Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Problems with Early Marriage

In an earlier post, I discussed the attitudes of some Christian fundamentalists toward child marriage (marriage before age 18). What about fundamentalist attitudes toward early marriage, that is, marriage in one's late teens or early twenties? Despite the positive consequences of delaying marriage, and despite the fact that not all young people wish to marry, some fundamentalist Christian voices champion early marriage.

After I posted the commentary piece on child marriage,  R.L. Stollar shared a conservative essay on early marriage with me. In 2009, Christianity Today published a commentary piece by Mark Regnerus entitled "The Case for Early Marriage". Regnerus, the researcher behind a controversial and loudly condemned paper on same-sex parents, claims that Americans are damaging the institution of marriage by delaying it and argues in favor of early marriage.

What stunned me about the essay was Regnerus' casual dismissal of real problems that can erupt when couples marry too young. Regnerus claims that most Christian couples learn to avoid early marriage pitfalls that lead to divorce (a claim that evidence refutes). While admitting that early marriage can contribute to poverty, he fails to recognize poverty as a hardship to be avoided, insisting that marriages experience challenges, including financial challenges.

While he admits that marrying early in life increases the risk of a poor match, he claims that marriage is less about compatible personalities and more about sound practice. Good habits such as open communication, conflict resolution, and recognition of marriage as a "sacred covenant" can help couples overcome problems together. He ignores the fact that poorly matched couples can be deeply unhappy, and that sometimes no amount of good communication can overcome incompatible personalities.

Much of the essay rested on stereotypical assumptions about sex, gender, and relationships. Regnerus argues that the ratio of devout Christian men to women is skewed, meaning that some Christian women are forced to "marry down in terms of Christian maturity." He resorts to gender stereotypes about sexuality, claiming that many men are eager to start sexual relationships before marriage, and that Christian women are reluctant to do so. The idea that Christian women might freely engage in pre-marital sex for the sake of their own enjoyment is not considered. This alleged situation leads to Christian women supposedly holding out for "godly, chaste, uncommon" suitors and delaying marriage.

Regnerus conflates marriage with maturity, claiming that too many immature men are delaying marriage and thereby perpetuating their own adolescence. He fails to realize that marriage does not automatically bestow maturity, that maturity can be attained through avenues other than marriage, and that people postpone marriage for any number of valid reasons.

Regnerus is not alone. Other Christian commentators have echoed many of these assumptions, attributing delayed marriage to misguided "worship of education" and "an epidemic of adults who are over-sized children". The claim that men have supposedly grown immature and juvenile in modern times is a well-worn Religious Right chestnut, despite the lack of evidence, and this assumption feeds into early marriage arguments. If these assumptions are gaining ground among conservative Christians, how should the rest of us respond?

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I think it's important to understand what vision of marriage Regnerus and company are championing. In their conservative Christian paradigm, marriage is a nigh-mandatory rite of passage, a marker of adulthood with clearly defined roles for husband and wife. Marriage is correlated with emotional maturity, and singleness with immaturity and prolonged adolescence. So much importance is placed on this rite of passage that other considerations, such as educational attainment or economic stability, are deemed less important.

The problem is, marriage is not synonymous with maturity or full adulthood. Some people mature before they marry, and some remain immature even if they marry young. Some people do not wish to marry at all! Christians need to demolish this false correlation between marriage and maturity in order to look at romantic relationships with clear eyes. Reducing wedded union to a cold, nigh-mandatory rite of passage does a disservice to marriage, which can and should be a loving relationship.

Also, practical considerations surrounding marriage should not be dismissed. The fact is, early adulthood is not the best time for many young people to wed. For young people, education is important. Securing a good job is important. Building up a nest egg is important. Dismissing these important tasks can throw a wrench in young people's lives in the form of underemployment, unemployment, and poverty. If young people can take steps to avoid these eventualities, they should, even if that means postponing marriage until a more opportune time arrives.

Furthermore, postponing marriage increases the likelihood of a healthy wedded life. Maturity, compatible personalities, and self-awareness are vital to a happy marriage, and these qualities often take years to fully develop. While some people who marry young do possess these qualities, they're much more likely to crystallize a few years down the road. As University of Illinois economics professor Evelyn Lehrer observes:
"Young people often have inadequate self-knowledge and are uncertain about their own future prospects and potential. They are also prone to misjudge the characteristics and likely trajectories of their partners. In addition, many of their adult attributes have not yet even emerged, making it difficult for them to select a mate who will be compatible as both partners mature. A very young age at marriage is one of the best predictors of divorce."
Let's not forget that the marriage paradigm being championed here is a heterosexual one. The assumption at work in the above narratives is that all Christians are heterosexual, and that Christian men are to marry Christian women. LGBTQ persons might wish to marry a same-sex partner but find themselves impeded by homophobic community attitudes or discriminatory marriage laws. In conversations about marriage, it's vital to remember that sexual diversity is part of the equation.

In short, the conversation surrounding Christian marriage needs to be nuanced and grounded in reality. Fortunately, new research is introducing nuance and practicality into that conversation. Will conservative Christians take notice?

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In America's changing economic landscape, early marriage does not necessarily serve any useful function, and may actually create unstable families. If conservative Christians want to encourage stable, resilient families, they need to recognize the merits of postponing marriage.

In their 2010 book, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone explore the links between conservative sexual values, early marriage, economic stress, and divorce. Red Families v. Blue Families delves into the marriage and family dynamics of those who espouse conservative values compared to their "blue state" counterparts. Cahn and Carbone demonstrate that early marriage and childbearing are not necessarily correlated with stable marriages, due in part to economic changes that make early marriage and parenthood financially stressful.
"Rooted in the urban middle class, the coasts and the "blue states" in the last three presidential elections, the Blue Family Paradigm emphasizes the importance of women's as well as men's workforce participation, egalitarian gender roles, and the delay of family formation until both parents are emotionally and financially ready. By contrast, the Red Family Paradigm--associated with the Bible Belt, the mountain west, and rural America--rejects these new family norms, viewing the change in moral and sexual values as a crisis. In this world, the prospect of teen childbirth is the necessary deterrent to premarital sex, marriage is a sacred undertaking between a man and a woman, and divorce is society's greatest moral challenge. Yet, the changing economy is rapidly eliminating the stable, blue collar jobs that have historically supported young families, and early marriage and childbearing derail the education needed to prosper. The result is that the areas of the country most committed to traditional values have the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates, fueling greater calls to reinstill traditional values."
In a May 2010 interview with All Things Considered, June Carbone explained that delaying marriage contributes to successful, stable marriages.
"... we find that people who do marry later late 20s, early 30s you've got a pretty good sense who's going to be successful and stable and a good marriage partner at 30. You're still guessing at 22. So one of the things that's happened is with a later average age of marriage, successful people are more likely to marry other successful people. And what you're finding is the group that is getting married at that later age knows what they're doing."
Recently, fresh research has contributed more evidence to the conversation. Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak conducted a study of divorce rates across the U.S. and found that a dense concentration of evangelical or conservative protestants predicted high divorce rates. Furthermore, Glass and Levchak found a correlation between high divorce rates and early age of first marriage and first birth among religious conservatives. Lower educational attainment and lower incomes among conservative protestants also contributed to high divorce rates. A summary of the study at the Council on Contemporary Families website explained how conservative religious climates discourage higher educational attainment and marriage postponement.
"Glass and Levchak believe that this comes from living in a cultural climate where most people expect to marry young and there is little support from schools or community institutions for young people to get more education and postpone marriage and children. Abstinence-only education, restrictions on the availability of birth control and abortion, support for marriage as the resolution of unexpected pregnancies, and distrust of secular education (especially higher education) among the populace in religiously conservative counties work to create an environment where young people of every religious belief – or none – tend not to pursue higher education or job training, and instead to engage in early marriage and child-bearing."
In short, if we want to help prevent economic hardships and unhappy marriages, we need to talk to young people about postponing marriage and choosing good partners. We need to educate young people about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality. We need to remind our young people that marriage is an important relationship, not a rite of passage and not something to enter hastily. We need to value education and financial literacy, and make these accessible to all. We need to strengthen anti-poverty initiatives and help those at risk of poverty. We need to see the connections. Michelle Goldberg sums up the situation succinctly in a January 22nd commentary at the Nation.
"Now, marriage can be great—that’s why liberals spend so much time fighting for marriage equality. But encouraging people to get married before they’re ready and encouraging them to put off having sex until they wed is a recipe for family instability. “Clearly you can’t put people with few relationship skills and few resources together at a really young age and saddle them with children and expect them to survive,” says Glass.

The blue state model—marriage is delayed; responsible premarital sex is approved—simply works better. That means emphasizing sex education and access to contraception and abortion while letting go of the fantasy of the male-breadwinner family. It means accepting that abstinence until marriage wouldn’t be a useful goal even it was realistic. It means realizing, once and for all, that conservative family values don’t work to conserve actual families."

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Dianna E. Anderson: The Case for Early Marriage? Confusing Is and Ought

Halfway to Normal: Why the case for early marriage worries me

HerMeneutics: A Christian Case Against Early Marriage

Christian Pundit: The Nauseating Push by Evangelicals for Early Marriage


  1. Once again we see a claim countered by reality. As far as I know, early marriage is considered a contributing factor to divorce, and nobody has a higher rate of divorce than the bible belt Christian community which again, says one thing, and does quite another.

    1. Sherry -- The subculture really needs to reexamine its assumptions about sex, relationships, and marriage. Some early marriages work, but many are a bad idea.

  2. While I was reading this excellent sequel to part 1 you made me think of something else, Ahab. In addition to the fact that early marriage creates all kinds of issues with poverty and incompatibility and a lack of education etc., all of this boils down (for me) to the fact that the young women involved are being almost methodically disempowered. Because their opportunities for real growth and maturity have been cut off, they do not have the knowledge, the confidence, or the financial means to overcome these issues and make their lives - and their children's lives - better.

    This, for me, is what make this push for early marriage not just misguided, but a social evil. It is a means of keeping women in their "place" and under control.

    1. Agi Tater -- Absolutely. It can be incredibly disempowering for young women, and by extension, her offspring. Things need to change.

  3. One of the most common non-religious arguments I hear in favor of early marriage is that married couples tend to build more net worth than single couples. The logic is then stretched to say that if people married younger they would build even more net worth than if/when they married late.

    The obvious problem with this idea is a divorce is one of the most effective way to destroy net worth. I've known far too many people in their mid-twenties saddled with debts accrued in a failed early marriage. By comparison, my spouse and I both lived independently and started building our assets long before we met each other.
    If we had met and married at say 20, I doubt we would still be married - both of our careers required lots of time and energy to get started; I was still learning how to be vocal about my needs and my husband was (in his words) still growing up.

    1. Nature Lover -- Excellent point. Early marriage can also result in early childbearing, which is financially draining and a huge obstacle to accruing net worth.


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