Stop discouraging couples in their early 20s from getting married.
This rebuke, directed at American society generally, comes from the authors of a new report showing that the age of a couple at the time they say “I do” has little to do with the long-term success of their marriage.
The study, released right before Valentine’s Day, represents a joint publication of Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution and School of Family Life, as well as the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.
Together, its authors mined three recent and nationally representative datasets for married respondents’ answers to questions about the satisfaction and stability of their marriages. Across the board, those hitched between ages 20 and 24 scored almost evenly with those married at age 25 or older.
The one exception had to do with sexual satisfaction. Both men and women from the group who married in their early 20s reported greater fulfillment in the bedroom — albeit not by much.
All told, the number of early-married husbands who reported they were satisfied with their marriages was 10 percentage points higher than those in the later-married group. Early-married wives, meanwhile, had an advantage of 3 percentage points over their counterparts married at age 25 and older.
“Those were small differences, statistically,” Alan Hawkins, a family scientist at BYU and co-author of the study, said.
These findings, released Wednesday, do not imply that couples should try to marry in their early 20s, he added, only that the knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t be to assume individuals in this age group are inherently too immature to make a happy life with a spouse.
“We have real heartburn about people marrying in their early 20s,” he said, citing as evidence a 2015 poll — conducted by Brian Willoughby, associate professor family life at BYU — of millennials that found “widespread support” for marrying later (although what “later” meant exactly to the respondents is unclear). “But on these outcomes, measuring these qualities of the relationship between the two age groups — boy, they look very similar.”
Other findings included that there was no real difference in the way members of the two groups divided up household labor. There were also minimal demographic differences between them, with the exception that those in the early-married groups tended to have less education.
Hawkins noted that participants in the primary dataset had been married for about four years. In supporting datasets, the couples had been married, on average, for seven to 12 years.
Cornerstone vs. capstone marriage
Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist out of Johns Hopkins University, first coined the term “capstone marriage” in 2004 to describe the tendency of many today to view matrimony as a kind of trophy for those couples who are successful in first completing other major life milestones, including finishing their education and affording a home.
This new study further expands the lexicon, referring to those unions between individuals in their early 20s as “cornerstone marriages.” Rather than emerging only after reaching a certain level of stability, these relationships offer a foundation, the authors write, “on which to frame together the walls and windows and rooms of a meaningful life for the couple and their children.”
Anne Marie Wright Jones is a master’s student at BYU and a co-author of the study. Married at 22, she was surprised by how small the differences were between the two groups they researched.
“I initially thought my own experience with marriage was going to be the correct or best approach,” she said. “But there’s just really no difference between the two categories when it comes to overall satisfaction and stability.”
What matters most
So if age doesn’t determine a couple’s success, what does?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a Chicago-based therapist and psychologist who specializes in couples counseling. One theme that has emerged again and again in her work is the need for individuals in an intimate relationship to balance a sense of closeness and security on the one hand, and autonomy on the other.
“Generally speaking, the more self you’ve developed, the more able you are to create an intimate marriage,” she said, noting that this maturation process doesn’t always correspond with age.
“There are plenty of people who get married at 30 who aren’t necessarily more emotionally mature,” Finlayson-Fife said. “So even if they have a career, they may still be looking for security or someone to manage their emotions or to feel needed by their partner.”
Sure enough, in the data the study authors’ analyzed, those who had married in their early 20s were more likely to say they felt like an adult and ready to marry at an earlier age than their capstone counterparts.
‘This is way too young’
Diana, who asked not to use her real name for fear of retribution from her ex-husband, learned this lesson about the importance of self-awareness and reliance in marriage the hard way.
Growing up, she believed 21 was the “perfect age” to wed. Then came her 21st birthday.
“My friends were getting married,” she said, “but I really started feeling like ‘This is way too young — I am not emotionally equipped to be somebody’s partner.’”
Five years passed and she grew increasingly antsy, so much so that when her boyfriend asked her to marry him, she said “yes” — despite dating him only for a short time.
“My high school group of friends, all of them had children,” she said. “And it wasn’t just like one child. All of them had multiple children. I felt like I was really behind.”
The marriage lasted 11 trauma-filled years.
“He was super manipulative, very emotionally abusive,” she said. Looking back now, at 37, she said she attributes much of her decision to marry to whom she was at the time they were engaged.
“Not to say other 26-year-olds aren’t emotionally or mentally ready to get married,” she said. “All my friends who were married at 20 are still going strong. But there was just so much that I didn’t know about myself.”
‘That could have devolved into a fight’
Daniel Taylor and David Barlow met at Provo’s BYU, where they secretly dated and got engaged while completing their undergraduate degrees.
They married last year, when Taylor was 31 and Barlow was 26. Both agreed — had they both chosen to marry in their early 20s, their marriages would look a lot different.
“For one, we would have both probably married women,” Barlow said, explaining it wasn’t until their mid-20s that they both recognized they were gay. “So as far as sexual satisfaction goes, waiting until we were a little older has been pretty important.”
The two also feel like their ability to resolve conflict has improved with age.
“I’m able to express my needs,” Barlow said, “respond to Daniel’s needs, and just hear things from his side in ways I just couldn’t when I was younger.”
This skill came in handy when the two graduated and were suddenly faced with deciding where to move.
“That could have devolved into a fight,” Taylor said, “but we were able to nip it in the bud with communication.”
In fact, the study’s authors did uncover a small but statistically significant advantage for husbands in the later-married group when it came to conflict resolution. Older brides, in contrast, scored a fraction behind those married in their early 20s.
Overall, Taylor said that waiting to wed until his early 30s has helped him approach the relationship with more reasonable expectations.
“As a kid, I watched Disney movies,” he said. “The princess always gets swept off her feet or woken up with a kiss or some big romantic gesture. It makes for a good story, but that’s usually not what romance is. A marriage is more about keeping a household together and the little things.”
Rehabilitating marriage’s image
As concerned as the study’s analysis is about young couples being unnecessarily dissuaded from marrying, it thrums with an even deeper anxiety — the reputation of marriage itself in American society today.
By “championing” a capstone approach, it states, society risks making marriage “more of a Hollywood fantasy than a powerful script for building a good life.”
Hawkins worries in particular that low-income individuals may feel shut out from marriage altogether when faced with this model and its focus on achieving some kind of financial foothold before walking down the aisle.
From a policy standpoint, then, creating “an economy that works for more people, especially those who don’t have advanced degrees,” he said, could play a critical role in helping more couples get to the altar.
Policy isn’t the only leverage society has to support these and other couples who may feel intimidated by the expectation to have their “ducks in a row” before ring shopping, according to the study’s authors. Replacing the script of “marriage is the end of youthful fun” with getting hitched “is a grand adult adventure” could also help thaw some of the fears around tying the knot.
Rosemary Card knows firsthand the angst that comes with viewing marriage in terms of what the study’s authors call a “transition of loss.”
Like Diana, she grew up believing she would marry at 21 but wound up serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instead. Still, Card remained convinced wedding bells were just around the corner.
“When I was 21, I remember my dad asking me where I would be in five years,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, I hope I’m married with at least one child and maybe another on the way.”
Five years later, she remained single.
That’s when she decided it was time to make plans independent of marriage. “I had to make a conscious choice,” she said, “to shift what I was working towards to something I could control.”
“We had both worked so hard to develop full and happy and fulfilling lives as single people,” she said. “I can’t speak for him, but for me, I definitely felt an anxiety of like, what if getting married screws it all up?”
She credits her therapist for helping her to understand that her concept of marriage — one in which she automatically became a full-time housekeeper — wasn’t a rulebook to follow. Rather, she and her husband had the freedom to define their marriage on their own terms.
“It allowed me to be like, OK, we don’t have to fall into what our parents’ marriages look like — as good as they are, or what anyone else’s marriage looks like,” Card said. “We can craft one that suits us.”
Central to that process has been the ability for her and her husband to communicate expectations and take responsibility for their own happiness. Together, she said, these skills — developed over time and with experience — have played a critical role in the stability of their relationship.
In fact, marital stability was the one measurement on which later-married husbands and wives both scored higher than those in the early-married group.
“I acknowledge we’re in the early stages of this,” Card said. “But compared to some other early marriages I’ve seen, I feel like we’ve had a really smooth transition.”