In 1960, the median age of marriage for women was 20. Today, it is 27.
While our grandmothers had no qualms about walking down the aisle in their early twenties, today anyone thinking about marriage under the age of 25 gets a lot of advice about not rushing into things. Marrying young is often seen as scary or stupid―or both.
What makes early marriage so frightening?
Part of the answer lies in that a marriage, as personal as it is, influences and is influenced by its environment. If you have a divorced co-worker, you are 55 percent more likely to get divorced than if you didn’t work alongside a divorcée. We take our cues from one another; which means that in a culture of divorce we are more cautious about marriage, and in a single society, we are more cautious about marrying young.
In her essay “‘There but for the Grace’: The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce,” scholar M. Christian Green reflects on how divorce affects not only divorcées, but everyone else, too. But in my experience, the inverse is also true. Good marriages have a way of sharing some of their strength with the rest of us.
When my grandparents observed many friends returning from WWII and getting hitched for life, it was easier for them to do the same. When my now-husband and I first talked about marriage during our senior year of college in New York City, we initially only saw trendy young adults sipping specialty drinks in narrow cafes, and others bar hopping in Manhattan venues. In a city where 76 percent of the young adult population is unmarried, the idea of getting married at the age of 21 seemed radical.
So when we sat cross-legged on the floor of the Empire State Building basement where our college was located, plotting out our future and hoping for a May wedding, it felt surreal; like we were astronauts jetting out into unknown territory.
What gave us confidence is that, in addition to our parents’ own marriages, we discovered a community of married couples who shared their support and encouragement. There was a couple that married during summer break before their senior year and invited us over for tea and advice; the husband and wife that made their first home together in student housing several floors above me; the young wife who married her high school sweetheart and sat on my hand-me-down couch to share the tale: her parents’ initial pushback, the joys of life together, the challenges and how to get through them.
After the wedding, we settled into a neighborhood within a ten minute walk of three other newlyweds. We've shared much of life together: attempting square foot gardening, enjoying Sunday dinners, movie nights, and conversations over wine and cheese. As time went on, we announced pregnancies and welcomed baby boys into the world only two days apart.
Sure, marrying at 21 could be a counter-cultural statement in a single society. But when I look more closely, I see that my marriage is mostly beholden to those in my community who model the strengths of married love for me.
Photo via flickr user Stars Antiques
Amber Lapp is the co-investigator for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project at the Institute for American Values.