I Got Married Young, But Not Young Enough, Part 1

Mar 16, 2010 |Heather Koerner

Our culture gives us lots of reasons not to marry young. But are they good ones?  

I had just finished reading an article from the Wall Street Journal and its topic brought a sudden question to my mind.

"Hey, hon," I called from the couch.

"Mmm ..." came my husband's muffled reply. His head was buried in the refrigerator. He was feeling a little three-o-clockish, I think.

"Do you think we should have gotten married younger?"

"Absolutely," he called back, head still buried in the fridge.

"Really?" I was a little surprised by the quick confidence of his answer. In over a decade of marriage, I couldn't remember us ever discussing this before.

He took a break from his snack searching and turned around to where I was snuggled in with my laptop. "Well, of course," he repeated, "don't you?"

So began a 10-minute conversation discussing why we, a couple who were married at 22 and 24, thought we would have been wiser to get married at 21 and 23.

But Young Marriages Fail, Right?

Now, considering that we were already significantly younger than the current average age for first American marriages (around 26 for women and 28 for men), it might seem a bit strange that my husband and I decided we should have married even younger.

In his article "Did I Get Married Too Young?" (the one that got our conversation started that Sunday afternoon), David Lapp writes about bucking the national average as well.

Lapp, who was recently married at 22, points out that though marrying young was once considered the norm (our ages of 21 and 23 would have fit the 1970s averages exactly), it is decidedly out of fashion nowadays:

Some Penn State sociologists summarized the zeitgeist this way: "In industrial countries, young people age 18 to 25 are expected to explore their identity, work and love by delaying marriage and parenthood.... Those individuals who fail to postpone these family transitions miss out on better career opportunities, make poor choices on partners and may experience problems.
Social scientists frequently note that "early marriage" is the No. 1 predictor of divorce.

Yikes. If waiting to get married, as the Penn State sociologists conjecture, would have led my husband and me to better career opportunities and better mate choices, why would we think an even earlier marriage would have been beneficial? Are we just ... well ... stupid? Or looking back with rose-colored glasses?

Lapp argues that my husband and I are neither ignorant nor idealistic.

First, he writes, though teenage marriages are a significant predictor of divorce, once you hit 20 there is not nearly so much risk:

According to a 2002 report from the Centers for Disease Control, 48 percent of people who enter marriage when under 18, and 40 percent of 18- and 19-year olds, will eventually divorce. But only 29 percent of those who get married at age 20 to 24 will eventually divorce — very similar to the 24 percent of the 25-and-older cohort.

A recent University of Texas study found that those who wed between the ages of 22 and 25, and remained married to those spouses, went on to experience the happiest marriages.

Further, as Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, points out in his article "The Case for Early Marriage":

[T]he age at which a person marries never causes divorce. Rather, a young age-at-marriage is an indicator of an underlying proclivity for marital problems, the kind most Christian couples learn to avoid or solve without parting. Family scholars agree that there are several roots to the link between age-at-marriage and divorce.

Regnerus believes teen marriages are unwise (and I am inclined to agree), but encourages us to really examine why they fail so often and whether those reasons translate to early 20s marriages of believers. In most cases, he summarizes, the reasons don't translate and by incorporating community and counsel into our marriages, we can do more to ensure long-lasting marriages.

The Money Angle

But, then, "what about the money?" David Lapp asks. Shouldn't we wait until we are settled into our careers and financially ready to marry?

That depends. As I've written, "Stepping toward marriage is not about obtaining a certain number or checking off some financial list." Rather, it's about showing a certain amount of financial maturity — a willingness to communicate and sacrifice.

In fact, ask just about any couple who married young (including us) and they'll probably tell you that starting off life on ramen noodles and hand-me-down furniture actually benefited them.

Regnerus writes:

Marrying young can spell poverty, at least temporarily. Yet the mentality that we need to shield young adults from the usual struggles of life by encouraging them to delay marriage until they are financially secure usually rests on an unrealistic standard of living. Good marriages grow through struggles, including economic ones. My wife and I are still fiscal conservatives because of our early days of austerity.

As my husband Kevin put it that Sunday, by waiting to marry until our five-figure careers were starting, "we missed out on the chance to be poor together."

Lapp points to studies which show that "marriage itself appears to encourage thrifty behavior." Married couples save and build more wealth than otherwise-similar singles (not a big surprise because of the "economy of scale" — two can live together cheaper than separately). But (a little bit of a surprise to me), married couples also beat out otherwise-similar cohabitating couples, seeming to show that there is something about a lifelong commitment that affects our money behaviors as well.

Still, had my husband and I married a year earlier, there would have been financial implications. We would have had to address issues like insurance (no longer being able to ride our parents' policies), taxes and student financial aid. Though we weren't dependent upon our families to pay for our schooling, other young couples may be — and it will require some family discussions to determine who will be financially responsible for tuition, etc. if a young couple gets married.

Regnerus notes that many well-meaning parents (even those who married young themselves) "use their resources as a threat, implying that if their children marry before the age at which their parents socially approve, they are on their own. No more car insurance. No help with tuition. No more rent."

He believes that this "cultural predilection toward punishing rather than blessing marriage must go."

I think it's a balance. A young couple should, I think, take full responsibility for their finances. But I'm less and less convinced, looking at my own young daughter, for example, that help I would have otherwise offered her as a single young adult must, necessarily, be ended upon marriage.

Either way, though, a young couple can look at financial hurdles for what they are — the first in a long life of financial situations where they learn to work together, delay gratification and lean on God's Word.

Honestly, though, neither my husband nor I really knew (or probably would have even cared) about the sociologists' data or getting new insurance. We had met, dated and decided that we wanted to spend our lives together. But there were two problems — or, I should say, two perceived problems.

Part 2: I Got Married Young, But Not Young Enough »

Copyright 2010 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.

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