Years ago, when I was a senior in college, I met with my academic adviser to work on my resume before heading out for a job interview. During our meeting, my adviser eyed my diamond engagement ring with suspicion.
“You’re not going to wear that to the interview, are you?” he asked.
Till that moment, it had not occurred to me that planning to be married and seeking a job were incompatible, although I did know that planning to be married at the tender age of 22 was out of the ordinary. In my graduating class of more than 350, I knew of only one other student who was engaged.
What was once the norm — marrying soon after finishing college — clearly wasn’t anymore. Were my female classmates putting financial or career goals ahead of marriage and family?
Whatever their reasons, the current trend of delaying marriage till farther and farther into adulthood is viewed as a cause for concern by some family experts.
Norval Glenn, professor of sociology at University of Texas at Austin, recently surveyed 1,503 Americans ages 18 and older on the topic of marriage. According to his data, the best age to get married is earlier than most people think. As it turns out, while teenaged marriages still often prove risky, the most successful age for marriage was not the mid-30s but the mid-20s.
As possible reasons for the success rate of early-in-life marriages as opposed to their late-in-life counterparts, Glenn suggests that “living a major portion of young adulthood unconnected is conducive to a person’s becoming self-centered and self-absorbed … and going through a succession of low-commitment relationships also may make it difficult to make a full commitment to marriage.”
Glenn further notes that the general trend among young men favors delayed adulthood and deferred responsibility. These circumstances leave marriage-minded young women with few prospects.
“A common explanation for the later marriage of women is that feminists have convinced women to delay marriage until they become able to support themselves and thus don’t have to be financially dependent on a husband,” says Glenn. “But recent evidence indicates that probably the main reason that women are marrying later is that the men are unwilling to marry earlier. The unwillingness of many men to assume adult responsibilities in their middle to late 20s leaves women who would like to marry early without opportunities to do so.”
Glenn also suggests that, although financial security frequently is cited as a reason for delaying marriage, finances often should not be an important consideration when determining when one should marry.
“Many couples remember the early years of financial struggle as a time of closeness and bonding,” he points out. “This is not to say that it is desirable to start a marriage in extreme poverty, but most persons who delay marriage for financial reasons are not in extreme poverty.”
Counsel Is Key
Dr. Gregory Popcak, a popular Catholic psychotherapist, speaker, author and webmaster of exceptionalmarriages.com, echoes Glenn’s concerns about the potential problems associated with delaying marriage until later in life. In his practice, Popcak has noted that couples who delay marriage until their 30s have a greater likelihood of infertility. Then the infertility itself often leads to increased marital stress and a higher divorce rate.
Catholics have a tendency to want to do things as the rest of the world does, Popcak explains, but we are called to do otherwise. He suggests that a couple discerning whether or not they are called to marry should seek counsel from a priest as part of their discernment process.
“More often than not, couples decide on their own when they should get married and then consult a priest only when it’s time to make arrangements for the ceremony,” he told the Register.
Popcak adds that couples who make this important decision without spiritual guidance will often get their priorities mixed up, with such concerns as careers and finances trumping, say, kids.
The most important thing a couple can do when deciding when they should marry, according to Popcak, is to discern God’s will for their relationship by praying together.
“Being financially secure [before marrying] is nice,” he says, “but it’s not necessarily all that important. When we make marital decisions based on finances, we are putting our faith in money and operating under the illusion that we can control everything.”
Shari and Roger Cummings of Earlville, Iowa, were under no such illusion 31 years ago when they decided to get married at the ages of 19 and 23.
“We were always broke but had lots of fun,” recalls Shari. “We were still finding out who we were as a couple growing into it. We had not yet become set in our ways and were able to negotiate. We took the best each of us had to give and that not only made our family the best of both of us but it made it totally ours.”
The Cummingses have fond memories and few regrets about their early married years and their youthful struggles.
“The time was right for us,” says Shari. “We matured together, we made our family ours and we were so inexperienced didn’t have anything to compare with except for our parents marriages.”
Richard and Mary Ellen Cross of Grand Blanc, Mich., are another example of a happy and successful youthful marriage. The two were the exception to the rule when they decided to get married immediately after finishing college 12 years ago.
“If you wait to be financially secure, you may never marry,” says Mary Ellen. “We did not have a large bank account when we married and we definitely lived paycheck to paycheck. This struggle brought us closer and made us less selfish. We had to plan together; we were and are a team with a financial goal in mind.”
Like most other couples, the Crosses have had their share of struggles, but Mary Ellen credits their young commitment to marriage with many of their relationship’s joys and successes.
“Our early years of marriage were fun and also challenging,” she recalls. “We had the energy and enthusiasm of our youth, so we were active in our free time and did lots of traveling. We look back with fondness on these times and definitely grew closer to each other. We definitely had our share of arguments that first year as we tried to establish ‘us.’ But because we were young, we were more open to making changes.”
Mary Ellen cites many factors that she and Richard took into consideration in deciding to marry in their early 20s. In the end, however, their most important reason was a simple one:
“We felt that it was God’s will for us, and we determined that any reasons for waiting were just selfish in nature,” she says. “It was time.”
Danielle Bean writes from
Belknap, New Hampshire.