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