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.