The Case for Getting Married Young

by Mark T. Mitchell on March 25, 2013 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

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Hidden Springs Lane. A couple months before my wife and I were married, a friend ask me “why do you want to get married so young?” My fiance and I were recent college graduates, holding less that lucrative jobs that paid the bills but–and this is putting it mildly–they were not long-term prospects. In fact, our future was pretty uncertain. My friend was in his late twenties. He was well established in his career, had plenty of money, and was decidedly single. When he asked the question, I didn’t really have a good answer. “I love her and it seems like the logical next step” somehow didn’t satisfy him. “You’re young,” he said. “Why tie yourself down?” The question seemed reasonable, but ultimately things weren’t that complicated: We wanted to get married, and needless to say, we didn’t cancel the wedding.

A recent article in The Atlantic articulates a better justification than I had at the time. The author, Karen Swallow Prior, argues that getting married at a young age allows for the marriage to be the “cornerstone” of a life rather than the “capstone.”

Here’s the author’s reflections on her own decision to marry young:

Looking back over a marriage of nearly three decades, I am thankful that I married before going down that road. Now as a college-educated, doctorate-holding woman, I can attest that marrying young (at age 19) was most beneficial: to me, to my husband, and to the longevity of our marriage. Our achievements have come, I am convinced, not despite our young marriage, but because of it.

Our marriage was…a “cornerstone” not a “capstone.” Once that cornerstone was set during the semester break of my sophomore year of college, I transformed from a party girl into a budding scholar. I earned my college degree then two graduate degrees. My husband made music, built things, earned a teaching certificate, and became a teacher and coach. We lived in several towns, two states, countless apartments (and—for six long weeks, a relative’s basement), owned a junkyard’s worth of beat-up cars (including two, not one, but two Pacers), and held down numerous jobs on our way to financial and social stability. We were poor in those early years. Not food stamps poor, but poor enough to be given groceries by our church without having asked. The church gave us $200 once, too (which is exactly what that second Pacer cost). We held down terrible jobs and then got better ones. Like all couples, we worked and played and worshipped and prayed and travelled and fought together. And sometimes apart. We planned and prepared for children that naughtily never came. We offered our home instead to needy animals and stray college students, and eventually to my own aging parents. It was not the days of ease that made our marriage stronger and happier: it was working through the difficult parts. We learned to luxuriate in the quotidian, to take wonder in the mundane, skills that have become even more valuable in our prosperous years. We invested the vigor of our youth not in things to bring into the marriage, but in each other and our marriage.

Today I often hear young people speak of their desire to “keep their options open.” Commitment is seen as a dramatic reduction in freedom, which it is. But what if some good things (perhaps the best things) can only be realized in the wake of commitment? It may be that avoiding commitment in order to achieve true happiness (with the perfect partner or job or place) is a pretty good recipe for exchanging real, embodied happiness for an illusive abstraction. We can spend an entire life looking for “Mrs. Right” or a perfect job or a place that where we feel completely at home, but perfect people and places are not the stuff of this world. But the good and beautiful only become fully alive and real to us when we stop looking beyond them to the infinite possibilities that are more the product of our restless imaginations than any adequate conception of reality. Commitment is the narrow gate through which we must pass to truly know a person or a place. Prior to this act of commitment, we can only know provisionally, for we are only provisionally invested in the knowing. Perhaps this leads us back to Augustine for whom knowing and loving were so closely intertwined.

While the manifold particulars of each life precludes simple formulations, perhaps it is time to encourage a shift in momentum. Where today the default position is restless, uncommitted, and detached, how would our society look different if the new default was to be settled, committed, and attached? It might be worth a try.

 

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jack Shifflett March 25, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Mr. Mitchell: I realize that your reference to Augustine is neither the cornerstone nor the capstone of your argument–but are you sure he’s the person you want to cite on this subject? “Perhaps this leads us back to Augustine for whom knowing and loving were so closely intertwined”: yes, and Augustine was famously committed, first to Manichaeism, and to a long-term relationship with a woman he never married (but with whom he fathered a son), and then to an arranged engagement to a second woman, an arrangement which Augustine did not keep, and then–yes, finally!–to the Catholic Church, to which he stayed admirably faithful the rest of his life. But it sure took him a while to get there.

avatar Jason Fisher March 26, 2013 at 7:33 am

Mark,

Excellent insight there from Ms. Prior; I agree that it captures the sense behind “it seems like the next logical step”. My wife and I were married between college and grad school for that reason, while most of our closest friends didn’t wed for another 5-15 years. Grad school was hell for us, for a long variety of reasons, but the foundation of surviving that together has definitely provided the basis of our support for each other through the past 2 decades and more.

avatar Chris Schumerth March 26, 2013 at 9:43 am

I am single and uncommitted. I have lived in half a dozen cities during my twenties. That is to say, I have lived what my generation stands for. And yet, somehow I think you are right, and my path has been so misguided. It leads to a detached loneliness instead of life. Here’s to to hope for the thirties…

avatar Arthur Sido March 26, 2013 at 9:50 am

My wife and I got married at quite an early age as well, I turned 41 in December and we celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary a few months later. Not only did we get married you, we started our family almost immediately and had the first two of our eight children while I was still an undergraduate. We have often struggled financially and have grown up a lot, sometimes painfully, but we did so together. There is very little about me that is not inextricably linked to my wife and vice versa. Neither of us would change the age we married or when we started our family. Perhaps we would benefit as a society if we stopped viewing marriage as the end of our personal development, the prize at the end of a long road, and started seeing it as a foundation to our development as an individual.

avatar A Heki March 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

My husband and I agree…we both married less than a year after we graduated from college. What do you think about having children soon after marriage? Are children a “‘cornerstone’ not a ‘capstone’”? We think so; we conceived after being married for 7 months. But, we’ve been told by people “it is better to wait”– what do you think?

avatar Erin March 26, 2013 at 10:53 am

Hi Mark,

I don’t disagree that there are probably advantages to getting married young, but there are also disadvantages that go beyond the financial (which I’ll get into below). Also, I think it’s very easy for someone who did get married young, in Karen Prior’s case, and got married 30 years ago, to claim that others should “just get married” and that the reason they’re (or we’re, as I’m one of them) not is an unwillingness to commit. This is a very simplistic view of the topic, I think. First, not everyone is lucky enough to find their marriage partner at 19. Second, we should be asking WHY some many of us single 20 and 30-somethings haven’t committed.

I’m no sociologist, and my evidence is merely anecdotal, but as a 25-year-old single woman with a lot of friends in a similar situation, this is what I’ve observed. Those of us in our twenties are the children Prior’s generation–the generation in which the divorce rate exploded–so many, many of us are children of divorce. Those of us who are not, saw many of our parents who refused to get divorced on moral grounds (or were staying together “for the kids), make each other miserable year after year. And we, those children, bear the scares of all this. To top that all off, women are much less dependent on men from economical and social status perspectives than they were even a generation ago (a positive change in my view).

Is it any wonder then that my generation is hesitant to commit itself to marriage? We don’t want to face the misery, either in marriage or in divorce, we saw our parents experience. It’s not just a matter of being restless or wanting to keep our options open.

The fact of the matter is that every one of the single people I know would like to get married. That being said, speaking for myself I can tell you that if I’d gotten married to anyone at 19 it would have been a disaster, because I was seriously lacking in relationship skills. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure if I’m to the point now, six years later, where I have the adequate skills to enter marriage. And I’m not the only one in that boat.

If you’ll pardon me thinking aloud for a moment, I’ve often wondered if in an odd way my generation as a whole actually takes marriage more seriously than our parents, and because we want our marriages to work well the first time around, we’ve become extremely cautious (granted, probably overly cautious) about who we marry.

All that being said, if two people are mature enough, then by all means get married young. I don’t judge people who do so, just as I hope those who do don’t judge us who, for whatever reason, have waited. At the end of the day, marriage age isn’t a matter of right and wrong.

avatar JimWilton March 26, 2013 at 11:55 am

Marriage soon or marriage late, either can be good. I was 28 and my wife 34 when we married 27 years ago. I feel I have been married long enough that I don’t need to explain anything to anyone and I, similarly, don’t have any advice to give. But it is the case that the commitment has power. One can say this much.

The Buddhists say that taking a vow is like plowing a field. It increases productivity. Everything is amplified and has more power. If you honor the vow, the commitment strengthens. If you break the vow, the act has a more immediate result and echoes back very powerfully. And then mending the break (and breaks are inevitable and can almost always be mended) has its own power.

avatar Mitchell March 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm

My wife and I married in-between our junior and senior year of college. Now I am in an MA program (to be finished early this summer, provided my thesis stays on track) and we have an 8 month old daughter. We are 24 (married almost 3 years now) and we definitely feel blessed to have married when we did; we are growing into adults, a process that I assume never ends, together. We are both stubborn people and we have talked about how hard it would have been for us if we had “got our lives in order” (i.e. good jobs, nice cars, fancy vacations, etc.) before we were married. We would have both been stuck in our ways too much to ever wed.

The commitment of marriage and now having a kid can be tough at times, but frankly it has made me a better student, a more determined person. The account of the Buddhist view of vows JimWilton told seems every apt.

avatar Julia Vidmar March 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Great article. I think so many young people today miss out on so much because of the desire to “keep their options open”. One point I would like to comment on specifically is this one: “Commitment is seen as a dramatic reduction in freedom, which it is.” I think there needs to be a greater understanding of freedom itself. Is commitment a reduction in freedom or the realization of it? Am I less free because I am bound to another, or am I more free to be who I am when I give myself to another in fidelity? I believe that the common assumption that marriage hinders freedom comes from an underlying misunderstanding of what freedom really is.

avatar Danae Kelly March 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Is it just me or is that a picture of two men’s wedding rings?

avatar Dan March 26, 2013 at 1:44 pm

You’re probably right, but have you tried to find anyone to marry lately?

I’m 26 and none too fond of the majority of my own generation. I’m willing to bet that most of the readers of FPR will sympathize.

avatar Erica Wanis March 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm

The kind of stray-dog freedom our culture currently promotes leads to frustration and despair, I think. Viewing marriage as a formative institution allows for a couple to grow and change together, hopefully for the better. Entering marriage once you are fully “formed” (in your own myopic estimation, of course) means you are less likely to possess the humility and flexibility necessary to share your life with another person. Marriage is hard. One one hand it’s the kind of love and commitment we were created for, and yet everything in us rebels against it thanks to the Fall. I’d rather live my life, however, pursuing an ideal I know I’ll never embody perfectly than throw up my hands in despair and wallow in the cesspool of my own vanity, selfishness, and insecurity.

avatar ultraluza March 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm

It’s all depends on what one thinks “young” means. If you mean 18, that’s young. While 25 seems not too young for marriage. However, I married at 28 and I can say that my single twenties were very important to my development. Now that I am in my 50′s with grown children, those years when I was single have served me well. I know how to have life outside my children and husband, which I thinks makes me a better mother of adult children and wife. When I say outside my family, I don’t mean an autonomous life, but one in which I know my talents and abilities and how to use them. As a woman, both meaningful work in which I make a contribution to the wider world and relationships are important to me. My single twenties helped me know who I was, making for a better marriage. But, then again, not all people are the same.

avatar Sarah March 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm

There is a famous humorous poem from the early 1900s I believe that talks about the couple that waited until they were ready to marry, and then tottered down the aisle in their 80s. While most people marry much younger than their 80s, I believe there is new trend, especially among religious women, of marrying too young. As a professor told me once in college, if you marry before you know who you are, you won’t be happy. While a plethora of young marriages where man and woman enrich each other lives sounds idealistically lovely, what about a string of young married people in last ditch counseling, divorce court, and child custody cases. I’ve seen it happen many a time with my young Christian friends, especially those that married fast. Marriage, along with the often accompanying children, is one of the largest decisions one will ever make. No one should rush it.

avatar Allison March 26, 2013 at 9:19 pm

My husband & I got married young (right out of college, 22). We are only 1.5 along, but this article was encouraging to read. We got a lot of comments similar to you, “why marry so young?” But, we are learning & growing together and loving it!

avatar Katherine Bliss March 26, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Perhaps there is a difference between “marrying young” and “marrying fast”? No doubt it is wise to take time to pray, consider, heed counsel, and pray (a lot) more before entering into a life-long covenant.

I do think conservatives in my generation have had unusual difficulty finding marriage partners. There are many reasons, but three strike me as ubiquitous:

1) Few intergenerational settings: ironically, when young people do not interact in an intergenerational setting, I think they have a harder time getting from “acquaintance” to “I know her well enough to ask her out”. The pressure is HIGH for young people to hook up in a group of peers, and young people who don’t like dating casually resist the hook up culture but find few alternatives for getting to know the opposite sex.

2) Yenta’s absence: many young people in my generation have “kissed dating goodbye” but the parents/aunties/uncles/grandmas/village matchmaker are still missing. That leaves a gap. I have friends from India who never date — but their parents arrange for them to meet young people of the opposite gender. (The ladies seem to turn down many a proposal before finding someone they like; I was always a little jealous of their line of suitors.) I have friends from America who never date — and they never marry, either.

3) Last but not least, perhaps it is not all doom and gloom — perhaps there are honorable reasons my generation gets married later. I didn’t get married until I was 27, much as I would have loved to be married when I was 18. It is clear, in retrospect, that God intended my husband & me to be on opposite sides of the world during our early 20s. I Corinthians 7 tells us that our single years are carved out for a purpose: to serve God. (I don’t agree with vows of celibacy, but the Catholic Church grasps this principle of service-while-single better than most Protestants.) Some people in my generation use their single years to get prestigious degrees, accrue huge amounts of money, and spend it on luxury items. That’s a silly use of one’s life. But others I know have served faithfully overseas and at home, loving the elderly, teaching in Pakistan, baking for the unloved neighbor-kids, providing medical care to the druggies who appear oh-so-frequently at their ER. To these singles, I say, you’re single years are not wasted.

avatar Ray Olson March 27, 2013 at 10:27 am

As one who married early but whose marriage soon fell apart, despite a sweet, intelligent, earnest child to care for, I have followed this discussion intently. I’m cheered to see that no one is wagging a finger and propounding dogma.

Perhaps the problems of marriage that many address stem from bad acculturation. At least, I suspect this is the case. Since World War II, which itself shattered many families and communities if not marriages by uprooting so many young men, every generation seems to be raised to be less responsible and more childish for ever longer periods of life. Under the pretext of “letting children be children”, we have licensed impulse while simultaneously withdrawing oversight. For the sake of a “free marketplace of ideas” [!!], we have propagated a popular culture that mouths a sentimental and superficial mutual respectfulness while flooding our recreational and artistic lives with drug-addicted one-upmanship, unrestrained skepticism, and subversive sarcasm. Under the banner of universal education, we’ve perpetuated a system modeled on the industrial production line and stretched it to consume as much of life as possible so as to keep young people (but not just young people, alas) feeling incapable and unprepared for as long as possible or, in reality, as it is profitable to the education industry. We’ve gleefully exalted individualism and equality at the expense of wisdom, experience, knowledge, reason, and capability.

And we expect people who’ve physically grown up in such circumstances to marry or, equally, maybe more, important, commit themselves well? Even if they could, they wouldn’t. They’re mired in the impulsiveness, ignorance, and deep sense of inadequacy of abandoned and ill-directed children.

Or so it seems to me. I stand to be corrected, always.

avatar Howard Merrell March 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Mark,
Thanks.
Your article reminded me of one I read a couple of years ago.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/16.22.html?start=7
Here is a quotation:
“Consequently, the focus of 20-somethings has become less about building mature relationships and fulfilling responsibilities, and more about enjoying oneself, traveling, and trying on identities and relationships. After all the fun, it will be time to settle down and get serious.
Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed.”
The article also speaks of the parental–and other authority figures’–pressure to achieve the American dream first. A version of materialism?
I was also impressed with the number of times Mrs.Prior referred to commitment. Sound marriages are not built by people who are so well matched that they can’t help but succeed. The kind of marriages we want for our kids and grandkids are built of irregular stones cemented together by the mortar of commitment.

avatar Anamaria April 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Thanks for the interesting article! I think this is an important contribution to the conversation, but I will echo what many others in their twenties have said. First, the reasons for lack of commitment from my generation stem, for a lot of people, on fear. Examples of people who have been married a long time are very important. Second, it seems that they are not a lot of people to marry! Or everyone is too fearful about, and over-thinks it too much. I don’t know. I was blessed enough to meet a good man, also from Oklahoma, also living in Oklahoma. Many of my friends, however, want to get married, are as “ready” as one can be, but have just had a hard time meeting people.

I also didn’t marry until my late twenties, though I would have loved to marry earlier, but I have to say in retrospect that I did a lot of much-needed maturing during that time (maturing that I wish had happened earlier!). Sometimes it is good that we have to wait and grow up a little bit.

The situation is more complex than this, but it is worth discussing. Thank you!

avatar Art Nesten April 12, 2013 at 12:07 pm

This one of the rare posts where not only the OP but almost all the comments contribute very good points. It would be wonderful if everyone (who wanted to) got married young, but there are many situations where certain factors make it a bad decision to get married younger. That said, some decisions to put off (seeking) marriage are regrettable mistakes as well.

I will say, in response to Erin’s insightful and valuable post, that I am one of the many whose parents had/have long periods of misery in their marriage but stuck it out because of their conviction about the permanence of marriage and their hope in God as very flawed individuals. And I am grateful that they did so not just for their own personal development as people who are learning to live and love in spite of their differences, but for the “rubber meets the road” witness of their hope and for what their mistakes have taught me about living with a wife who is very different from me. My marriage is stronger because I saw a real marriage with real struggles, and not a illusory “perfect” one.

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