National Marriage Project

National Marriage Project

The Benefits and Costs of Young Marriage

divorce, happiness, MARRI, marriage, National Marriage Project, young adults, youth 1 comment

By Pat Fagan, MARRI Senior Fellow
     Joshua Kelsey, MARRI Intern

There is an interesting debate going on between Ashley Maguire and Susan Patton on whether or not to marry young.

Patton argues that colleges harbor a great number of smart men, one only grows older after college, and it is generally a virtue for women to marry young.  McGuire disagrees with Patton and uses data collected by The National Marriage Project’s “Knot Yet” Report to prove her point that women should wait until their late 20s and early 30s to get married, because the lower the age at marriage, the higher the risk of divorce.

The research does indeed show that women who get married before the age of 20 face a proposed divorce rate of 52 percent.  It drops to 34 percent for women who get married between the ages of 20-23, and even lower to 14 percent for women ages 24-26.  Women who get married between the ages of 27-29 have a 20 percent chance of divorce and women who are 30 years or older only have an 8 percent chance of divorce.  Just looking at these percentages, one would agree that women should wait until they are approaching 30 to find a life partner.

However when one looks at the level of happiness within marriage another dimension comes forth:  

The risk of divorce and the risk of unhappiness may not follow the same trajectory, according to the Knot Yet Report.  Of women who marry before the age of 20, only 31 percent say they are very happily married.  Forty-six percent of women married between the ages of 20-23 report that they are very happily married, and 49 percent of women married between the ages of 27-29 report the same.  Forty-two percent of women who marry at 30 or older report being very happily married.  But, remarkably, a significantly higher 66 percent of women who marry between the ages of 24-26 report that they are very happily married.  No other age group even breaks 50 percent in the very happily married category.

So how are we to make sense of this data?

Looking at the divorce risk alone gives us the benefit of objective concrete reality.  Happiness on the other hand is a subjective and fluid measure.

The benefit of younger marriage is that the couple can mold their characters together rather than individually, while they are still young and flexible.  If they work at it, their virtues develop alongside each other and they learn to be more harmonious as they face the formative twenties with each other.

Many questions are left unasked in the Knot Yet report:

How chaste are they (a virtue with a big impact on marital stability); what are their intentions on children (are they family focused or self-focused as they go into marriage)?  What is their education attainment and GPA?  Hard work is a good indication of responsibility and dedication — qualities needed for a successful marriage.  

Developing norms for marriage in our new mobile age is a much needed discourse and both McGuire and Patton contribute to the discussion.  The data give us clues to behavior and behavior gives us clues to habits and virtue, but the data is still a fair distance removed from this last point: character.   When a young man of great character marries a young woman of great character and they are both working on developing the necessary virtues (good habits) to make the other happy and to make family life better, then the chance of divorce is rather remote.  Add in frequent prayer and worship (not addressed by the Knot Yet report) and divorce almost disappears.  Add virginity at marriage and you have a totally different ball game.  Add natural family planning rather than contraception and the game shifts even more.   When were these the norms?  What was marital stability like then?  For those who choose to build a strong future (as opposed to pining for a distant past) the norms are the same.

Those who marry young will indeed face many hardships as the pieces of their lives continue to come together during their twenties, so the divorce risk makes sense. However, our goal is to encourage intact and happy-healthy marriage in our nation. Perhaps the answer is therefore to encourage young marriage…if four things are present:

1) Both man and woman are educated.  Research shows the lower divorce risk for couples who have gone through the stabilizing and enriching experience of higher education (college degree).
2) Both man and woman have the virtue of chastity.  Couples who are concerned with chastity—before and during marriage—tend to be dedicated to relational health, intactness, and service.
3) Both are people of regular prayer and worship.
4) The couple talks through, and agrees on, the functions of the five big tasks (institutions)—family, church, school, marketplace, and government.  Marriage and parenting will be intertwined with these institutions, and conflict regarding them can quickly destabilize a marriage.
5) The man and woman come from healthy families.   Such couples have working models for dealing with hardship and living for a greater good than self.  If they don’t have such backgrounds, they must discuss the potential baggage and bad habits (of thought or feeling) that may encumber them.

If these five factors are in place, I suggest a couple should by all means marry young.  Life is full of adversity—it is simply about which adversities to take on.  The “adversity” of starting young is a natural good.  If you have all these things going for you, then “Go for it”.  Guys: she may be gone with someone else if you wait.  Ladies: the same for you too.  If a businessman comes across a really great deal does he wait? The great deal here is character.  Does he have it? Does she?