The XX Factor

The Case Against Marrying Young

Unattached women bravely soldier on, despite their horrible life choices

Photo by Alan Crowhurst/ Getty Images

Julia Shaw, writing here at Slate yesterday has an article reinvigorating the old conservative hobbyhorse that people should marry young. Shaw herself married relatively young, at age 23 to a 25-year-old husband. Since it’s working out pretty well for her, she figures it will work out for you.

Oh, she knows that you’re going to object and point out that most young women haven’t met the right guy yet. She knows you’ll say that selecting a lifelong mate is difficult to do before you’re all fully baked adults. But you have it all backward: You can marry first with the assurance that being married makes you ready for marriage.

Sometimes people delay marriage because they are searching for the perfect soul mate. But that view has it backward. Your spouse becomes your soul mate after you’ve made those vows to each other in front of God and the people who matter to you. You don’t marry someone because he’s your soul mate; he becomes your soul mate because you married him.

I grew up in one of those red states where young marriage is the norm, and we didn’t call the man you married young your “soul mate.” Our preferred term was “first husband.” There may be something to the idea that your young marriage helps you grow up, but all too often, the beneficiary of the marriage-matured person is the next spouse. It’s a tremendously stressful and expensive system, and it’s no wonder that younger generations prefer to keep those starter relationships a little less legally binding.

Most people grasp the relationship between young marriage and divorce intuitively, but statistics shore up the case. As the average age of first marriage goes up, the divorce rate goes downState-by-state statistics show similar correlations between lower average age of marriage and higher divorce rates.

Shaw tries to distract from these concerns by talking up how much more cool stuff she can supposedly afford, like cellphones and plane tickets, now that she’s married. Yet she doesn’t actually indicate where these new income streams available only to the married come from. In fact, delaying marriage is associated with women making more money in the long run.

Not that any of this matters anyway. Watching conservatives desperately try to bully women into younger marriage with a couple of promises and a whole lot of threats is highly entertaining but clearly not persuasive. Women marry later because it makes sense given their own career aspirations. Even many of those pushing the ideological argument for young marriage, like Megan McArdle, tend, when it comes to their own lives, to opt out of the pressure to be young divorcees martyred for the cause. I’m glad young marriage is working out for Shaw, but for the majority of women, dating and cohabitating until they’re more sure is working out just fine. If he’s good enough to marry, he’ll still be around when you’re ready to make that leap.