Three things must be clarified before I continue. First, I am not against marriage. I believe that marriage is one of the most beautiful things that exists in life, and it gives me great joy to see a working, loving marriage. My parents' and grandparents' marriages come to mind. I hope that one day I will find someone whom I love and who loves me, and that the bond we share will bring joy and strength to each of our lives through the institution of marriage. Second, while I believe marriage to be a good and wholesome thing, I worry that its value is being cheapened. Divorce rates are far, far too high. According to enrichment journal on the divorce rate in America: The divorce rate in America for first marriage is 41%, for second marriage is 60%, and for third marriage is 73%. As I have said before, this is a serious problem. With divorce rates so high (nearly one in two first marriages ends in divorce!), I have developed strong opinions and beliefs about marrying young. I will explain these in depth later in the post. Third, I do not claim to be an expert. I do not claim to have personal experience...I have not been married or engaged. I fully expect some (or many) to disagree with me, and I understand that mine is a relatively controversial stance on the subject. I am okay with that. Take what I say with a grain of salt if you feel that to be necessary. Only know that what I say, I believe.
Throughout this post, I will be augmenting my arguments with antecdotal evidence, personal experience, and data. I will be quoting people and citing statistics. Instead of wasting space with footnotes and whatnot, I will provide the links to where I borrowed text or statistics. I hope that this is sufficient.
The primary issue I want to tackle is marriage between young people. I will not define young for you; I trust you to understand what I am referring to.
A year or so ago, I was at a family gathering. At some point during the day, my uncle and I were both standing outside more or less by ourselves. At the time, I was involved in a serious relationship with a girl who I loved dearly, and still care about very much. He said to me "I don't know when you plan on getting married, or if you do. The only advice I have for you is this: of my friends who got married before they were 25 years old, all of them eventually got divorced. Of my friends who got married after 25, none of them have been divorced." That was all he said, but it was all he needed to say. I understood. Getting married young means getting married before you really know yourself. If I were to get married soon after graduation, many questions about my future would still be unsure: where do I plan on living, will my job fit my personality, will I succeed in the workplace, what are my passions? I believe that these are questions that need to be answered before making a lifelong commitment to another person. I'm not ready to make any lifelong commitments to myself yet, let alone another person. I don't think I am unique in this.
Now, some statistics. The divorce rate for those who marry at twenty-one or twenty-two is exactly double the divorce rate for those who marry at twenty-four or twenty-five. That is an absolutely jolting statistic. Below is a further breakdown of the age at marriage for Americans who eventually are part of a divorce.
Age at marriage for those who divorce in America
Age Women Men
Under 20 years old 27.6% 11.7%
20 to 24 years old 36.6% 38.8%
25 to 29 years old 16.4% 22.3%
30 to 34 years old 8.5% 11.6%
35 to 39 years old 5.1% 6.5%
If the above numbers are accurate, that means that nearly 2/3 of all divorced women are married by age 24, and more than half of men who divorce are married by that time. The later a couple is married, the higher the chances that they will not be divorced. This is an undisputable fact, and one that should not be considered lightly.
Now that we have established a baseline of statistics, I believe that it is important to see if "young people" are in fact getting married. To do this, I will consider my high school graduating class - 55 individuals. The class graduated with 53, but I am using 55 to account for students who left the school before graduation or did not graduate. Within 15 months after graduation, 3 girls were already married. In the 36 months since the class graduated, at last count 10 individuals were either married or engaged (and I haven't kept up with everyone in the class). 10 out of 55. 18.18% in roughly three years. And we are 21 years old, give or take. Imagine how many will be engaged or married in 36 more months, by the time we are all 24. Half? Two thirds? Which means, if the numbers hold true, that roughly one-quarter of my graduating class will eventually divorce. 15 out of 55.
Why, then, are young people choosing to marry so early? I have a pair of answers for this question; bear with me. Further, these answers will not apply to young people as a whole. Rather, it will apply to the groups I have examined earlier - Protestant Conservative Christian youth.
First, I believe it is part of the Christian culture - specifically, the Protestant Christian culture. As a general rule, children raised in Christian homes are taught from a young age that sex is bad. Some even take this to absurdly specific levels, such as insisting that dancing leads to sex, and therefore dancing is also bad. "You know what dancing leads to..." was always a punchline at my little conservative Christian high school. By trying to create a bubble around the children and refusing to expose them to the world, these children are raised to believe that sex is a bad thing. While the "sex is bad" mantra is overkill, I do not necessarily disagree with the sentiment; I too believe that sex should be reserved for marriage (though I certainly have nothing negative to say about those who have sex before/outside of marriage...it isn't a question of character). However, the message becomes one of "follow the rules" rather than "patience is a vurtue". As all red blooded Americans can attest, sex is desirable. More than 93 percent of adults 18 to 23 who are in romantic relationships are having sex, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. And for red blooded American Christian young people, sex is a desirable thing that is off limits. Off limits, except within a marriage. Naturally, Christian young people that want to have sex have only one option - get married. This leads to a strangely high percentage of Christians getting married at a young age.
Second, the Christian culture is pushing young people to get married early. This stands in direct opposition to the ongoing trend of American marriages as a societal whole. The average age for marriage in the United States has actually risen substantially over time. In 1970, the average age at marriage was 21.5 and 23.5 for women and men respectively. By 2000, it had risen to 26.0 and 27.8, a significant increase. Further, the number of marriages is going down. The federal government reported 7.1 marriages per 1,000 people in 2008, down from 10 per 1,000 in 1986. There are certainly many reasons for this: sex and cohabitation outside of marriage is less frowned on, young people are more concerned with financial stability at a young age than getting married early, and people are recognizing that they aren't mature enough to make a lifelong commitment at so young an age, among other reasons. However, the average age for marriage among American Christians is lower (this is generally accepted, however solid data is difficult to come by - see here and here for examples). The second of those links, this one, is an article in Christianity Today talking about why Christians should encourage young people to get married sooner. When Christian publications and leaders are actively encouraging young Christians to get married young (or as quickly as possible, depending on whom is speaking), the result is without question marriages between individuals who are not prepared for it and are rushing it. Getting married "in order to please God" is ridiculous; instead, please God through your marriage once he has given the go ahead.
I am not here to rain on anyone's parade. Many of my friends are engaged or married. I am excited for them and hope that they have a wonderful life together with their spouse (or future spouse). I hope that none of them experience divorce. Brett and Renee, I hope for the best for you. I wish you luck. Enjoy your lives together, and live them to the fullest.
However, as a single person who plans to eventually get married, I do think it would personally be foolish to ignore the facts and figures. I refuse to rush, I refuse to marry early. While these are not always the same, in many (most) cases they are. I made a promise to myself in the past that I would not be engaged before I graduated from college. Thankfully, it appears that I will have no problem reaching that goal.
The problems associated with marrying young are multi-faceted and deserve their own post, but I will run through some of them briefly here. At a young age, a marriage will not be financially stable. The lack of time for career development will prevent this (exception: parents who "take care" of the new couple financially). The participants may not have the same goals in mind for the future. And as a close friend of mine pointed out, the maturity levels of the two individuals may be markedly different, leading to frustrations and miscommunications on a regular basis. Finally, at a young age a person does not know himself completely. It takes time to "know thyself", time that marrying at 20 or 21 does not provide. This lack of time to develop character and establish personal independence might be the most significant problem. That time of personal development is essential to growing into a mature individual; bypassing it prevents or seriously delays the transformation into a mature adult. Certainly there are exceptions. Thing is, the problem with exceptions is their relative scarcity. I suppose the goal would be to turn the exceptions into the rule, but that will certainly be difficult.
If anyone has read this far and is looking for my opinion/recommendation, here it is. Feel free to ignore or use it at your own discretion. My "magic number" for being mature enough for marriage is 25 years old. This comes from my uncle, from the statistics and from my own experiences. I also understand that it is unreasonable to expect no one to marry before that age. So, then, here is the compromise. Your age combined with the number of years you have been in the relationship should add up to 25. 20 years old and been dating for a year? Adds up to 21, not enough. 22 years old and been dating for 2 years? Wait six months and you'll hit the 25 mark exactly. You get the idea. Once again, take it or leave it. I understand the fickle nature of "formulas". I do not claim that this one is superior to any other. Disagree at your own discretion. I only claim it to be my opinion, the summation of my experiences and understanding.
And so on...