Marrying Young


Almost everyone has an opinion about the optimum age to marry but what does the data tell us?

We had an interesting call recently from a priest who had just interviewed an engaged couple. He was looking for some marriage preparation as the couple were ‘very young’. As he went on, it became apparent that this couple had some good things going for them – they didn’t want to live together and they were growing in their faith (he was rediscovering his through her). None-the-less, his family were negative about them marrying so young.

Eventually we asked what their ages were: 23 and 25. Oh. My. Goodness! We didn’t fess up that we were 27 and 21 on our wedding date, though we too were warned that we were too young to marry.

While it’s well known that the age at first marriage has been climbing (it now sits at around 28 and 30 for women and men respectively), it begs the question: what does the statistical evidence tell us about the optimum age for marriage?

Well, it does show that teenage marriage (ie less than 20) is associated with a higher incidence of divorce. Surprisingly, it also shows that after the mid-twenties there is no advantage to delaying marriage in terms of divorce prevention. In fact, some studies suggest that marrying after age 30 increases the risk of divorce.

Why would this be? Surely, if maturity helps couples make wiser choices about their marriage partner and establish better foundations for their relationship, more maturity should give us more wisdom and therefore more marriage stability.

In practice, what happens is the longer couples are in a relationship before marriage, the more likely it is that those relationships will be cohabitation ones or at least sexually active*. Cohabitation is a well-known risk factor for later divorce because couples tend to ‘slide’ into marriage through a phenomenon called ‘commitment creep’; as their lives become more entangled with shared resources and social networks, it becomes harder to break up. Long-time cohabitating couples often end up marrying because breaking up is too complex or painful.

Similarly, premarital sexual experience also undermines marriage stability with one study showing that each additional sexual partner increased the divorce incidence of a future marriage.^

Of course, there are likely other factors that play into this as well, such as the more entrenched one becomes in singledom, the more difficult it is to adjust to coupledom; many mature-age, first-time brides and grooms find surrendering their independence challenging.

So controlling for all the other factors, is our ‘young’ engaged couple ‘too’ young to marry? Turns out, the early twenties is the optimum time to tie the knot. That doesn’t mean that their marriage will be fail proof; there can be other factors or destructive behaviours that may undo them later on. What it does mean is that their celebrant and family can be reassured that their age is not a reason for concern.

*For more information: See Maybe I do, Chapter 8, Kevin Andrews: here

^For a listing of studies: See Focus on the Family: here

Further Reading: See the SmartLoving Series: Knot Yet: here

Francine & Byron Pirola

Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children. Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links. For Media Enquiries Please Contact us here

Comment Policy

We love to hear your stories and ideas. Please keep your comments respectful, your suggestions productive and published under your own name. More info here

1 Comment

  1. Francine & Byron Pirola on March 10, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Here’s an excerpt from another interesting article on this topic in For Your Marriage.

    Marriage the Gold Standard

    With the Sochi Olympics in full swing, stories of various athletes have circulated the Internet, along with medal counts, event updates and video clips of triumphant moments. One such athlete profile followed the headline: “David Wise’s alternative lifestyle leads to Olympic gold.” Wise’s “alternative lifestyle” involves marrying at a young age and regularly attending church. He is 23 years old, and he and his wife have a two-year-old daughter.

    Not long before NBC referred to young marriage and parenthood as an “alternative lifestyle,” an Associated Press piece looked at the rise in “shotgun cohabitations.”

    According to “As cohabitation gains favor, shotgun weddings fade”: “About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared to 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage, according to calculations by Daniel Lichter, a Cornell sociologist.”

Leave a Comment