The XX Factor

Are Later Marriages Unhappy Marriages?

Some 20-somethings take their relationship advice from friends, some from Cosmo . Me, I like it straight from middle-aged veterans of the Bush Administration. That’s why I’m listening very closely when Michael Gerson tells me I’m living in “a relational wasteland,” a “hormone filled-gap” between adolescence and marriage.

Gerson, who is very attached to the particular way of ordering a life that prevailed during his own childhood, doesn’t like the emergent distance between the onset of sexual activity and marriage. He wants to argue that there is only one appropriate time to get married, and he wants social science to be on his side:

Later marriage has been one of the reasons for declining national divorce rates. But this does not mean the later the better. Divorce rates trend downward until leveling off in the early 20s. But people who marry after 27 tend to have less happy marriages –perhaps because partners are set in their ways or have unrealistically high standards. The marital sweet spot seems to be in the early to mid-20s.

Ah, yes, perhaps -the magic mechanism by which columnists bend correlation into a suggestion of causation. Perhaps you 28-year-olds are too deeply traumatized by your dark time in the relational wasteland to ever love again. Gerson’s framing implies that if you wait until your 30s to put a ring on it , trouble awaits. I emailed Steve Horwitz , an economist who studies marriage and family formation, to ask where the number 27 came from. He pointed me to this report from the National Fatherhood Initiative . According to a survey commissioned by the Initiative, people who married at 28 or older were somewhat less likely to say their marriages were “very happy.” As Horwitz points out, “They give us no analysis to show that this difference is statistically significant. Even if it is, it just means that those 28+ group could be more ‘happy’ than ‘very happy.’ ” The report’s own authors clearly state that they can’t say whether marrying late “causes low marital success.”

Beyond these lazy conflations, we have Gerson’s framing of the premarriage 20s as a “gap,” a hiatus between childhood and marriage. It seems not to occur to him that some might consider their 20s as meaningful a period as any other. Some might not aspire to marriage and children. It’s weirdly fascinating to watch someone worry about the placing of various goalposts before he realizes the whole game has changed.