July 6, 2015

Marriage, Relationships & Family

The Surprising Benefits of Marrying Young

1950s wedding couple kissing vintage

In May, Kate and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary.

I was 22 and she was 24 when we got hitched. Kate was in the middle of getting her masters and I was finishing up my undergrad degree. We lived in a small apartment, worked together at Jamba Juice (come now, is there anything more manly than knowing how to blend up a Strawberries Wild?), and shared both a car and a pile of student debt.

I wouldn’t have had it any other way — it’s been an incredible ten years.

But the relatively young age at which I got married makes me something of an anomaly these days. I remember when the mom of one of my high school buddies found out I was getting hitched before graduating, she looked at me with something akin to horror, and asked, “Why?”

It’s become an article of faith in contemporary culture that you should put off marriage so you can focus on your education and career first. Consequently, the average marrying age for both men and women has increased significantly over the past 50 years. In 1960 the median age for first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; it’s now 29 and 27, respectively. As the researchers at the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia put it, “Culturally, young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone’ — that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”

Is delaying marriage always the best path, though? While getting married young isn’t for everyone, there are actually some distinct benefits to doing so, and today we’ll talk about what they are.

Before we get there, however, let’s first look into the big knock against young marriage: that it makes a couple more likely to divorce.

Does Young Marriage Increase Your Chances of Divorce?

Our modern trepidation about getting married young, and the idea that it’s wise to delay one’s nuptials, didn’t just appear out of the ether. Research shows that couples who get married before age 25 are twice as likely to get divorced.

There are several factors at the root of this stat. For starters, some folks who get married before age 25 may be doing so with less forethought and intention. Keep in mind that “before age 25” encompasses not just people in their early 20s, but everyone on down to teenagers, who may be getting married impulsively or because an unexpected baby came along. In fact, once you hit age 25, divorce rates go down by almost 50%.

Economics is another big factor. Younger people who are just starting out in life are often battling financial problems that can put a lot of stress on a marriage.

Finally, a young couple may have children soon after getting married, and babies are acute stressors as well as money leeches (dem diapers!).

In short, it is true that those who marry young have a higher chance of divorce, and it’s likely due to the pressures of immaturity, strained finances, and the responsibilities of child-rearing.

Yet, none of these factors are set in stone, nor impossible to overcome. You can get married young and with intention, you don’t have to have kids right off the bat, and financial problems can be handled maturely, even if that means scrimping and saving for a few years.

So too, taking the plunge earlier on comes with a bunch of unique benefits.

The Benefits of Marrying Young

When it comes to having a happy marriage, researchers have found that getting hitched between the ages of 22 and 25 seems to be the sweet spot. That’s just an average, of course, but the benefits outlined below mostly focus on “young” as being one’s early to mid-twenties.

You (and those you date) will be carrying less baggage. I was recently talking to a single friend in his 30s who was bemoaning the dating scene for folks his age. He said, “When you look at it, if a person is reasonably normal, they’ve probably had about one semi-serious relationship each year, or every other year, since they’ve been teenagers. When you get to your thirties, you’re carrying more than a decade’s worth of break-ups, lingering feelings for past partners, trust issues, and disappointments with you. Everyone you date has got a bunch of baggage.”

When you marry young, you and your wife have less exes, old flames, comparisons, and retroactive jealousy of each other’s past relationships to deal with. You can start life together with more of the guileless freshness that lends itself to unabashed and lasting romance.

You’re more likely to marry someone with whom you’re highly compatible. A lot of folks put off marriage so they can shop around longer, thinking that the more they look, the better chance they’ll have of finding someone who’s just the right match for them.

Yet research suggests you’re more likely to marry a true peer and someone whom you have lots in common with if you marry in your 20s as opposed to later. It makes sense. Couples who get married in their 20s often meet in college, a time in your life when you’re surrounded by tons of people who are of similar age and background and have similar interests. It’s easier to find someone who’s the yin to your yang in the classes, clubs, and extracurriculars you’re interested in, than it is to sort, or swipe, through a random assortment of women online.

So too, the longer you wait to get married, the more ideal potential partners get taken off the market. As Dr. Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade puts it, “Even though searching may help you find a better partner, the pool of available singles shallows over time, perhaps in more ways than one.”

You’ll have more sex (even years after you marry). Staying single may seem like a good way to keep the sexual good times rolling. Yet surprisingly enough, research has actually shown that married men have more and better sex than their single peers. Why would this be? Getting a woman to come home with you, even if you’ve mastered PUA techniques, takes time and effort. Instead of having to troll nightclubs or lucking out that the girl on Tinder you’re interested in will also swipe right, married guys got the Mrs. to go home to.

If you want to enjoy a robust married sex life even in your 30s and 40s, the research also suggests that couples who tied the knot in their mid-twenties have more sex than couples who got hitched later on. Why? Researchers aren’t sure. Maybe it’s because you have more energy for sex in your 20s, and what starts out hot and heavy, echoes on that way through the decades.

You’re more likely to describe your marriage as happy. A 2010 study found that couples who married between the ages of 22 and 25 were more likely to describe their marriage as “very happy” than couples who got married in other age brackets. The researchers speculate the reason marital satisfaction declines after the age of 25 is that spouses that get married older often feel like they’re “settling” with a less-than-ideal marriage partner. (See the point above on the early twenties being the best time to find someone with whom you’re strongly compatible.) More sex may play a role as well.

My own, as yet unstudied theory, is that it likely has to do with the state of your brain in your early twenties. Its prefrontal cortex — the mature, disciplined, future-planning part — has largely formed, so you’re not as impulsive as you were in your teens. But, it hasn’t completely finished settling yet (that happens around age 26), so it’s still capable of feeling the kind of intense passion, excitement, comfort with risk-taking, and true high from bonding with others that mark one’s younger years. It may be this perfect combo of ration and emotion that allows the 20-something brain to experience love in a more visceral and deeper way, and launches young married couples into a stronger emotional connection with their spouse than their older marrying counterparts. By one’s late twenties, the brain has finished setting up and its executive center wields stronger control; as a consequence, the passions get checked to a greater degree. You’re steadier, but it takes more to get excited about things, including relationships.

You grow together. It’s oft been noted that it’s more difficult to join two lives together when each party has been living independently for a long time, than when a couple starts out life together early on. There’s actually a neurological reason behind that observation.

Another of the unique aspects of the developing 20-something brain is that you can intentionally shape its pathways so that they’re primed for future success in certain areas. During your adolescence (which again, lasts until the mid-20s), your brain overproduces synapses; then, it organizes and prunes this overabundance of neural pathways, getting rid of those not in use and strengthening and stabilizing those that are — much like an arborist prunes dead branches off a tree. What we don’t use, we lose. As a consequence, Jay explains: “We become what we hear and see and do every day. We don’t become what we don’t hear and see and do every day.”

Before this cognitive rewiring process is complete, your brain is more flexible and pliable than it will ever be again in your life. If what you’re seeing every day is your spouse, and what you’re doing every day is working on a relationship with her, then the neural pathways you’ll retain once your brain “hardens” will be forged in a way that is intertwined with hers, and predisposed to support your togetherness.

When you delay marriage, not only do you become more set in your ways, but your brain’s a lot more set too. It’s definitely still possible to hack relational “us” pathways through the abundance of independent “me” trails that were deeply carved in one’s adolescence, it’s just harder to do.

You’ll have an easier time navigating your 20s, and can be more successful in reaching your professional and academic goals. Your 20s can be a difficult time. You’re balancing school and work, trying to get your finances in shape, working to get a handle on your new adult responsibilities, and figuring out and launching your career. Having a spouse by your side during this time can make your 20s easier and more successful in a couple key ways.

First, a spouse can be a vital support as you finish your schooling and embark on a career. During my undergrad years, Kate edited my papers and helped me study for the LSAT. During law school, she provided a much needed confidence boost when summer internship offers weren’t extended, or when I didn’t perform well on a final exam. In turn, I acted as a sounding board for Kate as she worked on her master’s thesis, helped her get organized and plan for her first teaching job, and provided a helping hand when she got stressed during both pursuits. Could we have made it through our 20s by ourselves? Sure. But having each other’s backs certainly made it a lot easier.

Marriage also helps you reach your career and academic goals by providing stability and fostering focus. Socializing and dating requires a lot of time, money, and emotional bandwidth. When you’ve found your partner-in-crime, you’re able to save your money and direct your energy towards your other life goals. Indeed, studies show that married men in their 20s drink less and work harder than their single peers.

That’s not to say that the fun times end once you get married though. There’s a prevalent myth out there that early marriage will prevent you from doing cool stuff before you turn 30, like traveling the world or starting a business. On the contrary, having a spouse to pursue these activities with can make such adventures both more enjoyable and easier to execute. I traveled far more after I got married than I had as a single man. And what’s easier than having the co-founder of your start-up living under the same roof as you?

Your financial picture may improve. A lot of folks put off marriage until they feel their finances are sound, which in today’s world, is a goal that’s harder and harder to achieve. As we saw above, financial issues can indeed put a strain on young marriages. Yet such challenges can be handled with maturity, and what may be stressful in the short-term can work towards your long-term interests.

Research shows that getting married can significantly improve your financial picture. According to Alex Roberts at the UVA’s National Marriage Project, those who marry see “income increases of 50 to 100 percent, and net wealth increases of about 400 to 600 percent. Continuously married households had about double the income and four times the net worth of the continuously divorced and never-married, on average.”

While some of this effect can be chalked up to selective mating — high-earning, high-saving folks are more likely to get married, and to marry those like them — much of the benefit seems to come from marriage itself. For example, research has shown that married men make up to $18k more a year than their single peers, even after controlling for differences in education, race, ethnicity, regional unemployment, and scores on a test of general knowledge. Why would marriage have this effect? Well, as just mentioned, married men work harder and smarter. Marriage also allows spouses to pool their resources together. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, marriage encourages accountability and fiscal responsibility — your priorities change when you’re no longer only looking out for yourself.

“The point people miss,” Roberts says, “is that marriage is a tremendous wealth building institution.” This fact sets up a catch-22 that’s all too prevalent in our culture: folks are waiting to get married until their finances improve, but getting married could improve their finances!

You’ll have an easier time having kids, increase their chances of being healthy, and be better able to keep up with them. While modern advances have allowed folks to postpone having children, the reality is that both men and women have a biological clock and having kids gets harder and riskier the longer you wait. The research shows that children of older fathers have increased risks for several physical and mental disorders compared to children of younger fathers.

Besides being easier to conceive when you and your wife are younger, it’s also just plain easier to raise your resulting progeny. Before I had kids, people always told me how tiring they could be, but I didn’t really believe them — I figured I was fit and would be the exception to the rule! But I’ll be darned if babies and toddlers are not as exhausting as all get out. Consequently, I’m glad I started having kids in my 20s when I had a little more energy to spare. I’m also glad I won’t be in my 70s when I have grandkids!

Don’t get me wrong — I know plenty of older guys who do great as older dads. They’re in shape and full of vim and vigor and can keep up with their kiddos and career. But even they’ve said to me privately that they wish they were 30 and starting a family rather than 40.

You don’t have to cram marriage, career, and kids into a few short years. Many put off marriage and children to focus on their education and career, only to have all of these responsibilities simultaneously, and stressfully, collide in their 30s.

If you marry when you’re 30, and you want to have kids, you’ll have less flexibility as to when to have them (and how you’d like to space ‘em). You’ll have to get started with the baby-making process fairly soon after tying the knot, which gives you less child-free years with your wife — some of the most enjoyable years of a marriage. And at the same time that you’re settling into married life, and adjusting to being a dad, your career is likely starting to take off too. Unsurprisingly, research shows that those who delay marriage and children end up being saddled with greater stress.

Pursuing marriage, children, and career in successive phases, allows you to enjoy each season to the fullest.

Conclusion: #$&*! Are You Saying Everyone Should Get Married Young?

Marrying age is one of those topics that gets people all riled up and wanting to spew profanities. For whatever reason, discussing lifestyle choices tends to breed defensiveness — perhaps because choice itself has become our modern morality.

So let me be clear before we part ways: while marrying young can impart all the benefits outlined above, I’m not arguing that getting married younger is always better than getting married when you’re older. Nor am I saying that if you’re young and single, you need to rush out and put a ring on the finger of some gal.

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to each approach, and life circumstances are going to affect which path someone takes. The most important factor in a happy marriage is not age, but choosing the right person. Sometimes that happens earlier on in your life, and sometimes it takes longer. And those who find the peanut butter to their jelly later in life can absolutely go on to have spectacularly happy marriages. The research above deals with statistical generalizations, and there are plenty of outliers that belie the rule. Winston Churchill and Jimmy Stewart, for example, married their wives at 34 and 41 respectively, and yet they enjoyed two of the happiest and longest-lasting marriages in the pantheon of eminent men.

Rather than proving the superiority of marrying young, my goal with this article is to simply provide some reassurance to the young gents out there who are in their early to mid-twenties, have already met the right person, and feel like they’re ready to get hitched, but are scared to pull the trigger because they’ve heard the constant drumbeat of “Marry young and you’ll regret it!” In truth, you needn’t be afraid to take the plunge; as a study that analyzed marrying age and future happiness concluded: “most persons have little or nothing to gain in the way of marital success by deliberately postponing marriage beyond the mid twenties.”

In other words, once you’ve found the gal you can’t live without, you should absolutely feel confident in deciding to take on the rest of your lives side-by-side, and embarking with her on one of life’s greatest adventures.

Did you get married young? What benefits do you think came from it? Alternatively, if you got married older, share what you feel are the advantages of that decision.


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