember). But it wasn’t until I was 27 that I met the tall, handsome, smart, funny guy that thought I was the greatest, too. We dated for a year. We were engaged for a year. And just a few weeks shy of my 30th birthday, we married.Would Dr. Van Epp pity me?
  5. Yes, it’s great to “grow up” with your spouse in your 20s, but that can just as easily be a recipe for growing apart. People change a lot in their early 20s: If you marry young you’re taking a gamble that you can actually change together — rather than grow apart.My husband and I joke that we would have hated each other in college. And, really, it’s not a joke. He was a party guy who burned the candle at both ends, went to concerts and lived on the wild side. I was the nerdy editor of the college newspaper. Yet, somehow, after we’d both grown up a bit (he mellowed, and I like to think I got a little cooler) we were a perfect match.

    Most of that change came from maturity and socialization, of course, but new research also suggests that our brains don’t stop their maturing and growth until our mid 20s, too.

    And just because you don’t get married until 30 doesn’t mean that all the growing and changing is complete: My husband changed careers — with my encouragement — and I’ve lived in beautiful parts of the country that I’d have never given a second look.

    Who knows what would have happened if we’d married folks that suited our personalities at 22. I’m happy we didn’t.

  6. And finally, a quick history lesson: The median age of marriage hasn’t spiked up as much as we think. Pop quiz: What do you think it was in 1890?When I ask undergraduates this question, the consensus is that women probably married around 18 and men married around 21 back then.

    Sound about right to you, too?

    In fact, the median age of marriage in 1890 was 22 for women and 26 for men.

    Conventional wisdom is that getting married in our mid 20s is a new trend. But the fact is that in 1890 — and in the decades before — men delayed marriage until they had enough financial security to start a family, and some women pursued college or teaching programs prior to marriage.

    Our historical confusion stems from the anomaly of the 1950s: The post-War American culture encouraged young couples to get started early on family life , and provided plenty of government subsidies to facilitate the white-picket-fence suburban dream.

    Most charts that plot changes in the median age of marriage skew our understanding of the trends because they begin in the 1950s or 1960 — when the median age of marriage was 20 for women and 22 for men. Check out the chart at right from the U.S. Census for a clearer picture.

So what do you think? Is there an “ideal” age to get married? Are we getting married too late? Voice your opinion on U.S. Catholic and your responses will be published in their September issue — and I’ll write another column sharing your opinions on Busted Halo.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Simon Wilby smartmouth

    One adjective that defines Simon Wilby is smart. He is the CEO of Smart Power, Inc. He developed

  • John Purviss

    I was 38 when my wife and I married. She has been married before, but not I. I had just retired from the military, went to visit my parents, and met Bethany. I didn’t want to marry while still serving, due to frequent moves, and, after 9/11, repeated deployments to warzones. We are the same age, even born the same month, and it’s absolutely fantastic. She has 2 kids from first marriage, but they accepted me immediatgely. In fact, my stepdaughter told my wife if she let me get away, she’d disown her. Having a retirement income as well as a good job diminishes most of the stress due to finances, which really makes a difference. My parents introduced us at church, so acceptance by family is not an issue, either. Her past is her business, but she has been open about it, as have I about mine. We have decided on maybe 2 more kids, no more. Neither of us have health issues, so our marriage, and life, is different from many newly married couples, but I do think if I had met my wife earlier, I wouldn’t have waited so long to marry.

  • Emily

    The fact that people are getting married late in life *should* be a concern. Why?

    1) Premarital sex – along with this comes STDs, unplanned pregnancy which therefor comes children raised without fathers actively in their lives, and the desensitization of sex with your future wife/husband.
    2) Cohabitation – “Playing house” was something women did when they were girls, well this is a man’s chance to do the same without the commitment. Often times, women who are cohabiting with their boyfriends find themselves “waiting” for that engagement ring. Why should he have to propose, since he has everything he needs?
    3) The parental stage of a human’s life opens up a new world of giving and sacrifices. If we are too set in our ways late in life, parenting is not the same. Also, some of the most CRUCIAL times of a parent are not only during the development stage, but the stage where the children are just settling into their own marriages and having children of their own. If you prolong marriage AND children, will grandparents even be alive to advise?
    4) We focus a lot on finding the “right one.” Where in the bible does it say that? No matter the age in which one gets married: YOU MAKE IT WORK!! Until EVERY stone is turned over do you divorce. ESPECIALLY if there are children involved.

  • Kim

    I became engaged at age 24. Although I was ready to get married, my fiance broke off the engagement because he was not ready. I did not meet my husband until I was 27 and we married when I was 29. I wish I had gotten married earlier, but am glad I did not marry my ex-fiance. My husband and I were older when we married, but that is because we trusted in God’s timing. We were both dating with the intention of marriage and according to Church teaching, but God did not bring us into each others lives until we were older.

  • James

    Statistics don’t get married; people do. One very sad thing is for a person to meet “the one” in his or her teens, and to scuttle the relationship because of what media and folk tales claim that “statistics say” or that “studies have shown”. Even more heartbreaking than that is for two people in middle age to realize that they’d made that mistake as teenagers.

    People I know who have been successfully married since their teens tell me that the biggest problem they had in the beginning was people wagging their index finger at them, and telling them they shouldn’t have married so young, because of the statistical probability of divorce. And of course, these couples are now past their 30th anniversary.

    And what of younger people who like marriage and don’t want anything to do with the youth culture? Shouldn’t they marry?

    One big reason why divorce is more common among couples who marry young is that American families are not nosy or meddlesome enough to give young married couples guidance in their attitudes and behavior. I know many couples from other cultures who entered arranged marriages very young, and are happy, but both sets of parents, aunts and uncles took an active role in making sure the marriages succeeded. You’d see the divorce rate drop if families returned to guiding young married couples behaviorally, psychologically and morally, as they still did early in the last century.

  • Kyra

    PPS- And I just noticed something embarrassing…neither I nor many of the other posters mentioned GOD. We talked about “being ready” and “right person vs. wrong person” and “marriage never would have worked” but… isn’t marriage itself impossible, which is exactly why we need GOD in the marriage? And it’s not about finding the ONE right person but about two people growing together. We talked about being too immature for marriage but please, it’s not like at 25-35 we magically have answers we didn’t have at 20. Isn’t the bottom line not about what WE know and how WE make marriage work but about how GOD works through us?

  • Kyra

    As a nearly thirty year old single mom, my opinion on marital age has changed quite a bit since college so I thought I’d comment…I really used to think that only small-town “uneducated” people married at a very young age (i.e. prior to a college grad age such as 22-23). When in college I recall learning of several friends’ plans to marry and I just thought…”crazy. That’s way too young! You have to live life in the real world on your own first before you combine your life with someone else’s.”…

    Today I feel I would agree that society would be better if high school and college age persons dated with marriage on the horizon. Some of this comes from personal realization that the vast majority of my married friends met their spouses in high school/college. So (apparently)that is the best time to be preparing and looking. And if you find that person, to me there is no real legitimate reason to date 5-7 years before marrying. I’ve also increasingly come into contact with more and more couples who married during college or after. These couples married, had children, worked, went on military deployments, finished ph.d’s and law school etc…..simultaneously. So I no longer believe in the notion that education and marriage/family cannot be concurrent goals.

    When I also take an honest look at the friends who are either unmarried like myself or delayed marriage the truth is that the vast majority (okay, all) have had sex. Many have lived with more than one partner and then broken up in a series of “mini-marriages” that are as emotionally wearing as the real thing. At least a third of my friends who are currently married never even seriously discussed marriage until they became accidentally pregnant. aka, “the shotgun wedding.” These situations are so prevalent in our generation it’s worth asking ourselves, is this how we want to start the best years of our adult lives?
    I dont know, maybe I just have crazy friends? :) But I guess my main point is once people reach the age of adulthood (i.e. 18-25) there are plenty of good reasons to marry (companionship, sex, peak fertility, psychological and spirtual advancement, etc.) and no good reason to wait.
    Marrying young before you’ve established a degree, career or financial security is indeed hard. But.. marriage is hard, period. Parenting is hard. Life is hard. There are many single moms like myself who work, earn degrees and parent all at the same time. If we can do it on one salary with one pair of hands, there’s no reason why any young, committed married couple couldn’t do the same.

    PS- Though it’s beating a dead horse I think the little issue of premarital sex is one that we need to continue to highlight. Basically as Catholics we’re saying anyone who wants to delay marriage to late twenties/early thirties (by choice, not circumstance) needs to put their hormones on hold for a decade or more. Often while in an intimate relationship w/the person they’ll eventually marry. I’m sorry but that just sounds insane to me. Not impossible, but certainly not preferable.

  • Nick

    Incidentally, as someone who interviews approximately 500 to 600 women per year on relationship issues and about half as many men. The problem may be that many enter marriage understanding that it’s not a lifetime commitment.

  • Nick

    Correction. After age 35 it’s been reported that up to 85% to 90% of women will remain unmarried. So reporting that 90% will remain married is not that impressive.

    Unfortunately, this study doesn’t take into account that the percentage of women who remain unmarried beyond 35 is reported to be as low as 85% to 90%. So… of course the divorce rate is lower, because by age 35, only 10% are getting married. Reporting numbers accurately is a responsibility that should be taken seriously. Numbers should never be bent to make a persons argument. Anyone remember the book “Lying With Statistics”?

  • Nick

    Unfortunately, this study doesn’t take into account that the percentage of women who remain unmarried beyond 35 is reported to be as low as 10% to 15%. So… of course the divorce rate is lower, because by age 35, only 10% are getting married. Reporting numbers accurately is a responsibility that should be taken seriously. Numbers should never be bent to make a persons argument. Anyone remember the book “Lying With Statistics”?

  • Alice

    Intending to take the survey, I read the entire article on US Catholic and must admit that the article makes me uncomfortable? annoyed? I’m not quite sure what word I want to use. Did anyone else who read it feel as though it makes the underlying assumption that everyone should be married and if you’re not, there’s something a bit off? Also, it seemed to be operating on the assumption that if you are single, you’re just dating around and sleeping with a bunch of people. Maybe I’m a bit sensitive because I’m in my late 30’s and still single, but I found the tone of the article borderline offensive.

    @Megan – Thanks for the info on the survey! I definitely gave them my 2 cents worth.

  • Megan

    @Christina and Jerrilyn (and others) – I’m single too, and it was hard to read this article when we got it in at U.S. Catholic (I’m an editor there). I just want to encourage you all to take the survey because we want to include your perspectives.

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