At 19 years old, I didn’t actually own much of anything. True, there were the complete sets of Topps baseball cards from the 90’s and my burgeoning college debt. But I had no degree, no car, no house or apartment, no stamps in my passport, no shelves full of leather bound books. I didn’t even have a settled career trajectory. Studying "religion” could hardly have inspired career confidence. In short, I possessed none of the things that read established by modern standards.
I suppose I represented something like the inverse of Austen’s famous axiom about single men in possession of a good fortune. I had the single man and want of a wife thing down cold. It was just that my fortunes were, well, less than fortunate. (Now before the mathletes steal my lunch money, I said something like an inverse. Religion major, remember?)
Undaunted, I was in pursuit of a good woman. Working three jobs on top of my studies, I saved every penny for an engagement ring. I remember scraping the change off tables at the grill and thinking, “that’s $.37 closer.” And I remember coming unglued when my kid brother “borrowed” some cash out of my ring stash. Not cool, man. But, in his defense, I was saving it in a jar next to my bed. Thankfully, the money was restored and I bought the ring in cash. All $1,000 worth. Now I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but remember, this was back when $1,000 was worth about a grand.
What happened next can be summarized, but hardly contained, in three little words: she said “yes.” We were married at 20, during my summer break, and we’ll mark a decade together this August.
Even in our conservative, Midwest enclave, where presumed spinsterhood starts at about 25, we were something of an outlier. The first of our friends to tie the knot, we were also the first to see a marriage counselor when things got rough less than a year into our marriage. Old wounds surfaced and hurt anew as we forged a new identity together. We had to learn to support each other vocationally, relationally, and spiritually.
We didn’t have an easy start, but we did have a promise. The covenant we made, and the love and support of our families and church community saw us through.
We did, of course, realize significant benefits to getting married young. For starters, my grades were never better than after getting married. I suppose it’s the undergrad equivalent of the married male wage premium. Spurred on by my wife and a desire to keep us out of debt, I completed my studies in less than four years and began pursuing a vocation in line with my degree.
One memory from those early days humorously solidified in my mind the transition we’d made. I had just arrived at a Bible study on campus after noshing on a delicious home-cooked meal, (Becky has always been something of a whiz in the kitchen) when in strode my friend Brian. He was gnawing on Twizzler.
“Brian, please tell me that’s not the only thing you had for dinner?” said I.
Brian, laughing, “No man. I had a hot dog.”
Right then, I knew something had changed. My Twizzler and hot dog days were over.
Looking back, there’s little question that Becky and I had significant growing up to do. There’s also little question that marriage helped us do it.
Like many of you, I read the recent spate of articles arguing for younger marriage with interest. For the sake of discussion, I thought it might be helpful to highlight a few of these articles for the marriage generation community.
Let me preface these articles by saying that if statistics on the millennial generation are correct, then about three quarters of you (under 30) reading this post are unmarried. Some of you may be looking at adjectives like “young” and “spry” in the rear-view mirror. The point here is not to heap “woe is me” feelings on anyone, or to somehow point out what the unmarried have missed. The point is to acknowledge the reality that our generation is delaying or forgoing marriage and to wrestle with the reasons and implications.
As for those reasons, Cheryl Wetzstein reviewed Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying, and concluded there were at least seven reasons why we’re putting marriage off:
- I can’t afford to marry.
- The 20s are a time to “be your own person.”
- It’s too soon to have children.
- It’s time to travel, not settle down.
- Parental objections.
- The quest for “sexual chemistry.”
- There’s “deflated confidence” in the institution.
Undoubtedly there are reasons that you've heard or given that aren’t listed here, but it’s a start. So enjoy these articles (or not) and feel free to leave your reactions in the comment section or over on our Facebook wall.
First up, Princeton alum and proud mother Susan Patton offering her advice to female students in the Daily Princetonian:
For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there.
Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.
And again on the theme of a shrinking pool of suitors:
Of course, once you graduate, you will meet men who are your intellectual equal — just not that many of them...by the time you are a senior, you basically have only the men in your own class to choose from, and frankly, they now have four classes of women to choose from. Maybe you should have been a little nicer to these guys when you were freshmen?
In her column for the Daily Beast, Megan McArdle agreed in substance, if not in approach, with Susan Patton:
I think Susan Patton is basically right: people should be looking to get married as early as possible.
I say this as someone who married late, and since I wouldn't want to have married anyone except my husband, I'm glad I waited. But as a general rule, you should err on the side of marrying early. By which I mean not that you should marry whoever happens to be around when you turn 22, but that you should be willing to recognize, at the age of 22, that you've found someone you want to marry.
The bottom line for McArdle is not that the challenges to marrying later (as she did) are insurmountable, but rather that “it’s easier if you’ve got an open mind: if you’re ready to get married whenever the right person presents himself or herself” because “never again will you be surrounded [as you are in college] by so many people who share your interests, who have lots of free time to form a relationship, and who aren’t married.”
McArdle seems to agree with Patton that future happiness is at least somewhat contingent on marrying well and that the pressures of finding a suitable mate in an ever decreasing pool of candidates after college is a real challenge. McArdle adds that with age comes a settledness that is difficult to break--even when presented with a good potential mate. (Her link to Grandma’s Lamp is worth your time.)
Then Julia Shaw touched off something of a firestorm with her piece in Slate, Marry Young. Unlike Patton and McArdle, Shaw did not focus on a diminishing pool of eligible bachelors, but rather took aim at some of the misconceptions our generation has about marriage:
Marriage these days signals that you’ve figured out how to be a grown-up. You’ve played the field, backpacked Europe, and held a bartending gig to supplement an unpaid internship. You’ve “arrived,” having finished school, settled into a career path, bought a condo, figured out who you are, and found your soul mate.
Reflecting on her own marriage at 23, Shaw offers a refreshing perspective:
Marriage wasn’t something we did after we’d grown up—it was how we have grown up and grown together. We’ve endured the hardships of typical millennials: job searches, job losses, family deaths, family conflict, financial fears, and career concerns. The stability, companionship, and intimacy of marriage enabled us to overcome our challenges and develop as individuals and a couple. We learned how to be strong for one another, to comfort, to counsel, and to share our joys and not just our problems.
Sometimes people delay marriage because they are searching for the perfect soul mate. But that view has it backward. Your spouse becomes your soul mate after you've made those vows to each other in front of God and the people who matter to you. You don’t marry someone because he’s your soul mate; he becomes your soul mate because you married him. Marriage doesn’t require a big bank account, a dazzling resumé, or a televised wedding—it requires maturity, commitment, and a desire to grow up together.
For more reading on the subject and less than enthusiastic responses to Shaw’s article, check out Amanda Marcott’s response and Dylan Matthews’ exploration of the data on happiness and income disparities between young and late marriage. Lastly, Huffpo's editors also weighed in here.