New Insights Into Marrying Young

Up until a couple years ago, I thought I would go ballistic if ever my child at, say, 21 years of age, told me he/she wanted to get married. I was a firm believer in dating around, living life independently, and finishing college (at least) before marriage. I mean, that was fine if other people wanted to get married young, but I sure didn’t want my kids leaping in to something so serious at such a young age.I was actually a bit embarrassed that I got married as young as I did at 22 turning 23. But at least, I rationalized to myself, I had one year of grad school under my belt, one year of living in Europe, and a year of living by myself in my own apartment.

I think things did work out beautifully for me and Mike. He was 27 and finishing up grad school at the time of our marriage. We actually lived apart for the first 5 months of our married life as he finished up classes on the East Coast and I continued with my program on the West Coast. Though sometimes I have slight twinges of envy when I hear about the exciting lives of some of my single friends, I’ve never had a moment’s regret over marrying Mike when I did.

Over the last couple of years, my feelings about getting married young have started to change. I’ve met friends who got married in their very early 20’s, and have made a great life together. They’ve been able to grow, mature, and decide together what academic and career paths to take. Together their faith has matured and been nuanced. Together they’ve gone to other countries to teach English. Together they’ve become real adults.

When I see my couple friends who have gelled so nicely, I sometimes joke that Mike was too well formed, too set in his ways, when I married him. We have a fantastic marriage, but we haven’t grown together like others I know. We remain in different political parties. We remain with different approaches to living out our Mormon faith. We remain, well, very different.

While I like the idea of maturing together into adulthood, my change of heart really is due to conversations with some single friends. My best friend from high school recently broke up with her boyfriend of four years, the man she was convinced she would marry. But after giving the guy lots of time, he wasn’t ready for marriage so she was forced to break it off.

She came over to my home the other day and with tears in her eyes told me that she was now approaching 31, and that she should have been married by now, she should have had a baby by now. That this guy took the best years of her life, and how was she ever going to meet someone new and start again? My heart went out to her. And I’m worried that it will indeed be hard for her to meet new people since she’s a bit shy and dislikes bar scenes.

From talking to her, and to other single friends, I’ve learned how hard it can be to find someone when you’re getting into your 30’s. I’ve spent several hours worrying about my friends, hoping and praying that they will find the relationships they are looking for, and wracking my brains for men to introduce them to. (Disclaimer: My angst is due to their angst. If they were happy single, I would be certainly be happy for them.)

So what’s the upshot of all this? If my kid is 21 and desperately in love with a good kid who has potential, I won’t stand in their way. I’d hate to put my foot down against an early marriage and then live to see my child with regrets later on if another special person didn’t come along.

What are your feelings about marrying young? Or about marrying older? What are the pros and cons of these two different paths that you have seen in your life, or the lives of your friends?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. FoxyJ says:

    I think it would really depend on my child and their level of maturity. I hate to generalize ahead of time, although I would certainly want my kids to have a little maturity before marrying. I’ve had friends that married young and have done well, others that have ended up in abusive relationships. I was 23 and my husband 22 when we married, so definitely on the young-ish side. It’s been 6 years now and I’m not so sure we’re growing together in the same ways; he’s no longer active in the church, so in that sense we are not as close as we used to be. I’m not sure that marrying young is always positive or always negative. I do feel that later marriage can be hard for a lot of reasons. I have a close friend who married for the first time at 36. Her husband was six years older and previously married. They struggled a lot their first few years of marriage and even know are not as closely entwined as many couples I know. They still live mostly separate lives. That might be due to personality, but living by yourself for twenty years sets up habits and expectations that aren’t there for younger couples.

  2. Kevin says:

    I married at 21 in the BYU marriage machine. My 21-year old son is sitting on the couch next to me as I type this, and neither of us can imagine him getting married anytime soon. It seemed natural to me, but now it seems so very young.

  3. Sue says:

    I changed so much between the ages of 19 and 22 that I was practically a different person. A person I would have picked at 19 would probably NOT have been good for me. That’s what I worry about. Having the emotional maturity to make a good decision about what kind of person I would be able to be happy with for the rest of my life.

    But in the mormon world, it’s just a reality that an awful lot of good guys and girls are taken by their mid-twenties. I know it’s not PC to say that, but it’s reality. Mormons marry young. We’re raised to pursue marriage. So it’s a balancing act between beting mature enough to marry and getting married at all.

  4. Mike says:

    Our birthdays are both in August, and you were born four years after me. So, if you round down as you like to do, our marriage occurred when I was 26 and you were 22.

    To be honest I prefer linear age counting, which would put me at 26.97 and you at 22.92. If you round to the nearest integer, which is perhaps more honest than rounding down, then that puts us at 27 and 23, respectively. Do you, at 23, qualify as marrying young?

  5. Caroline says:

    You and your linear age counting! And oops, my bad. You were indeed a couple of weeks away from your 27th b-day. Thanks for clearing that up 🙂 And yes, I do think 23 is youngish to get married.

    totally true. Maturity level would be hugely important. If I had a kid who was 21 but acted like 17 I’d be seriously worried.

    kevin, I think a lot of parents would think the same. Maybe people tend to take longer to mature these days?

    Sue, me too. The guys I was intrigued by at 19 would not have been good for me to marry. Thank goodness I got my thinking right by the time I was 22.

  6. AmyB says:

    This post has got me thinking. I got married a few weeks shy of 22. In Utah that seemed normal. Now that I live in NYC, people are sometimes shocked that I’m married at the young age of 28. I have certainly grown in a lot of ways together with DH. Our political and religious views have followed similar trajectories. I’ve supported him through lots of school, and soon he will be supporting me again as I go back. I know I wouldn’t be the same person I am now without the refining fire of our relationship, and I feel good about who I’ve turned out to be so far. I have occasional regret about not dating around more or doing more before getting married, but overall I’m really pleased with how my life has turned out.

    Maybe people take a little longer to mature these days?

    There is actually some evidence to support this. One of my favorite developmental psychologists, Robert Kegan, makes a good case. What he claims is not that a 21-year-old is necessarily less mature in 2007 than one would have been in 1962 or 1803, but that in modern life there are more complex demands placed on people to navigate adult life. The maturity level that matches those demands occurs later. So going off to college as a kind of holding place to mature more and be more prepared to meet the demands of life in the 21st century makes perfect sense. It’s not a case of lazy youth prolonging their adolescence, but developmentally needed and appropriate. I’m not sure I distilled a whole book of explanation down into a few sentences very well, but I hope that makes a little sense.

  7. Ana says:

    My husband and I married when I was 19 and 4 months. He was a couple weeks shy of 22 – almost a year off his mission. We’d known each other for almost 4 years at that point – 2 of them by written correspondence. We have definitely grown up together in the way you refer to – each of our opinions and ideas informing the other’s. We finished college, and for my husband, a Master’s degree, before our kids came along, but that was really only because we were infertile and became parents through adoption. It’s hard to say how much we would have been able to experience and accomplish if we’d been able to have homemade babies as planned.

    My youngest sister just got married at 18 1/2. This caused a lot of upheaval in my family because a lot of people are of your former opinion – that marrying young is always a bad idea. (Strange that they didn’t feel that way 15 years ago when I got married!)

    I think, as foxy said, it matters a lot how ready the individual person is. As a parent I hope my kids will know their own levels of preparation and maturity enough to make good decisions. I hope I feel like I can trust them. And I hope that even if I am worried, I will have the grace to act like I trust them. From what I’ve seen, to do otherwise just creates resentment and deprives a young couple of relationships they will probably need to support them in their commitment to each other.

  8. Cheryl says:

    I find this post extremely interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage age (and divorce) lately. Here are a few scenarios that just have me thinking a little:

    My grandmother didn’t marry until she was 33 (my grandfather was a divorced father of two when they married). She then had four children, giving birth to the fourth at age 40. My grandfather passed away at 85, and several of his grandchildren never even met him.

    My parents were married at 21. They will celebrate 30 years next week.

    My aunt and uncle married each other (first marriages for both) when she was 34 and he was 40.

    My MIL and FIL married at 19 and 20 and divorced after 21 years.

    My SIL waited until she was 26 to get married and her hubby is a little younger. They (so far!) are very, very happy together.

    I was 19 and my husband was 22 when we married. We both had 2 1/2 years of college left. We managed to have a baby and graduate in the same week. Although we’ve only been married for Nine years (next month!), there aren’t any regrets at the age I we married.

    I think it’s a lot like what foxyj said: it’s not all cut and dry. Some people marry young –some don’t. But Sue had another valid point –Mormons marry young. And good Mormons tend to want marriage and children sooner rather than later. To me, it makes sense. My Aunt that married at 34 is EXHAUSTED with her two children, because she’s in her forties and potty training. Her husband is also very hard to get along with because he was used to his own way of doing things (as others mentioned).

    I’ll be 29 soon, and I already have four children. I can’t even FATHOM what it would have been like if I had waited and started now. I’m already tired!

    I guess my point is that marrying young, if it’s right (prayer, prayer, some more prayer), is a good thing. But that’s not always an option. And I know my grandmother and my aunt wouldn’t trade their husbands and children for anything, regardless of when or how they came, you know? 🙂

  9. Tatiana says:

    I feel sure it would have been disasterous for me to marry at age 18, when my then boyfriend proposed. I was immature for my age, I think, and college and work really helped teach me to become a capable and independent person. I don’t think I would have been a good mother at age 19. By the time I was about 25 I feel it would have been the right age for me.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t meet anyone from age 25 to 35. I thought it would just happen for me someday but it never did. Then I joined the church and went through this sudden shift in which what is still marriageable age in our larger culture is grandmother-aged inside Mormon culture.

    If the internet existed when I was 25, I would probably be married now. As it is, I think there’s little chance that I’ll meet someone now.

    I think the right age to marry, though, does totally depend on the people involved. My aunt and uncle married very young (she was 16 and he was 18) and they were perfect for each other and had a long happy marriage. They would have been foolish to wait. I think I did the right thing for myself by waiting, even though I ended up never marrying. Though I would love to be married to the right guy and have 5 kids, I don’t think at age 18 I made the wrong choice.

  10. Caroline says:

    amyb, thanks for the psychology info. Very interesting. I wonder what it is about modern life that makes it more complex to navigate than life a century ago…

    “As a parent I hope my kids will know their own levels of preparation and maturity enough to make good decisions. I hope I feel like I can trust them. And I hope that even if I am worried, I will have the grace to act like I trust them.”

    Me too! Though I don’t know if I would be able to act like I trust them if I truly thought the potential spouse was trouble. But I think you’re right that you probably have to in the end shrug your shoulders and tell your kid that you’ll be supportive, despite your worries.

    That is wide range of marital experiences in your family. Goes to show that maybe one path isn’t a whole lot better than the other. And I definitely see exhaustion ahead for me – I had my first baby at 29 and will have the rest in my 30’s.

    Tatiana, thanks for your perspective. It does indeed sound like you made the right choice at 18.

  11. MJK says:

    My husband and I married when I was 21 and he was 26. I know that his non-mormon parents thought he was a little young and that I was terribly young, but then I think they were around 25 when they married, so it’s all in perspective.

    Over the last five years I have definitely seen the signs of growing together, meshing, being closer, and I do love that, as does my husband. He’s one of those men born to monogamy, and loves our closeness and the growing we do together. Yes some of it is hard, some problems we might have avoided if we’d been older and had thus had certain issues come up beforehand, but I would not trade it for anything.
    For now, my view on our kids is that as long as I feel they are mature enough to make a wise decision, they can choose to marry when they wish.

  12. ME says:

    I married for the first time at age 38 and the package deal included 4 teenage step kids. We each have our ossified ways of doing things and it’s challenging to grow together and meld our approaches into a unified whole.

    I was single longer than I thought I would be and empathize with the times when it seems like getting married seems hopelessly out of reach.

    At the same time, I enjoyed single life. I don’t know that I could have taken on the challenges of married life without the years of single, independent living and figuring things out on my own.

    If one of my step kids wanted to get married at a young age, I’d encourage them to finish college first and to take all the time they need to make an informed choice of spouse/partner. I would guess their parents’ divorce might make them more cautious about marriage or marrying young.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I was 19 and dh turned 23 only days after we married. In the 10 years since then there has been a lot of growing and changing, not all of it good or easy. It’s been a fight to stay together sometimes, but I think we’ve both learned much more about ourselves through that than we would’ve otherwise. We still have seperate political parties and we still think very differently, but since we did it together we appreciate those things about one another.
    That being said, I would never recommend that path as a necessary one. I was a YW leader and I strongly suggested they try being out of their teens before considering marriage. Not everyone gets lucky enough to have a marriage work at such a young age. The growing up part can be hard on a relationship.

  14. Tatiana says:

    One thing that is great to realize is that they’re going to make their own choices about whom they marry and when, so that while we can advise we don’t have the tremendous burden of deciding on our heads. Our own lives are hard enough without that! 🙂

  15. G says:

    I didn’t marry until my late 20’s (27? 28? can’t remember at the moment). and I still wonder if I didn’t marry to soon! but it has been good for me.

    I am just sooooo glad I didn’t marry when I was 18 to 21 ish… what a mess that would have been.

    oh the other hand, some people are completely ready by that age and it is perfect timing for them.
    so there you go!

  16. c.w. says:

    My in-laws married at a very young age. She was 16 and he was 18. They had been married over 60 years when they both died last year. They went through his service in WW 2, several heart surgeries, financial struggles, and many other difficulties during their life together. Experiences that would have doomed many other marriages. Yet, I have never know a couple more devoted to each other than they were. I don’t know if it their age had anything to do with their marital success, but it does cause me to wonder.

  17. jana says:

    My spouse and I were both 21 when we married. It was too young in some ways–we weren’t financially secure and that’s caused some problems in the first few years as I children started coming along.

    But I have to say that it’s really wonderful to be 36 and my youngest is in 6th grade. I’m nearing the end of my PhD program and will be hitting the market about the time my oldest is graduating from high school. That’s pretty cool, IMO, considering that most of my colleagues (of my same age) are just barely starting their families!

    I also love that I was so eager and idealistic when my kids were babies. I believe that gave me the energy to be a good parent for them. 🙂

  18. LCM says:

    I was engaged when I was 19, to get married at the time, actually it was just to that guy, would have been a big mistake. On the other hand, I got married at 21 and he was 23 and it was perfect. I think it’s good to grow together. It’s given us a chance to adjust to things before we are both set in our ways. I can’t imagine getting married now, at 32, and getting used to someone else’s long established way of doing things. Also, I am so glad to have childbearing over. If I would have waited until much later, the first kid would’ve killed me. As a 23 year old, I was healthy enough to take it. I think we do expect people to mature much more slowly now and I don’t think that’s such a good thing.

  19. njp says:

    Marriage is so important that it should be done only after a lot of prayer –whatever age it happens at.

    I know people, who waited to marry and who couldn’t grow together because they chose to be set in their ways. I know people, who married young and it didn’t last because they kept worrying about the things they had missed out on.

    And I also know people, who married young and it lasted and was great, and I know people, who married late and have wonderful marriages.

    There is no magic age to marry.

    I also have experience with my own children marrying the wrong people and there wasn’t a thing I could do but love them and be there for them. Voicing major disapproval would have made them pull away. We did say something –once — to each child, but then we backed off when they decided to go through with their marriages. We learned to love the people they chose and grieved when the marriages fell apart.

    By the bye, I married my dh when he was 39 and I was 19. With the Lord’s help, we’ll be married 37 years this next Saturday. (My parents gave it a year.)

  20. Heather O. says:

    My sister got married when she was just shy of 21. I thought it was ridiculously young (although I was married at the ripe age of 23). She said something that has stuck with me when I ribbed her about getting married so young. She said she never planned on it, but it just so happened that the man of her dreams showed up when she was 20. Why would she put off marriage to a man she loved just because it didn’t happen to her later? So she went for it, and has been happily married for over 10 years.

    I would much, much, much rather have my kids marry young but marry well than to have them marry late but marry losers.

  21. Courtney says:

    I started dating my husband when I was 19 and got married when I was 20 (he was 23). My parents were FREAKED out, and it took them a long time to convince them it would be ok.
    I definitely agree with what Heather O. said– at least that’s how it was for me. I NEVER planned on getting married when I was 20, but I fell in love with a really great guy, so would I wait just for the sake of being older?
    But, like foxyj pointed out, a lot depends on maturity. If my 19 year-old sister wanted to marry one of her boyfriends, we would all be worried, and very rightly so.

  22. Lessie says:

    I don’t post often, and I know I’m a little late to the discussion, but this is actually something that still kind of gets to me. My dh and I married at 20 (me) and 22 (him). We were nowhere near ready, especially considering we got married more because of the “If two righteous people get married, they can make it work no matter what” quote. It’s been a long 5 1/2 years getting to a point that we are totally in love with each other. We wouldn’t trade for anyone anymore, but it took some counseling to get us there. Also, I did a lot of changing after we got married. I didn’t really know who I was at 20 yet, so I had a lot of figuring out left to do. So there are somethings that we’ve not really grown together on because while my hubby doesn’t mind listening to my interests, they’re really not all that interesting to him and so sometimes he doesn’t really understand why I’m so passionate about some things. I’m definitely encouraging my boys to take their time at finding a mate (no daughters, alas). However, I hope that I will support them should they choose otherwise.

  23. Caroline says:

    Lessie, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m glad to hear that you guys have been able to work out some difficulties after an early marriage.

    Everyone else, I loved hearing your perspective. Thanks for the input!

  24. mckenzi says:

    I was suprised to read in my great grandmothers journal that she thought ‘children’ make the best parents because they teach there children to be more playful and less serious.

  25. emily says:

    Getting married young is a mistake no matter how “mature” one is. A teenager or someone in their early 20’s has not had enough life experience to make a good choice. I am not saying that the marriage will end in divorce. But I am saying there will be regrets. Everyone should have a career, live on their own, travel, support themselves financially, and gather experiences that make for a more complete individual and hence, a more complete partnership with a spouse in the future.

  26. Janna says:

    I agree with others’ comments about just marrying the right person, regardless of your age.

    I am 36 years old, and very hopeful that I will marry. I find it interesting that many people say that the reason “older” singles (is it fair to say that 36 is “older”?) is that they grow rigid in their ways, not amenable to the change and compromise required for a successful and happy marriage. However, I’m becoming more flexible as I grow older – more willing to listen, more open. Given that my process is reversed or slow (softening later), it may mean that I won’t have the life that many other women have. Oh, well — whaddyado?

  27. LCM says:

    Boy Emily, I would hate to dole out absolutes. I have no regrets at all. I am glad I met my husband when I was younger (in college, and I did finish). I got married at 21 and he was 23. I am glad I had my children when I was younger. It has made life easier for me knowing I had a support system at home in my husband. There’s no reason why I couldn’t grow with him and have someone to share experiences with.

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