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.
  • Jerrilyn

    @Christina – Amen to that, sister!

  • Francine Pirola

    Christina – thanks for your thoughts but I think you have missed the point of John Van Epp’s article. It’s not about just marrying anyone to meet a self-imposed deadline – it’s about recognising that getting married is often a ten year project (you’re a case in point) – so don’t waste time in random or dead end relationships. It’s also about what couples do when they do find a suitable match – too many delay marriage yet will live together for 5+ years – a choice that is shown to increase the likely hood of later divorce. Their reasons range from not being able to afford it (they usually mean that they can’t afford the oppulent wedding), they aren’t ready to start a family (but usually they are having sex anyway), or that they aren’t mature enough to be married (yet they obviously believe they are mature enough to live a ‘pseudo’ married lifestyle). In a hyper-sexualised culture we also have to be realistic about people’s capacity to live a chaste lifestyle when the likely age of marriage is could be ten or more years away. Romantic relationships are inherently dynamic – they are either moving forwards towards deeper intimacy or backwards. For chaste couples, the decision point of whether they will or will not marry typically surfaces within two years of dating because the tension mounts between their commitment to chastity and their sexual attraction. For dating couples who are sexually active the ‘marriage decision point’ is typically delayed until the woman’s ‘biological clock’ screams for attention – usually in her late twenties or early thirties. This discussion is not about making singles feel despondent about their situation – it’s about challenging the culture and correcting the myths that lead people to make poor choices regardin their romantic lives.

  • Christina

    I am 40 and have never been married. This article being negative towards those of us who didn’t marry by age 23 doesn’t help us at all!!

  • Karen

    Long story short in answer to the question the article poses- get married when you meet the right person and the timing is right for you. If that’s at 21, then good for you! And if that’s at 35, then “sorry it took so long” but good for you! I often feel the “why aren’t you married yet?” pressure, but have made my peace with it by seeing the rest of the marriages in my family: those that rushed in who are not entirely happy, and those who took the time to find the right person and whose marriages are significantly stronger. I look at them, and I know which one I want.

  • Lynn

    At 23, Its seems that some days my facebook news feed shows nothing other than engagement announcements, wedding phhotos, and sonograms. However, one distressing pattern I have noticed with many of my friends who are getting married right out of college is that they are sacrificing their careers by either moving with their spouse to accomodate his/her grad school or work, or they become pregnant and are forced to decide between staying at home to raise a child and their newly budding career. Understand that I think choosing to move for one’s spouse and devoting as much time as possible to one’s children are very important and beautiful decisions that contribute greatly to the love and health of a family. But it makes me wonder, what happens to those dreams from college? What happens to all of the time, money and work invested in one’s chosen field? Perhaps waiting to marry and have children later in life could give those dreams a chance to flourish as well and in tandem with the dream of a happy family? I am in grad school now and there is so much I want to accomplish before I take on the responsibility of a family. But some of my friends tell me that may change once I meet Mr. Right. I dont have an answer, what are your thoughts?

  • Janet

    What a great topic! I was 35 when I got married, my husband just turned 34, and he was well worth the wait!

    I was also in a couple of long term relationships in my 20’s, and we just weren’t on the same page with our lives, and I just didn’t want to “settle” on marrying anybody, just for the sake of getting married.

    I feel like Ginny, and rambled on quite a bit, and I hope this also makes sense.

    My life is definitly better off with my husband, we both have delt with major life situations in our marriage, death of a sibling, cancer, 2 major surgeries and unemployment, and we’ve both have become stronger because of it. I think it had to do alot with waiting until my 30’s to get married. If I married any of the boy-friends from my 20’s I don’t think the marriage would have survived.

    Some couples may be ready for marriage in their early 20’s.

  • katherine

    My husband and I are delighted that our son, Peter, met Christine at the age they did. Not too young, not too old—mature enough and ready for marriage. We’d always hoped Peter would find someone like Christine—and she fits right into our family.

  • Ginny

    What a fascinating topic. I echo those who said that they needed to grow up before they could discern the kind of person who would make them happiest in the long run. I got married at age 29; my husband was in his thirties. If I’d married the kind of guy I was attracted to at age 22, I’d be miserable right now.

    That said, I do think there is one point that hasn’t come up (perhaps it does in the Van Epp article, which I haven’t read yet). Marrying later in life can, at times, make it harder to have a family. This has been true in my own experience, as well as in the experiences of my friends. I do think that as women we get lulled into the feeling that we are totally in control of our fertility, and heck, celebrities are having kids at age 45, so why can’t we? But the reality is often different.

    Yuck, I hate even bringing up the topic, because it’s awful to be a woman looking for love and to feel the pressure of the biological clock on top of everything. But it is one thing that younger couples usually don’t have to worry about to the same extent as we older ones.

    Still, I really believe that the fertility issue is a bad reason to rush into an early marriage. It’s way better to marry the right guy (or gal) and have trouble conceiving than to marry the wrong person just to have kids. God knows being parents is extremely stressful in and of itself; you need a strong marriage to make it through the toddler years without snapping (not to mention the teenage years.)

    Maybe it comes down to this: Marrying someone just to have kids = Bad idea. Putting off marriage for decades until you have arrived at some magical point in your career = Bad idea. Working on yourself and figuring out what makes a good mate and being open to that person whenever you find him/her = Good idea.

    Hope this all makes sense. Sorry for the rambling.

  • Monique

    My husband and I married just over 3 years ago–I am now 43 and my husband is 31. We were friends for a year, dated for a year, then engaged for a year. I personally don’t think either of us were mature enough or had the sense of selflessness that one needs to maintain a lifelong marriage prior to meeting each other. I’m glad I waited so long and didn’t bow to pressure put upon me by family members; and now I can’t imagine my life without my husband!

  • Joel Gonzaga

    This is so refreshing. I really like point number 3. I’m very, very, tired of pastor confidently (and often self-righteously) extolling the virtues of young marriage and waiting based on their wonderful marriage at 20. I tend to feel marginalized by such things. Also, the statistics are rather eye-opening. Have I mentioned that I don’t like the Baby-boomers?

  • Monica


  • Monica

    Thanks for the advice! Christie, I just got out of a long-term relationship to someone who does want to marry me, but my family doesn’t approve (well, most of my family). Have you written anything about this? Either way, I don’t think I’m mentally/emotionally ready to marry. But I’d still love to hear what you have to say about the issue.

  • Matt

    I think Monica should be _looking_ but not _hunting_, if you get the distinction. If you’re with somebody, ask “could I be happy married to this person?”. If the answer is “yes”, then maybe move in that direction. If it’s “no”, then maybe it’s time to move on.

    Of course, it’s perfectly normal for the answer to be “I don’t know yet”. That’s what dating is for. :)

    So yeah. Look. Ask the question. Be thinking about it. But don’t stress over how long it takes. God works in His own time, and sometimes seems frustratingly unaware of the concerns of we mere mortals. But of course, it’s we who forget constantly that life is short and eternity isn’t.

    Looking for a spouse isn’t about stressing about why your ship hasn’t come in yet. It’s about being sure you keep an eye on the pier so you’ll see it when it does. :)

  • Mary Ann

    My husband and I married at 22/23, shortly after graduating college. We have been married for more than 27 years, and are still each other’s best friends. On the other hand, I have many friends who have been married and divorced in that same time. My take on the difference: who and where does the will of God rank in the priorities of each couple?

    When we each seek God’s will every day of our lives, and choose a partner who does the same, God reveals the right person and time. We also live lives faithful and chaste. Conversely, when we seek our own will above all else, or measure ourselves in relationship against the current trend, or when our friends are getting married and having babies, we lose sight of the greatest good.
    We are called first and foremost to fidelity to our Lord. Every marriage, entered at any age, can and will succeed if we seek God’s will over our own.

  • Melissa

    It seems the longer folks wait the more stuck in thier ways they get, it makes it harder for people to be able to relate to each other. It also makes them less likely to see the value in compromise. Short and sweet answer, the older people get the more selfish people get.
    I was married at 20. I am 31 now and We are still going strong!

  • Christy

    To Monica:

    Don’t even begin to feel like you should be looking for a spouse if you feel you’re not ready for that step. I, like you, never planned to get married. I pretty much never planned out my life in any way.

    I discovered at the end of a 2-year relationship, that yes, I did want to get married. He did not. I never really realized this until after we split. So when I dated guys afterward, I took them more seriously. And now, 4 years after the break-up. I am happily married to a wonderful guy. We dated for about 9 months, engaged for 8 months. Then married now for 11 months.

    Joe is absolutely correct. I changed immensely during my 20s. If I had met my future spouse when I was 22 or even 25, I wouldn’t have given him a second look. Knowing myself as I do now, and being happier & more assured of myself, I knew right away that he was the one for me. Only time to get to know myself could have brought me into a marriage as fulfilling as this.

    Also, marriage is a ridiculously important decision. We need to be mature enough to realize the commitment level it takes to enter into marriage. If I married my husband 6 years ago, we’d probably be divorced long ago.

  • Monica

    Phew! Thank goodness. My birthday is tomorrow (turning 25) and my grandmother is already counting the days. I don’t know where that fine line is between people telling you that you have your whole life ahead of you to the day where people start suspiciously asking why you’re not dating anyone seriously and when you’re planning to get married. Eek.

    I never was one to plan out my life in that way, but not with these subtle pressures, I’m feeling like I should be at least thinking about it – and maybe even seriously looking.

    How can we figure out what is right for us without feeling like we “should” be at a certain place in our life?

  • Joe

    All my friends and family who married early (or mid) in their twenties did it way too soon and most of those marriages ended in divorce. Young adults need to experience their 20s and grow, realizing who they are and what kind of person they want to be with, before rushing into marriage so young – and looking up from their breakfasts one morning one, or two, or three years later and wondering why they got hitched so early before they were ready to truly commit.

    A lot of things change between your 20th and 30th birthdays and you are a completely different person in so many ways, especially love and commitment related ways. A lot of things change in a person and their personality between graduating college and even one year later.

    My best advice: late twenties / early thirties is the right age (approximately.)

    Though I do agree with the above, some know earlier than others.

  • Kim

    I would have loved to have met the right person at age 12 and “grown up” together. I always gravitated towards long relationships that would eventually end in marriage. I learned so much from the relationships that I had at age 12 (1 year), age 15 (5 years), age 20 (6 months), and age 21 (2 years, on and off). I did “grow up” and during the same years, so did my eventual marriage partner, who I met online and married 1.5 years later. When we married in 2003, I was 26 and he was 23 (he had just graduated from college, had a good job, and was ready to support a family).

    I have no doubt God planned our eventual meeting and marriage, and I can say with certainty that our previous relationships readied us for each other. We have been happily married for seven years and, in hindsight, I can now be thankful to God for all of my relationship heartaches and struggles that brought me to him.

  • Matt

    My wife and I were married at 33. I’d have been thrilled to marry her at 23, when we met…she didn’t yet agree. Indeed, if things had gone as I wished they had (we had friends in common as early as 14, and I’m a little peeved, given this, that it took another 9 years to meet) we might both have avoided a lot of heartache. Not to mention we’d have gotten to know the relatives in each other’s families who ended up dying in the intervening years.

    But I think what’s important is marrying the right person. Some of us know who that is earlier than others do.

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