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The Young and the Restless

How young is too young to say “I Do” (and how old is too old)?

By August 2009Comments

I called my mother the other day with a hypothetical question. “What would you say if I told you I was engaged?”

I was met with about two minutes of silence (I suspect she was meditating), which was a slightly calmer reaction than I had been anticipating. “Well, you’re 21,” she eventually said. “And you can be engaged for a few years before you actually get married.” I’d figured that the idea of her college-aged daughter getting married would elicit something a little stronger. Dire warnings that I was throwing my life away, perhaps, how youth is wasted on the young. Didn’t I want to have a life, get a job, casually date as many people as possible before I settle down?

My father’s reaction was a little more extreme. “What?! Are you serious?!” He hung up on his friend whom he’d been talking to. “My daughter just asked me what I would say if she told me she was engaged,” he said. “I need to have a long talk with her.” Then he made me promise that I would graduate and that I would marry someone “at least as smart” as I am. But other than the necessity of my diploma, my age seemed basically irrelevant—though both of them calmed down considerably once I assured them I was not actually engaged.

Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, caused a virtual firestorm when his article, “Say Yes. What Are You Waiting For?,” was published in late April in the Washington Post. Regnerus wrote about what he sees as the benefits to early marriage (including better fertility rates and a higher “market value” for women), and blames parents and peer pressure for shunning the idea of getting married too soon. Most of the blogosphere perceived this as his all-out advocating for early marriage, career goals be damned. “Is Mark Regnerus aware that women aren’t legally considered chattel any more?” asked the Web site Pandagon, while Feministing closed their response with “this article simply skeeves me out.”

“People think I want all women barefoot and pregnant at 22 or something,” Regnerus says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t tell people to get married at 18. I didn’t tell them to get married at 20. I said people who wish to get married shouldn’t feel stigmatized.” The article does make some slightly eyebrow-raising points, particularly with its almost total emphasis on women. But when given the opportunity to elaborate in an interview, Regnerus doesn’t exactly seem like he’s on a crusade to keep the womenfolk down.

Regnerus says that admitting you’re considering marriage as a woman in college is “scandalous.” While most college women will readily admit they want to get married eventually, sometimes those who are actually engaged can make their friends uncomfortable. Listening to your sorority sisters squeal over how happy they are for a newly engaged member can be, frankly, unnerving and weird. Most college students don’t think of themselves as grown-ups, and marriage is what grown-ups do. When the girl you had eighth grade history class is suddenly the girl whose wedding gift you’re shopping for, things can seem a little askew.

“You did grow up with these people,” says 22-year-old Nancy, who just graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. “Your view of them is like, oh, we went to homecoming as a group. And they’re getting married, that’s an adult thing. I don’t know, I always feel like I’m not quite ready to grow up yet.” Nancy has a healthcare consulting job lined up in D.C., with no serious boyfriends past or present.

Her parents married later in their 20’s, and expect her to be financially stable and independent before she ties the knot. “If there are other areas of your life that you don’t have sorted out, then how can you also put yourself into a relationship?” she asks. As for getting married? “Maybe eventually,” she shrugs. “It’s fun just dating around. It’s up in the air. Could be sooner, could be later.” When you’re in college, you expect your life to follow a certain path—you graduate, you probably go to graduate or professional school, you start your job, you settle down. Then you meet your wealthy professional of a husband, get married, and have a few kids who you will, of course, take excellent care of while still maintaining your fabulous job. 

“This cohort of emerging adults—18 to 30, I’d say—are really convinced that life will open in front of them in the ways they think it will and the timing they think it will,” Regnerus says. “They’re an extremely confident group that it’ll happen on cue, according to plan, according to recipe. But this group is probably overconfident about how their lives will turn out. A little bit more humility about the future is probably good for all of us.”

The emerging adult contingent was, for the most part, brought up by parents who married later, women who were told less to bring home a nice boy and more to bring home a master’s degree. Which isn’t unreasonable; I’m glad to know my parents care more about my ability to support myself than my ability to reproduce. But this achievement-driven culture, Regnerus believes, has negatively impacted marriage. Not because it’s stopping people from marrying, but because of how it affects our view of marriage itself.

“The idea that one can’t successfully navigate their career hopes and marriage at the same time just doesn’t make sense to me,” says Regnerus. “A lot of people think they have to have their ducks in a row, have their financial future stable or moving in a secure direction. Better to have the right person alongside you than to have the seemingly secure job. Waiting until you get the job you want seems arbitrary. Much better to be with the right person.”

Ellie, who just moved to Midland from Israel, is a 20-year-old rising junior at UT who is heavily involved with Texas for Israel and the Texas Hillel. She wants to go to graduate school in Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. “I decided when I was 16 that I was going to have my bachelor’s degree and I was going to be 21 [before I got married],” she says. “And then if I found the right person I could do it.”

She and her long-distance boyfriend have been together for over three-and-a-half years, and sometimes her thoughts turn to wedding bells. “People associate people who get married young as being completely conservative, Republican, all that, and I actually don’t see it that way,” she says. “I try and look at it as an individual thing. Getting married young ends up being a problem because [the people getting married] don’t take it seriously in the first place.”

Wanting to get married hasn’t made her want to get a career any less, though. “I think you should definitely put a lot of effort and love into your marriage, but the partnership is there so that you can be supported and give support,” she says. “Just because you’re married, you shouldn’t stay at home and not do what interests you. That’s like giving up the rest of your life, and I don’t think that should be part of the equation at all.”

Students may question marriage for themselves because of their career goals or a reluctance to give up their single lifestyle. Most other people question it because of divorce rates. According to a 2001 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, once women pass 20, age isn’t a strong determining factor of marital success. It’s more problematic if you’re under 20; after ten years, 48 percent of marriages where the woman was under 18 at the time of the wedding had dissolved. If the woman was 18 to 19, the figure drops to 40 percent.

But if the woman was 20 to 24 years of age at marriage, only 29 percent of those marriages were disrupted after ten years. For women over 25, it was 24 percent—a difference that the study categorizes as “not statistically significant.” The proportion of marriages disrupted for 20- to 24-year-olds or those married after 25 remains fairly similar across virtually all time periods up to 20 years. The 25 and older group still wins out by a slim margin, but not to the extent that is commonly believed. Age, though a predictor to some degree, is far from the only factor relevant in determining probability of divorce. A New York Times article from June 28 argues that later marriages have pushed down the divorce rate, but also acknowledges that a longer duration of the relationship before marriage also helps. If you realize the relationship isn’t working and it ends before you’re even married, you’re certainly not divorcing. Things like education and similarity of background can also be influential, and maybe a bit of luck.

As for the popularly believed statistic that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, it’s actually more toward the high 30’s (36 percent as of 2005 for 46 combined states). Texas dropped from 55 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2004. And with reference to the CDC study, your odds are still better if you’re over age 20. “It’s not like, dude, here’s this couple, flip this coin and see what’s going to happen to you,” says Regnerus. “Divorce is not a random thing. It happens more to some people than others. College-educated women have a higher success rate than they think they do.

“The one thing that has bugged me lately,” says Regnerus, “is that [people aren’t] tolerant of slight mismatches in people they’re dating. Because in the back of their head they go back to Match.com tonight after this date and they’re like, ‘eh, screw this person, who else is waiting for me.’ It’s a little bit like Facebook in the sense that there is always someone else.”

Regnerus believes that the key to a successful marriage is compatible mentalities—the sort that you can hopefully grow into if you marry younger.

“I think the formational aspects of marriage are undersold,” he says. “My wife and I have been married almost 16 years, and it’s a very comfortable relationship. There’s all this talk about ‘I want to figure out who I am first.’ I don’t know what that means, but I do know that I don’t understand who I am apart from my wife. It doesn’t mean I’m codependent on her, it means that a strong part of my identity is wrapped up in that unit, that relationship, the marriage.”

Melanie Schwarz, originally from Lufkin, just finished her freshman year at UT and wants to get married. Not right now, but eventually. For now she’s involved with the Longhorn Baptist Student Ministry and College Republicans, and wears a silver promise ring on her right hand.

“I was joking with my friends about this the other day, I said if I’m not at least engaged by the time I’m 25 I’ll probably be a little bit mad, but I don’t think that’s entirely 100 percent true,” she says. She’s currently single, after breaking up with her boyfriend of a year and a half due to trouble with the long-distance relationship, and she’s not particularly stressed out about the idea.

Melanie grew up heavily involved with her church, and acknowledges that seeing marriage from a Christian perspective has given her a different perspective than some of her peers. “Marriage is over here,” she says, pointing to one end of a table, “and I’m over here.  And I’m going to be over here eventually, and I’m not right now, but I would like to be. But not right now.”

Twenty-two-year-old Rachel, a UT Plan II Honors pre-med and anthropology student who is graduating in December, believes that 30 is the new 20. Rachel would like to get married young but realizes that as a consequence of her chosen life path, it’s better to wait a few years. She and her boyfriend, who just graduated in May, have been dating for four and a half years, ever since the end of their senior year of high school. Most of her now-married friends had been dating their significant others for less time than Rachel and her boyfriend have been together, but they both know that some things aren’t practical for them.

Her parents married when they were 20, and are still married. Rachel’s the youngest of three, and both of her older sisters are already married to men they started dating early in their college years. Despite his own young marriage, her father would be slightly less approving of the idea of her being engaged. He just keeps encouraging her to meet the cute JAG officers that he works with, or tutor football players. “My dad would go ‘Really? Don’t you want to date [UT quarterback] Colt McCoy?’” she says. Unfortunately for her father’s dreams of an unstoppable family football team at Thanksgiving, Rachel doesn’t see that happening any time soon. He’ll just have to accept the fact that her boyfriend isn’t very athletic.

It’s not breaking news that marriage is complicated. Some women want to be wives and mothers and some want to be nuclear physicists, and some want to be both. Some people are mature enough to get married when they’re 23 and others when they’re 53 and others may never be. Sometimes marriage works and sometimes it doesn’t. There are still plenty of women with no interest in marriage and there’s nothing wrong with that. Much like there’s nothing really wrong with wanting to get married when you’re 22. Of course, for college women, we’re still young enough that we see no reason why we can’t have everything.

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