by Judy Gruen
A few months ago our youngest son, not quite 23, married a lovely 21-year-old bride. In previous generations, young marriages like theirs would have been completely unremarkable, but today, in marrying young they were bucking trends in nearly all Western cultures.
Falling marriage rates have been much in the news because they are falling in nearly every demographic. In 1960, the year I was born, about 72 percent of all people in the U.S. were married. By 2012, the rate of married households fell to 50.5 percent, according to a recent Pew Research survey based on U.S. Census data. Also in 1960, only one-tenth of adults aged 25 or older had never been married. Now the number of never-marrieds in the same age group has doubled to one in five, or about 42 million people.
During my lifetime I have watched society try to beat much of the respect, stature and allure out of traditional marriage. TV shows, movies and books emphasize the single life as a fun and sexy, if sometimes lonely adventure. Marriage is often portrayed as a stifling and enervating prison, unless it is between a same-sex couple, in which case it is usually seen as a beautiful and happy union. In our ego-driven culture, where the most popular and must-have electronic companions begin with the letter “I,” people have been conditioned to think of their 20s and sometimes even their 30s as decades meant for personal exploration, incompatible with building a life with another person.
Of course, marriage isn’t easy. As Groucho Marx quipped, “I think marriage is a wonderful institution. But who wants to live in an institution?” Apparently, plenty of people. Divorced people usually remarry, often quickly. Marriages are living things and need consistent nurturing. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of both people, the marriage dies. But often, the best efforts of both people yield something beautiful, something transcendent, which enriches not only them but also their children, friends and community. The hard-won emotional intimacy and shared personal achievements are the fruits of happy and enduring marriages.
Outside of religious circles, it seems that young adults don’t want to get serious about marriage much before they’re 30. No one should marry only because they’ve hit a certain age, but on the other hand, young people skeptical of marriage may want to reconsider: there is plenty of hard evidence pointing to its many benefits. For one, married people usually have stronger financial profiles than the unmarried. And with the current focus on income inequality, it’s alarming that people with only a high school education are dropping off the marriage radar screen faster than other groups. A New York Times article from February 6, 2015 quoted researcher Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who observed, “There are relatively few relationships that are more fully documented than those between economic well-being and marriage. . . It’s a plain fact that people who are married have more income, wealth and savings that last into their retirement.”
Money aside, most studies also find that married people are happier and more fulfilled over the long-term than the unmarried. Some ask which came first: a happy and well-adjusted person who was more likely to marry in the first place, or a marriage that made someone happy? According to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the co-author of “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Twentysomething Marriage,” young marriage and happiness do go together — given the right circumstances. In a recent column he wrote for the Washington Post, Wilcox cited a University of Texas study affirming that the highest-quality unions were forged by couples who married in their mid- to late 20s.
“Marrying in your twenties makes it more likely you’ll marry someone without a complicated romantic or family history,” Wilcox wrote. “It also makes it more likely you’ll marry someone with a similar educational level and religious faith. There is more of a sense of ‘we-ness’ and partnership than ‘me-ness.’ Marrying earlier than the mid-20s is associated with markedly higher divorce rates unless the couple attends religious services together. In that case, they can navigate the challenges of marriage and family with a lot of community support.”
Other benefits of a 20-something marriage include a more active and satisfying intimate life, which is strongly linked to marital happiness; the ability of women to become pregnant more easily; and for men, more stability overall, measured by drinking less, working harder and out-earning their single peers, Wilcox observed.
More young women intuitively understand it can be a mistake to wait too long to marry, despite what their sociology professors say. A TED talk aimed at 20-somethings given by Meg Jay, the author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now,” has garnered 6.9 million views. In it she relates the tale of a young woman who said, “The best boyfriend I ever had was in my mid-twenties. I just didn’t think I was supposed to be [married] with someone then.” Wait too long, in other words, and your best potential mate may have married someone else.
My husband and I were filled with joy, love and pride when Ben and Rivka stood under the chuppah and married. We were thrilled that they chose to embrace the Jewish ideal of unwavering commitment to one life partner, understanding that their greatest possible happiness and potential for self-actualization are most likely through the conscious, quiet daily acts of love and giving they have already begun to do for one another as husband and wife. Indeed, we feel very blessed.
(This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Aish.com. If you enjoyed this post, please forward to a friend, and make sure you’re subscribed to get every Mirth & Meaning column, no matter how intermittently they are sent!)