The Median age of first marriages has been rising slowly and steadily for more than ten years. Today it’s 26 for women and 28 for men — the highest it’s been since the Census started collecting such numbers.
But is it wise to wait until the second half of your twenties to get married, or even into your thirties? This is a question many people are asking today.
There is no great wealth of research on this question, but there is some good data that can be helpful to young men and women and their parents as they navigate this part of their life-course. Two of the best sources are Norval Glenn (UT, Austin, recently deceased) and Paul Amato (Penn State).
In his recent study, which draws from five different American data sets, Professor Glenn explains,
The greatest…likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at age 22-25.
He explains that marriages formed at ages later than this fared very well in survival, but “rather poorly” in quality.
However, importantly, Glenn explains that it would be “premature to conclude that the optimal time for first marriage for most persons is ages 22-25” because other critical factors impact risk of divorce and marital happiness as well.
Age at marriage doesn’t stand alone as a benefit or harm. The most significant additional factors related to marital longevity and quality are:
avoiding premarital cohabitation
having parents who are not divorced
greater educational attainment
general maturity and personal commitment to the idea of marital longevity
having healthy marriage attitudes and behaviors modeled by both sets of parents
involvement in a healthy church/faith setting that takes marriage seriously
completed meaningful premarital counseling
Given this qualification, Professor Glenn concludes his article by stating,
The findings of this study do indicate that for most persons, little or nothing in the way of marital success is likely to be gained by deliberately delaying marriage beyond the mid-twenties.
Paul Amato explains that marrying at a “young age is one of the best predictors of divorce.”
Of course, we must ask what he means by “young.” Amato is referring to those marrying in their teens. He explains,
Once people enter their early to mid-twenties, the risk of divorce is attenuated [reduced]. Indeed, people who postpone marriage until their thirties face a dwindling supply of potential partners – a situation that may increase the likelihood of forming unions with partners who are not good marriage material. In other words, marrying “too late” may increase the risk of having a troubled relationship.
W. Bradford Wilcox (U of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project) concurs with these two findings from his own analysis of the National Survey of Family growth data, explaining, “Couples who marry in their mid-twenties tend to do best, when you combine a consideration of quality and stability.”
Wilcox adds, “But I think couples can marry somewhat earlier than this IF they are embedded in a supportive church community that gives them direction, support and healthy role models.”
Mark Regnerus (UT, Austin), who wrote the popular cover story for Christianity Today (August 2009), “The Case for Early Marriage,” jokingly explains that marrying later is almost sure to guarantee life-long marriage: “getting hitched at 80 is probably the best way to guarantee that you’ll stay married the rest of your life!”
Regnerus says he would push the number a bit lower than other sociologists, “to 22’ish, because the data suggests it’s not a major risk of divorce over the next 10 years.” However, he admits that not divorcing is not the same as having both quality and stability.
And Regnerus explains that “earlier” marriage in the 22-age window increases the likelihood of couples marrying as virgins, which is an important factor in marital stability and happiness.
These conclusions indicate that we are not doing much to increase our own dreams of marital success by waiting on marriage. And who really is ever ready for marriage? In many ways, marriage is the transformative institution that makes us ready for being someone’s husband or wife. Ask anyone married thirty years or more if that is not true.
— Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and a research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family. He is also author of the recent book Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity.