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Relationship Compartmentalization

Relationships add up. Multiple relationships on the way to a later-in-life marriage can’t help but affect that marriage.

It’s a dangerous myth that what you experience in one relationship has no bearing on what will happen in a subsequent relationship says Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk. In a recent article called “Don’t Wait for Marriage,” Epp explains that many singles believe in “relationship compartmentalization, where each relationship occurs in its own compartment without any effect on another.” He continues:

I like to refer to this attitude as “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Obviously, this cannot be true because what occurs in relationships, no matter how insignificant, carries some measure of influence on you, the way you think, and what you take into your next relationship. As scripture says in what is both an encouragement and a warning, “You reap what you sow.”

Adding to a chorus of voices encouraging earlier marriages, Epp says:

It seems intuitive that age would bring maturity, stability, and better decisions which would result in more lasting marriages. However, there are a number of risks that work against these later marriages and question the wisdom of this social trend to delay marriage into your 30s.

He then goes on to report on two studies that I don’t remember seeing mentioned on our blog before:

The starting point is a reconsideration of the claim that early marriages contribute to higher divorces. There was a study conducted in 2002 by Tim Heaton that did find high rates of marital instability associated with young marriages, but the risks were with teen marriages. The impact that age had on predicting marriage outcomes leveled off around age 21 with age making little difference for those who marry between 21 and 30.

Furthermore, there may actually be increased risks associated with delaying marriage to the end of your 20s or into your 30s. In another study conducted in 2004 by the University of Illinois, Evelyn Lehrer suggested that the risk of divorce decreased with each year from the teens to the early twenties, but then the risk reversed and began to increase with each year after the mid-twenties, offsetting the benefits of age and maturity with the accumulation of harmful dating and sexual experiences.

Here’s where the myth of romantic compartmentalization comes into play:

[B]oth Heaton and Lehrer found that waiting to get married often leads to more premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and premarital births, which are all associated with higher rates of marital instability. In addition, there becomes a smaller selection pool as you reach your early 30s (e.g., by age 30, 75 percent of the population are married). At that point, the chances of achieving a quality relationship lower because of the difficulty with finding a suitable partner.

I need to repeat that this latest post referring to earlier marriage is not targeting people who no longer have that opportunity. Nor is it offered up with the intention of applying undue pressure. It is for readers who seek to honor God with the timing of their marriages but continue to hear from parents, teachers, pastors and friends that the best marriages are in fact those that are later rather than sooner. The dangers of relationship compartmentalization add to reasons to believe the reverse.

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About the Author

Steve Watters

Steve Watters is the vice president of communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is also a student. Steve and his wife, Candice, were the founders of Boundless, and Steve served as the director of young adults at Focus on the Family for several years before leaving for seminary.


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