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Is it bad to marry young? Here’s what marriage research says

Common wisdom seems to dictate that young adults wait to marry until they’ve finished their schooling, launched a career and had a few youthful adventures to help them “find themselves.” They’ll be more mature, the thinking goes, and better able to form a lasting romantic attachment.

Meanwhile, those who marry in their early 20s may arrive at the altar amid others’ lament that they’re too young and the marriage will fail.

But what if those claims are not really true? What if marriage stability isn’t about age?

“State of Our Unions 2022,” the latest in an annual reckoning on marriage, finds little evidence that marriage is stronger if you wait until you’re at least 25 to wed, compared to those who marry in their early 20s. Released Wednesday, the report is produced by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University using three recent large, nationally representative datasets.

“We didn’t find evidence of age as a strong indicator of marital success,” said Alan Hawkins, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and the study’s lead author. “Some measures tilted slightly in favor of those who married younger.”

“Twentysomething marriage is not for everybody,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and the report’s editor, in a written statement. “It requires an extra measure of maturity and intentionality. But, surprisingly, this report finds that those who marry in their early 20s are somewhat more likely to report that they are happy and sexually satisfied compared to those who marry later.”

Young marriages — excluding teen marriage, which is still very prone to fail — are called “cornerstone” marriages because they provide a foundation as partners forge family life and hit milestones like education and career together, often struggling some financially at the start.

“Capstone” marriages, on the other hand, involve people who are 25 or older. The term acknowledges that the individuals have already launched and feel ready to cap off achievements like education, career start and a bit of financial security by getting married.

Overall, the report said, empirical evidence doesn’t favor capstone over cornerstone marriages.

America’s marriage trends

The “State of Our Unions” report is not the only one to note that marriage trends are changing.

According to the 2021 American Family Survey, “There is reason to believe that people are slightly growing less attached to marriage as an institution. The percentage of people who believe that marriage makes children and families better off, that it is necessary to create strong families, or that it makes society better off, have all fallen slightly. And though people still think positively of marriage, the percentage who think it is old-fashioned and out-of-date has also grown in recent years.”

That survey, conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, adds, “Though we would not want to imply that marriage is in trouble as an institution, there is slight erosion in its popularity.”

But the ages at which people marry — or don’t — and the reasons underpinning those decisions have certainly undergone a transformation.

Americans are marrying later. In 1970, the median age at first marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men. In 2021, the ages were 28 and 30, respectively, the new report says.

While the report acknowledges the change could be a “sensitive evolution to changing social norms,” it could come at a cost that makes marriage less likely entirely, Hawkins said.

He worries that the emphasis on waiting to marry until one is established, as well as the near-stigma attached to young marriage, could further hurt an institution that fewer people engage with — to their own and society’s detriment.

“For many people, it’s going to easily change from ‘I need to wait until I get my ducks in a row’ to ‘I’m never going to get my ducks in a row. Thus, marriage isn’t for me’,” Hawkins said.

Among the new report’s findings:

  • Young people live together as couples at the same age that older generations did, but without marrying first. Delaying marriage does not delay sex.
  • Roughly 20% of young adults marry between ages 20 to 24. Another 25% say they would like to marry before 25, so that’s not an unpopular option.
  • Husbands in the early-married group reported greater marital satisfaction (81% vs. 71%) and sexual satisfaction (63% vs. 49%). Among the married-young wives, 73% report marital satisfaction compared to 70% of wives who married later. And 62% report sexual satisfaction, compared to 51% of the so-called “older-marrieds.”
  • Minimal or insignificant differences were found based on age of marriage when it came to household chores or teamwork, financial values, relationship worries and couple distress.
  • Couples who reported feeling like adults at younger ages were more likely to feel ready to marry at younger ages.
  • Religious differences between those in capstone marriages and cornerstone marriages are not very wide.
  • Researchers didn’t see a difference in divorce and separation among those marrying younger than 25 vs. those marrying after that but before age 30. After age 30, divorce rates start to rise.

Identity vs. we-dentity

Datasets don’t talk about personality or document maturity. It’s likely that some self-selection goes on among the early-married couples, said Hawkins.

But the researchers found two related points in the data they used. Those who choose early marriage feel like they’re an adult about two years earlier than those who choose later marriage. And they feel like they’re ready for marriage three or four years earlier, as well.

In their early 20s, people are still forming their identities and are likely a little idealistic, so Hawkins thinks many find it ”easier to fall madly in love than when you’re 29 and have an established lifestyle and are looking for a perfect mate. Too many wonderful people are disqualifying themselves because they don’t fit what you imagined.”

Marital satisfaction may be higher among young couples, especially young men, because they “really do have stars in their eyes,” he said.

Believing you have to know who you are to give yourself to another is “half a grain of truth and half a grain of a lie,” said Hawkins. “We-dentity becomes more important in a marriage than i-dentity.”

When the researchers looked at data ranking the importance of marriage, parenting, career, work, recreation and fun, they found differences only on parenting between those who married young and those who waited. Those who married early put more weight on parenting.

“We suspect that one of the things that motivates earlier marriage is more of a child-centric view,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins noted that those who marry young can probably delay having children for a few years, but those who marry older can find themselves limited by their biological clock. Fertility stress may be one reason those who marry later are “not as star-in-their-eyes happy” as younger-marrieds, he said. Couples may start to focus more on timing and the possible challenges of becoming parents than on the relationship with each other.

The authors said it’s possible that the focus on personal identity and growth that underpins waiting to marry could also make it harder for those who marry to mesh as a couple.

Older age at marriage also increases the likelihood that couples have engaged in behaviors that research links to a greater likelihood of divorce, including cohabitation without strong plans to marry and having multiple sexual partners.

Let couples choose

The capstone marriage model, which is supposed to increase stability, may be increasing inequality and contributing to the increase in nonmarital births as some believe they cannot yet afford to wed, said Jason Carroll, associate director of the Wheatley Institution and a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life, who is one of the report’s co-authors.

The report says close to 40% of US children are born to unwed parents — including more than 60% of births to less educated women and more than half of first births. “Many of these nonmarital births are to cohabiting parents, but their fragile unions are unlikely to survive more than a few years,” the report says.

“This is why many experts point to these trends as important drivers of the economic inequalities we have in our society,” Carroll said.

Are the researchers calling for more people to marry at younger ages? No. But they want people to be less judgmental and more supportive of those who do choose to get married in their early 20s.

“These findings don’t necessarily suggest that more people need to get married in their early and mid-20s, but rather that we can do a better job of supporting couples who already choose to marry during these years,” said Carroll.

The researchers acknowledge valid reasons for wanting to delay marriage. “A capstone fits nicely on (a) well-designed structure” that includes what’s been called the success sequence. It includes doing some things, including investing in higher education and establishing steady employment that creates some financial stability and shows maturity.

The success sequence does not include indulging in casual sex, serial cohabitation and unwed births. For those who choose premarital cohabitation, commitment to marriage increases the chance the relationship will be stable.

“With the right personal maturity and healthy relationship dynamics, these couples have every chance of success as couples who marry later in life,” Carroll said.

Other study authors include Anne Marie Wright Jones, a graduate student at BYU, and associate professor Spencer L. James.

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