The formula for a happy marriage, sort of…

The Australian demographer, Bernard Salt, has calculated that of the 1.343 million women aged 25 – 34, only 86,000 single, largely heterosexual, well-off, young men were available after excluding those who were already married (485,000), in a de facto relationship (185,000), were gay (7,000), a single parent (12,000) or earning less than $60,000 per annum (568,000).

At the same time, many social scientists have observed that most young adults wish to marry, ‘but not just yet.’ This attitude is reflected in demographic trends. The median age of marriage has increased significantly over the past few decades.

A number of reasons have been suggested for the delay, including the fact that education now takes longer for many young adults and the higher costs of establishing a home, as well as the desire to be socially, economically and emotionally ready for a lifelong commitment.  Family scholars also point to the fear of divorce, and the knowledge that marrying at a young age is associated with higher levels of marital breakdown.

Marrying young predicts both divorce and marital problems. Analysis by Professor Paul Amato and colleagues of a sample of national US data revealed that there was increased divorce proneness where the couple wed as teens.

The sociologists also found that divorce proneness reduced as the age of marriage increased. This factor has spawned a belief that couples who marry at an older age are more mature and therefore more likely to succeed at marriage.

However, recent research by Professor Mark Regernus and others suggests there is a significant difference between marrying as a teenager versus marrying in the early twenties.

The studies raise doubts whether the benefits of delaying marriage extend beyond the mid to late twenties. Research by the sociologist, Professor Norval Glenn, found, that all things being equal, marriages consummated between the ages of 22 and 25 show the greatest promise of reporting the highest quality and remaining intact while unions entered into as later ages “fare very well in terms of survival but rather poorly in quality.” The scholars conclude, “little or nothing in the way of marital success is likely to be gained by deliberately delaying marriage beyond the mid-twenties.”

Another national survey of marriage revealed that couples who married between ages 20 and 27 fared better on the Marital Success Index than couples who married at younger or older ages.

This is not to say that marrying late causes lower marital success. As Norval Glenn points out, late marriers could tend to have characteristics that cause them both to marry late and to have relatively poor marriages when they do marry. Such characteristics might include unrealistically high standards for a spouse and poor social skills:

If marrying late does tend to cause poor marital outcomes, it might be the relatively old age itself that has the effect or it might be marrying later than most other people near one’s age. Living alone for many years may tend to make persons “set in their ways” and thus impede their adjustment to marriage, or having a succession of low-commitment relationships, with or without cohabitation, may make it harder for persons to commit to marriage. Marrying later than most of one’s age mates gives a person a more limited selection of potential spouses to chose from and may lessen the chances of a good marital match.

Delayed marriage can have other consequences for couples wishing to have children, including decreasing fertility, increased low birth weights and preterm delivery.

The marriage educator, Tony Kerin, observes that inertia is often a factor in delayed marriage: “It is far easier to remain in an unsatisfactory relationship than to go to the trouble of changing one’s lifestyle or living arrangements. Where a couple live together this is most pronounced. When faced with insurmountable differences, the sheer dread of having to make alternative living arrangements, move furniture, seek new accommodation and reorganise one’s life often sees couples persist in the misery as the lesser of two difficulties.”

Noting that a long courtship by couples who meet in their teens is different to a long courtship by couples meeting in their mid to late twenties, Kerin writes that their failure to move toward marriage may be “a reasoned decision based on their lack of preparedness to commit.” In such cases, he counsels the need to differentiate between loyalty and commitment, and encourages marriage educators to help couples, where appropriate, with the painful process of ‘breaking up’.

This is not to suggest that everyone should marry in their mid-twenties, before they are ready, in the face of serious doubts, or under duress. Rather, it is to reflect the observation of Mark Regernus:

It’s to remind emerging adults who wish eventually to marry that there is a real marriage market out there and that sexual economics affects it, too. All talk of commitment-phobia men, or angst about settling for men who are “good enough”, is linked to [social and demographic trends] . . . [W]e simply wish to encourage men and women who’ve met someone who is “marriage material” to think twice before rejecting the notion that they’re just not ready for it. Life plans seldom develop exactly as adults anticipate and on the schedule they wish for.

Individuals make their decisions about relationships for all sorts of reasons. Knowing what the social science research reveals can be useful information when thinking about personal relationships.

Join the Discussion