Marry Young?

So this article over at Slate caught my eye because it echoes something I wrote on my anniversary last year.

Author Julia Shaw, a married millennial, encourages people to consider getting married young. Or, if you listen to her critics and detractors, she browbeats people into making terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad decisions. You, of course, can be the judge. I thought she made some very fine points, not least of which is that we need to reconsider the idea that we first must get our adult lives together, establish our careers and life patterns, and then consider marriage. It is not intuitively obvious why this would make a successful marriage more likely. Two people with well-established, independent life patterns are not better positioned to knit their lives together than two people who organically established their adult lives together. I don't know the numbers of divorce rates among younger-marrieds and older-marrieds, but I do suspect people who marry young have higher divorce rates.

But I do not believe the key factor is marrying young. There are all sorts of factors that might account for it. Like, perhaps, lax expectations for marriage in our culture more broadly, the ease with which divorces can be achieved (e.g., a $175 filing fee), and/or the cultural expectations that one should "play the field" and have multiple sex partners (a pressure that makes young-marrieds think they're missing out on something important and fun).

My own biography resonates with Shaw's encouragement to marry young because, well, I married young. As I said in my anniversary ode, there is something incredibly special about the fact that my wife and I practically grew up together. I am delighted that we didn't have everything all figured out and settled before marriage, as though intertwining two lives is some kind of accessory add-on to an already fulfilled life. Marriage, the intertwining of our lives, is the very engine of living our fulfilled lives.

Jim Geraghty at National Review Online piped in this morning in his Morning Jolt email newsletter (subscribe here) and expressed a bit of exasperation about the subject. Why can't we just let this lie, and admit that marrying young is good for some people and bad for others? Why advocate either way? While on a practical level I sympathize with this complaint, the truth is that somebody's vision of marriage norms is going to animate a culture's overall view of marriage. There will be, inescapably, a reigning paradigm. And I think it is fair game and eminently worthwhile to have a high level conversation about what that paradigm ought to be. And for my money, the current reigning paradigm of "Get your act together, a job, a career, an education, etc., and then get married" has some significant downsides. I don't think it increases marriage fidelity. I know it contributes heavily to the frighteningly low birthrates in Western societies because women on a huge scale are opting out of a decade of prime child-bearing years.

All of this requires, as I said, a high-level conversation. Some people are not capable, however, of intellectually rigorous conversation. Slate decided that they would publish Ms. Shaw's article, but couple it with a "rebuttal" by Amanda Marcotte. I get a very big kick out of that. Slate will publish 90% left-of-center, feminist commentary. But when a conservative, pro-marriage essay gets published they make sure to include a "rebuttal," I'm sure in the interests of "balance." Heh.

Anyway, Marcotte simply suggests that marrying later means greater fidelity (women marry older because they don't want to divorce), assuming that the age of first marriage is the key factor in the divorce statistics. I've already questioned that assumption. But the bulk of her rebuttal is feminist faux outrage that this snot-nosed little brat would try to foist the benefits of young marriage onto anyone else. Marcotte's closing words:

I’m glad young marriage is working out for Shaw, but for the majority of women, dating and cohabitating until they’re more sure is working out just fine.

Um... A 40% overall divorce rate is hardly doing "just fine." And Ms. Statistics ignores the overwhelming evidence that cohabitation before marriage is just about the opposite of a good marriage guarantee. But she might have missed that memo.

Shaw wants to move the cultural needle on our marriage paradigm, and Marcotte wants the status quo, and nothing but the status quo. Not very progressive of her. It seems obvious enough to me that the status quo, on just about every metric, has been a cultural disaster. So I, for one, welcome Ms. Shaw's suggestions and hope we can continue to think through what our reigning paradigm ought to be.

Brian Mattson