When To Get Married?

Mark Regnerus’s blog-bait op-ed in The Washington Post purports to make the case for getting married early. “Say yes. What are you waiting for?” reads the headline. It’s not would you would call a “hard” case; he doesn’t argue that it’s better to get married before 25, full stop. But he does repeatedly express his own support for getting married in one’s early twenties, as he and his wife did. What he fails to do, however, is offer any substantial, convincing reason why anyone else ought to do the same.

First, he claims that “as ever, marriage wisely entered into remains good for the economy and the community, good for one’s personal well-being, good for wealth creation and, yes, good for the environment, too.” Aside from noting rather broadly that it’s “good for one’s personal well-being” (about which more in a moment), all of the reasons he essentially boil down to the notion that early marriage is good for society as a whole. Now, the greater good may be a good reason to, say, sort out your recycling, or install a low-water-use toilet, or give money to your church, or spend time volunteering. But is it really a compelling reason to get married? Perhaps in ages past that was the case — but that hasn’t been true for a long time. And while Regnerus might argue that he’s not saying it should be the primary factor, I question whether it should be a factor at all. Really: decisions about marriage should be made on the basis of whether or not you think you and your potential spouse will be happy and successful, not whether or not your marriage (or lack thereof) will make a positive impact on the economy. And as for the environmental impact, can you really imagine a strong, stable marriage founded on “Well, honey, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to marry you, and I’d thought I might wait a few years to take the plunge. But if we tie the knot now, while we’re both 23, it’ll reduce our carbon footprint. Will you marry me?”

What about those individual benefits? The “personal well-being?” Well, Regnerus manages to go through most of the essay without actually listing any particular benefits to early marriage, preferring instead to argue against the notion that getting married in one’s early twenties might be harmful. He points out that women are typically prepared, emotionally and mentally, for the commitment at a younger age than men, and that men become more stable as they grow older. He also notes, correctly, that young marriage doesn’t “cause” divorce, and that what really matters for successful marriage are “mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I’ve met 18-year-olds who can handle it and 45-year-olds who can’t.” That’s all absolutely right! But none of this suggests anything about what age one ought to marry, and it certainly doesn’t suggest that early marriages provide any advantage. All he’s done is push back against some commonly given reasons why one ought to wait to marry; he’s not made the case that it’s actually better to do so while young.

Finally near the end, he writes: “Today, there’s an even more compelling argument against delayed marriage: the economic benefits of pooling resources.” He follows this with:

Married people earn more, save more and build more wealth compared with people who are single or cohabiting. (Say what you will about the benefits of cohabitation, it’s a categorically less stable arrangement, far more prone to division than marriage.) We can combine incomes while reducing expenses such as food, child care, electricity, gas and water usage.

It’s of course true that marriage, on average, tends to make people more financially stable and well off over the long term. But those are accumulated benefits over time. So it’s not true, as he says, that “today, there’s an even more compelling argument against delaying marriage.” Financial stability isn’t something the pastor hands out after the kiss, not something they issue with a marriage license (too bad!); it’s something that takes years of planning and saving and earning to accomplish. And even if it provided a small short-term benefit, temporary economic turmoil isn’t a good reason to commit to someone else for life.

Regnerus, I think, makes only a single point in favor of early marriage, and it’s not a very strong one. It’s that female fertility dwindles with time. So for those who want children, there might be some very small benefit to early marriage. But I’m skeptical that even this should be a terribly significant factor; couples want kids when they want kids, and increasingly that’s going to be in the late 20s and early 30s. And in fact, I’d worry about any marriage founded in significant part on the decision to marry young because of fertility stats. Again, what sort of odds would you give to any marriage of 23 year olds founded on, “Well, I don’t know if I want to get married to you, or if I want to get married now, but my fertility is going to decrease in my late 30s… alright, baby, let’s get hitched!”

In the end, Regnerus has only really made that case that getting married young is perhaps not as bad as some have said. But he doesn’t manage to make a positive case for doing so, and in fact, stumbles onto a nearly contrary truth, which is that, at the individual level, the decision to marry isn’t really about age all; it’s about commitment.

Update: I should probably clarify somewhat to say that I’m not in any way opposed to people getting married before twenty five. Quite a few of my closest friends from college got married within a year of graduation; it seems to be working quite well for them, as I know it does for many folks. I just don’t think Regnerus makes much of a case for making the decision to get married early.