Reflections on the proper age of marriage

In all the many relationship discussions I’ve had and/or observed, it seems that age is considered one of the biggest factors in the decision or advisability of the relationship–especially if the relationship is marriage. Whenever people talk about someone else’s marriage make the age of the two married people a central issue. Maybe the commentary is positive–they married at the right time. Maybe the commentary is negative–they married too young, or (increasingly) they were too set in their ways; the second of which is a way of saying they waited too long, or maybe that they got too old.

Regarding age as a critical ingredient in marriage success (or relationship compatibility) has always ‘stuck in my craw’ a bit. It feels like one of the many blithe assumptions that come easy to us when explaining our own superiority, like a conventional belief that relationships in the 1950s and 1960s were all loveless, patriarchal shells of a family with an absent and philandering father. All right, maybe I exaggerate a bit there. Certainly few believe that all 1950s relationships (or any historical relationships) were loveless. Yet I suspect that many of us feel just a little bit lucky that we don’t live in the bad old days of arranged marriages, commercial exchanges to accompany weddings, and 14-year-old brides. Despite all that, however, I just can’t believe that the majority of relationships were unhappy or stilted. People loved each other back then, too. I’ll be careful here: I’m not saying that the bad old marriage conventions should be revived; I’m proud to live in an age where spouses choose each other freely and where either can be the breadwinner or caretaker as their fancy (and economic realities) take them. Even if we’ve made improvements socially since then, it doesn’t follow that our forbearers were unhappy. In fact, there are reasons to believe people might have been happier in those benighted old days of crusty tradition, sexual repression (or, depending on who you ask, aggression) and male dominance. They worked shorter hours on average, and slept more, than we do–both of which cause us increased stress and health problems.

In any case, I’m unconvinced that we are better off socially in the 2010s than we were in the in the past. That’s the nice thing about the past, if you have a point to prove: it is easily molded into a structure fitting your preferred narrative. Its easy to make a sweeping assertion that families were stronger back then, or that women were more repressed back then; both are true. Some things have improved; others have degraded. Comparisons are dangerous, because they are usually in the service of prejudices, like our particular prejudice about marrying young.

Statistics tell us that rural and/or less educated people marry younger than their urban, educated brethren; also the average age of marriage has risen from those terrible (but healthier!) olden days. And I often hear (maybe I sense?) a high degree of self-congratulation about that fact, which is funny, because up until about the last 10 years, marriages were becoming steadily less successful, indicated by a rising divorce rate. So we’re doing better because we’re marrying later, but our marriages are less successful? I’m not following. Certainly, some have argued that the rising divorce rate was a good thing, believing most marriages were unhappy because they were essentially coerced. Yet however went the marriage, a divorce is the breaking of a strong relationship that carried a lot of hope and promise, and so it seems likely that many (or most) divorces were bitter and painful. Maybe the practice of marrying older isn’t the social victory we think.

But wait! It would be ridiculous to go back to marrying upon graduation from high school. That is beyond doubt. Who is ready for something that after high school? I was certainly not ‘ready’ for marriage by the time I completed high school? If I’m honest with myself, I think it’s better to say that I was not even ‘capable’ of marriage. I was shockingly self-absorbed and my thoughts were consumed with a) whether I had the right friends and/or girlfriend, b) how I could get the most out of college (and we’re not just talking academically here), and c) agonizing about who I was. You know, the important things. Should I listen to Guster? Can I get away with just a T-Shirt and jeans, because I think it’s so much more chill? Is it ok if I enjoy my classes, or should I make myself enjoy partying more? There was barely enough room in my life for myself, let alone a life partner.

Ridiculous indeed. I doubt anyone would argue that. But by historical standards I was pretty immature for my age. I was 17 years old, able to drive, and almost able to vote. Do you think I was ready to select the most powerful person in the world in an election? I can scarcely believe they let me vote, considering my mental state. But I was not alone. Nearly everyone I know was at a similar maturity level upon their high school graduation. We had been kids for a long time, whose only real responsibilities were…nothing. Homework? Please. Most of us found ways out of it. Summer jobs? Doesn’t count, really–we were usually only making money to finance our weekend plans. For our entire lives thus far, in classes and sports teams and music and school plays, we were totally isolated in a world made for kids. And we weren’t done yet: we still had college to attend. Most of us were big kids, intellectually adults but emotionally (and socially) very young.

By comparison, children who grow up in rural areas, or who grew up in a culture which emphasized community and family, such as the socially backwards past, were probably much more mature than we were at the same age. It’s more likely they were vital contributors to their families, either by helping out the breadwinner with his/her business, or caring for siblings, or doing serious chores (like home maintenance or farm work). They lived in smaller communities, and had more relationships with adults (friends’ parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, etc.). Those 18-year-olds occupied a much less striated society, where they had to have become adults socially by the time they were in their mid teens. Upon the age of high school graduation they were actively part of a community, certainly deserved the right to vote. More importantly, they could also be a good partner in the community of a marriage.

There are great structural advantages to marrying at that tender age. Neurological studies have shown that one’s brain continues to develop until their mid-20s. More importantly, the cognitive functions of the brain usually finish development by about 16-18 (adulthood!), and the moral values and judgment functions of the brain develop after, finishing between the ages of 24-26. In fact, the reason teenagers believe they are invincible has been shown to be linked to the fact that their brains have not fully developed the capacity of judgment, which makes it harder for them to comprehend the risks they take. And while some, if not most, will argue that it’s irresponsible to marry when you haven’t even finished developing your personalities, I will turn the argument on its head and suggest that the best foundation for a lasting relationship is to develop similar values together by shaping each other’s moral growth.

Biologically, people between the ages of 18 and 25 are at their most fertile. Males produce the most testosterone, and therefore the most sperm at that age; females at the same age produce the most estrogen, and have the easiest time conceiving–which seems like a cruel joke, considering that we view that period in our lives as the most undesirable for marriage and starting a family. That age is for exploration, we say, it’s for discovering yourself! Partying! Traveling! There’s no doubt about it–all of those things are easy and fun when we’re in our early twenties. Do you remember how we thought nothing of going on little to no sleep, had no idea what a hangover was, and couldn’t understand the need to diet. We were beautiful, invincible, unstoppable; the world was our oyster. But as a parent in my 30s I will note wistfully that those physical advantages would be very helpful when dealing with children. When I’m chasing my toddler around, or when I have to get up to comfort the baby, I yearn for the energy I had in my 20s.

But of course it’s not a good idea to marry young these days. A college diploma (or at least a tech school certification) is more or less required to find work, and I can’t even imagine what college would be like as a newly-married person (and not just the social aspect; think about beginning a marriage with that kind of debt). But more practically–for the marriage part, anyway–is the fact that no high school graduate I’ve ever known is emotionally capable of marriage. The schooling process, along with popular media, has kept them from any sort of social or real responsibility and instilled in them the fervent, insidious belief that hedonism and wanton self-discovery are the essential components to a happy youth. Have fun! Enjoy college! Date many people! The expected result, of course, is that by a fun process of elimination these 20somethings will find the perfect job and partner, and settle down happily and much later.

These are generalizations, of course. And I am not trying to write a “kids these days,” fist-shaking rant. It’s long been fashionable to blame society for these developments, as if society were some kind of entity with intentions on us. Unfortunately, however, society does not make us (or our kids) do things. It has no intentions or opinions. It just is. And it is made up of us. It is merely the institutions formed out of our cultural perspectives. We think it’s important for kids to be kids, so we have created institutions which keep our kids in a school until they are 18, and take up their free time with sports and music and drama extracurriculars. We as a culture value self-discovery and self-actualization, so we institutionally establish these things in the emphasis on college, or the explosion of self-help books, or our worship of adventures and extreme sports. We value sexual actualization, too, so institutionally we accept more present sexuality and eroticism in things like television, music, and advertisements. The effect of these cultural perspectives is not the fault of our institutions (schools, media, etc.) any more than it’s the fault of a piece of wood that it was made into a chair. We share cultural perspectives; society results.

But frankly we needed our 20s. From my own experience, marriage requires contribution and unselfishness. I’m pretty sure the majority of my peers (and I) did not possess those virtues sufficiently in our 20s to have successful marriages. We still had to learn to support ourselves in the ‘real world,’ to be a part of a work team, to rely on others. Until then, we had parents and teachers and college staff to back us up. We also had to learn by trial and error how to take care of another person, because the school pipeline insulated us somewhat from observing other successful marriages by keeping us in our own age groups. It’s certainly plausible that our parents and grandparents, or kids growing up in rural areas learned all these things during their childhood, in more integrated social groups. But not today. Today, we have our 20s for that.

The fact remains that to be successful in a relationship, we must develop a certain maturity. So those who argue the doctrine of waiting for a bit, in order to mature, are wise. But maturity is not tied to a certain age. One may be less mature at 30 than some are at 18 (watch The Bachelor and see what I mean). And though everyone knows that maturity is only one piece of a great marriage–I’m not sure anyone has adequately explained the romantic longing, or fierce desire, or deep contentment with and for one other person that characterizes the love which leads to and sustains marriage without invoking Grace–I am concerned here with practicalities. Practically, marriages require partnership and respect. Maybe it would be nice to learn those things fully in our first 18 years, for we could happily and successfully marry then, deal with exhausting young children at the peak of our physical capabilities, and skip off to travel the world in our forties (which, at this day and age, practically constitute our healthiest decade of life!). Not an unpleasant prospect.

But our culture makes this near-impossible. So the point of all this rambling is: carry on. We all need a little growing before we marry (successfully). But from someone who has taken that step into marriage, I’ll tell you that it is much better than my early 20s. I’m glad I made it.

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