A little while back Mark Ragnerus wrote a piece in the Washington Post that got a lot of response. The question is whether it’s good for society that we marry later and later. Ragnerus thinks not:

Third, the age at which a person marries never actually causes a divorce. Rather, a young age at marriage can be an indicator of an underlying immaturity and impatience with marital challenges — the kind that many of us eventually figure out how to avoid or to solve without parting. Unfortunately, well-educated people resist this, convinced that there actually is a recipe for guaranteed marital success that goes something like this: Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve. Presto: a marriage with math on its side.

Too bad real life isn’t like that. Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life. “Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth,” added Tennyson to his lines about springtime and love.

A lot of the debate over whether or not Ragnerus is right or wrong depends on how stridently you believe that he makes his case. A lot of the people making the most pointed criticisms say that he’s arguing that people need to just find the nearest partner and get married (no, he’s not). A lot of Ragnerus’s defenders are saying that he’s only making the point that people that are in loving, committed relationships should not put off marriage (no, he’s saying a lot more than that).

Ragnerus’s point, as I read it, is that society has decided that marriage is something that comes after we’ve had our years of self-discovery and have established ourselves independently and that this is not a positive social development. This nebulous concept of self-discovery doesn’t help and may hurt long-term marriage prospects when it takes up prime reproductive years and that it can make us less amenable to the bonding that marriage should entail because we have already so firmly established ourselves as individuals.

I am of a mixed mind as to whether or not Ragnerus is right. When I was living in the Mormon west, I got to see an American subculture that is as Ragnerus wants it to be. Marriage is utmost on the concerns of people years before it is in the urban and suburban south where I came from. Deseret’s rates of marriage success and failure is midling, which is impressive when you consider the frequency of marriage out there and the young age at which people get married… but it also makes the case that strong social institutions and young marriages are not enough to “save” marriage.

My main objection to Ragnerus is that even if he is right and that it would be better if we all married younger, such a cultural shift would be very hard to institute. Ragnerus himself notes that there is a stigma to younger marriage (Deseret being a conspicuous exception). An individual that decides to buck this trend needs to find another individual deciding the same. They’re going to be looking for things that their contemporaries are not. If you’re a 21 year old looking for marriage, unless you’re Mormon (or similarly religious) or in a sub-culture where college degrees are scarce, you’re going to scare people away with talk like that.

Beyond that, young people today simply aren’t equipped to find a life partner at that age. They often don’t have a clear idea of what to look for. Tell a 21-year old to start looking for a wife and he will probably use the same criteria he uses to find a girlfriend. That has the potential for a lot of problems.

On the other hand, if you tell them at 18 that they need to find someone by 23, you’re likely to get better results. They’re more likely to start appraising people more on their marry-worthiness rather than how hot, exciting, or fascinating they are. Then the trial and error of the college years may well produce people with a much better idea of what they want and don’t want when they get married. Right now, the college and post-college years are spent pursuing people that they want to be with either in a casual sexual relationship or a tentatively exclusive one. In the latter case, the sort of relationship where marriage might happen someday, but there’s no rush and it’s more about enjoying the here-and-now.

A lot of my thoughts on this (of course) go back to my own experiences. I almost got engaged at the age of 22 or so and that marriage would not likely have been a happy one. Further, my partnership with Julie was not founded on how hot or exciting she was. The criteria I used was the criteria everyone is told to use when looking for a spouse. She was pretty, but she was also warm (to me at any rate), loving, kind, loyal, likely to be a good mother for future children, and so on. Had I acted on those impulses, though, it would have been disastrous because she was lacking other things that I didn’t realize were important. It was when I was gearing up to engage that the sheer horror of our future together started to set in.

So the question I ask myself, when considering Ragnerus’s proposition, is whether or not in a society that pushes young marriages I would have gone forward. Two years in, things were wonderful for us and I might just have plunged ahead. If so, then I cannot possibly endorse Ragnerus’s ideas. But it’s also possible that had I been keeping an eye on marriage from the start, it’s possible that I would have noticed everything that was missing from our equation and moved on a lot more quickly, looking for my future Clancy or whoever else I might have ended up with. It was, after all, the notion of marrying her that dislodged her from my life. But those observations were made in a social atmosphere where becoming engaged at 22 or 23 was considered foolhardy despite over four years of couplehood.

I go back and forth.

One last thing to mention is that some people are saying that people shouldn’t get married until they are personally ready and that this should be considered a personal, not a cultural, issue. I disagree with this pretty strongly. First off, as I mentioned above, if you’re going against the grain you’re likely to have a lot more difficulty finding a partner. Second, as Ragnerus notes, peer pressure is a huge issue.

It’s a lot less to be in a committed relationship when none of your friends are. It was a real issue in my life during the Julie years. My friends were all talking about going out and finding someone and who they were interested in and all that and there I was at the table with little to contribute because I’d already found someone. That didn’t play any significant role in my leaving Julie, but it did contribute to the notion that I was missing out on someone much better out there and at least I was missing out on going out with the guys and doing single guy things. Now, as it turned out, I was missing out on someone better (Hi, Clancy!). But I am pretty sure I would have had those feelings even if I hadn’t been. But now, here I am nearly a decade later, and most of my friends are also married or cohabitating with someone that they are likely to marry. It would suck, suck, suck to be single now… at a time when our marriages (and such) are part of our common experience.


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8 Responses to The Wedding Bell Tolls For Thee

  1. Peter says:

    It’s worth noting that the average age at first marriage for men in the United States today is only a year or so higher than it was 100 years ago (the difference for women is a little greater), which given today’s longer life expectancy really translates into little or no difference. Looking at the trends over the decades gives the idea that very young marriage was a mid-20th Century abberation.

  2. ? says:

    While I am sympathetic to the argument for marriage-as-formative-experience, I believe Mark Ragnerus errs in looking at later marriage as an independent variable. It is rather the downstream effect of a host of other economic and social developments, each with their own rationalizations. So like you, I’m not at all confident that the trend will reverse.

    Which is too bad. My experience — being an early twenty-something, trying to find a marriage-minded young woman in my weight class (so to speak), and failing at it — would make me support such a project.

  3. Webmaster says:

    Being single, I’m willing to add that it is quite sucky to not have a girlfriend/wife to bring along and thus to generally be excluded whenever someone decides that an event – even one I was previously invited to – should turn into a “couples night.”

  4. Barry says:

    I don’t know, for all the research and evidence into the relative ages of the two people, education, social status, family support and all the other factors it seems to really boil down to how much the two love each other and how much they’re willing to sacrifice and compromise to make the marriage work.

    I think cases can be made for certain situations that grease the wheels somewhat, but – and maybe I’m just a romantic – I think if two people love each other enough, and for the right reasons, and continue to work on the marriage, then the “when they marry” and “how they marry” and “where they marry” and everything else will work itself out.

  5. Webmaster says:

    Barry,

    from what I’ve seen, the main determining factor for a marriage is the difference between people “believing it will all work out” and “knowing it will work out because I’ll work at it.”

    I know a couple who are both engineers. Sure, they have issues sometimes. They’re both sane and rational enough to work through the issues and discuss them rationally, though. That in itself makes for a marriage on a level I hope to achieve someday, if I can find a partner who’s similarly minded with myself.

  6. Sheila Tone says:

    Financial stress kills relationships. Younger people tend to be poorer.

    Although, Capella has mentioned a few times that couples *she* knew in high school and college who got married tended to be at least as happy, possibly more, as couples who got together later. Capella comes from an educated, upper-class background, probably more so than Will (whose environment averaged out to middle-class but was diverse).

    My theory is that people who are destined for comfort do fine if they pair up young. People in dead-end lives, same result. It’s the people who need to get somewhere who have to wait.

  7. Peter says:

    Based on couples I’ve known, perhaps a bigger age-related factor in determining marital success is the relative ages of the parties. If one spouse, usually the husband, is more than about five years older than the other, it’s my impression that the marriage faces greater challenges.

  8. trumwill says:

    Peter,
    That’s really interesting. I think the perception of marriage being really late by today’s standards is fueled by the fact that it’s very true of wealthier (and thus more conspicuous in media) people. I wonder if things weren’t a bit of the reverse back then. The wealthy married young because they could and the poor had a tougher time of it and married later.

    Phi,
    Yeah, it’s definitely not an independent variable. The most immediate problem with the notion that we should marry people off sooner is that we don’t equip younger people to make those kinds of decisions.

    Barry,
    I mostly agree, though I think it is the case that a lot of people are more prepared to do and be the things you describe when they’re a little bit older.

    Web,
    I hear you on the singled-out thing. On a brighter note, I often felt like a third wheel when I used to hang out with Rick because almost all of his friends were coupled off… and then one time be brought a single girl along and I married her :). Seriously, it’s a good idea for people organizing get-togethers to have more than one single person there (irrespective of gender).

    Sheila,
    That’s a good point about the three groups. A tangential thought: I think it used to be that getting married and having kids was good for a man’s ambitions because it motivated him to work harder. Maybe that’s still true in some quarters, but the need for a college degree pushes the ages where that’s applicable further back.

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