Not too long ago people tended to marry in their early 20s, but now the average marrying age is 29 for males and 27 for females. Why are people waiting so long to marry? And is it helping or hurting their chances of success in marriage?
“It is interesting because today’s young singles (emerging adults) want to have a great marriage yet they keep putting it off,” says Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk (or Jerkette). “This is occurring across almost all subcultures, races and the socio-economic spectrum in both the U.S. and most European countries.”
For instance, researcher Katherine Edin found that marriage was a dream for most people living in poverty, a luxury they hoped to indulge in someday when the time was right, but generally not something they saw happening in the near or even the foreseeable future.
“To understand what is happening with singles we can’t just look at their behavior—we have to ask what they are thinking,” Van Epp says. “There seem to be three prevalent myths that emerging adults buy into when it comes to marriage. First, marrying later results in marrying better. Second, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. And finally, marriage takes more than it gives.”
In some ways, it is true that marrying later leads to better marriages. In a 2002 study of 10,000 women, marrying after 21 did contribute to improved marital stability; however, there wasn’t much difference between the ages of 21 and 30. On the other hand, premarital sex, premarital cohabitation and unwed childbearing contributed to marital instability. As a result, researchers suggest that marrying after the early 20s may increase the risks because people become set in their ways and are more likely to engage in these higher risk activities.
The second myth – what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas—is used to compartmentalize risky activities apart from their effects on a future marriage.
“Many singles operate under the premise that sowing their wild oats before they get married will not impact their marriage relationship,” Van Epp shares. “However, this is a myth. Research has provided indisputable evidence that the number of sexual partners women had before they married were directly related to their chances of divorce. A 2003 study found that involvement with just one partner outside of marriage raised the risk of divorce three times higher than those who had only had sex with their husband.”
For emerging adults, there seems to be a marital horizon, the ideal age at which to marry. Those who have a more distant marital horizon are much more likely to participate in the risky premarital activities identified by research to put them at greater risk for divorce.
“Clearly we are seeing that it isn’t just the experience of marriage… it is the mindset of marriage,” Van Epp notes. “For instance, my daughter remembers a friend she had in high school who told her that when she dated she always kept in mind her future husband. Do not be fooled, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.”
The third myth, according to Van Epp – marriage takes more than it gives – comes from messages that society sends to our young people. Too many well-meaning parents are counseling their kids to slow down, delay settling down, experience and enjoy life, and not to marry until they have to.
“The implication for the emerging adult is that when you finally get married it’s as if you stepped into a life sentence of limited options,” Van Epp believes. “The truth is just the opposite: marriage creates a framework that gives you something more than what you can gain and be by yourself.”
So how can you keep from falling prey to these three myths?
First, educate yourself on these issues so you have accurate information. It’s helpful to know that what you do now programs your future behavior. Keep marriage close on the horizon versus a distant goal. Realize the risks involved with premarital cohabitation and premarital sex.
“We have intentionally raised our daughters to think of marriage as a wonderful experience that could be just around the corner after they entered their 20s,” Van Epp says. “Our oldest is getting married soon. Throughout her high school and college years she dated with her future marriage in mind. Many parents are cultivating a narcissistic and compartmentalized view of dating and the 20s. I would encourage an emerging adult to move marriage closer on the horizon, to consciously work at a better attitude toward marriage and to live in a way that would not jeopardize marriage in the future.”