The Corner

Marry Young? Marry Old? Marry When You Have the Character to Marry

I know I’m coming a week late to this, but I’m still chuckling at the hysterical leftist reaction to Julia Shaw’s Slate article urging women to consider marrying young. I suppose certain brands of feminism are all about getting women to march to the beat of one politically-correct drum circle. Here’s the new formula: Lean into your career, hook up if you need some human warmth and companionship between grad school classes, test the waters with cohabitation, and then — when appropriately independent and successful — look for the man (or woman) who’s willing to form a slightly more binding partnership. Smith & Jones, PLLC — subject to dissolution at the convenience of either party.

Over here in my little corner of Evangelical world, it’s remarkable how many parents are pushing a Christianized version of the same package: Education first, then a dash of career seasoning, then marriage (without the hooking up and cohabitation; often leading to very long, sporadically chaste, frequently-frustrating engagements). It’s all so formulaic: If you just check the right boxes of educational attainment and income, then you’re setting yourself up for success. Fail to check the box, and you’re on the glide-path to failure.  

It’s easy to see why we fall into the formulas. After all, the data’s pretty clear: later marriages appear less vulnerable to divorce and more prosperous (though, interestingly, younger marriages are apparently happier). So why not wait? Yet of course all these statistics are subject to the same correlation/causation confusion that plagues so much of social science. As we see studies that peg better outcomes to certain external markers (education, age, etc.), we jump on the markers as the key rather than examining the deeper reasons why the markers exist.

Here’s my core contention: You’re old enough to marry when you possess enough wisdom, character, and emotional maturity to recognize that you are no longer the center of the universe, and you can and should love another person more than you love yourself. There are 16-year-olds who understand this, and there are 60-year-olds who do not. But in this era of ever-longer childhoods (for some people, 24 is their grandfather’s 14), many of us are delaying the most basic elements of emotional maturity well past previous generations.  

I got married when I was 27. My wife had just turned 21. She was a junior in college, and she transferred to NYU where she studied philosophy in the women’s studies department. To say that a married, southern conservative 21-year-old added diversity to her classes would be an understatement. They called her a “bird trapped in a cage,” claimed that fixing my dinner was a form of oppression, and mocked my then-corporate legal career. So she dropped out to have children (and to start writing — she’s got two New York Times bestsellers under her belt to date).

I’ve only been married 17 years, but that’s long enough to know that marriage isn’t about formulas. We’ve made stupid decisions that caused us rather dramatic and unnecessary stress, and through God’s grace we’ve made good decisions that improved our lives and helped our kids. But through it all, we’ve maintained the core conviction that this relationship is for life, that we love each other and our children more than we love ourselves, and that God forgives and restores — though not without pain — when we fail to live up to our own principles.  

It is simply not possible to arrange your life so that your marriage is stress-free. You can wait for marriage, lean into the career, and have separate accounts full of separate piles of cash — only to see everything vanish into the pain of a cancer diagnosis. Since it is foolish to believe that we can control the circumstances of life, it is much more productive to focus on building character.  

As battles rage over marriage age, divorce rates, and prosperity — and as we parents study the data to chart a course for our kids — I’m reminded of “Reynold’s Law” (named after Mr. Instapundit himself, Glenn Reynolds): “Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.” The secret of marital success lies not in age, prosperity, or education, but in a character that also produces certain virtues — virtues (like the ability to delay gratification, work hard, and persevere through trials) that also happen to be pretty handy when attempting to succeed in school or on the job.  

In marriage as in economics, don’t chase the markers; cultivate the character.  

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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