Stumping for Marriage: You’re Doing It Wrong, The Sequel.


Mark Regnerus, a professor at UT-Austin, argues that Americans should be marrying younger. He tries to make the case for this even after offering that “getting married at a young age remains the No. 1 predictor of divorce.”

First, what is considered “early marriage” by social scientists is commonly misunderstood by the public. The best evaluations of early marriage — conducted by researchers at the University of Texas and Penn State University — note that the age-divorce link is most prominent among teenagers (those who marry before age 20). Marriages that begin at age 20, 21 or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume.

Second, good social science pays attention to gender differences. Most young women are mature enough to handle marriage. According to data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, women who marry at 18 have a better shot at making a marriage work than men who marry at 21. There is wisdom in having an age gap between spouses. For women, age is (unfortunately) a debit, decreasing fertility. For men, age can be a credit, increasing their access to resources and improving their maturity, thus making them more attractive to women. We may all dislike this scenario, but we can’t will it away.

Third, the age at which a person marries never actually causes a divorce. Rather, a young age at marriage can be an indicator of an underlying immaturity and impatience with marital challenges — the kind that many of us eventually figure out how to avoid or to solve without parting. Unfortunately, well-educated people resist this, convinced that there actually is a recipe for guaranteed marital success that goes something like this: Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve. Presto: a marriage with math on its side.

Too bad real life isn’t like that. Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life.

A fundamental problem with arguments for marriage is that it’s not really statistically possible to tell which marriages are “working” and which ones are not. Using [YEARS MARRIED] as a barometer for a marriage’s health or happiness is obviously really problematic; plenty of people who are married for several decades believe, like the lady in the video, that divorce is not an option, and remain unhappily married for a really long time.

(I’d also like to note the dodge in his first point: Marriages that begin at age 20, 21 or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume. That’s impressively vague, homie.)

But none of the rest of his points are terribly convincing. He never considers that the well-educated marry older for reasons that might have nothing to do with oats-sowing or  bar-hopping or  extending adolescence. Maybe you want to travel when you’re just out of college. If it’s hard to be in law school/grad school/Ph.D programs when you’re 24, it’s probably exponentially harder when you’re 24 and married. And what about simply not having found someone you’d want to marry?

He also doesn’t acknowledge that what people want in marriages has changed dramatically over the last half-century, for myriad reasons. Our grandparents got married because there was tremendous social pressure to do so (and stigma for not doing so), but I think there’s more social stigma for us under 30-somethings to be married unhappily. Staying in an unhappy marriage is not seen as some deeply honorable thing. In making the decision to get married — and the fact that we can decide not to is another huge cultural change — I think people of marrying age today do so using much more involved calculus. At 20, 22, 24, 26,  we’re still legitimately working that stuff out.

Regnerus goes on:

“What really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I’ve met 18-year-olds who can handle it and 45-year-olds who can’t.”

And again, on balance, I’d guess that more  people can better do all of those things as they get older.

Jamelle and Amanda Marcotte have good takes, arguing that Regnerus’s tone and point are pretty sexist. It’s an observation I embarrassingly overlooked.

11 thoughts on “Stumping for Marriage: You’re Doing It Wrong, The Sequel.

  1. young_ April 27, 2009 at 2:43 pm Reply

    So I take it you didn’t buy his conservationist argument about marriage being great from a “green” perspective either…? lol

    • G.D. April 27, 2009 at 4:58 pm Reply

      lol. i especially. hated that argument.

  2. quadmoniker April 27, 2009 at 4:09 pm Reply

    I hated this because he completely assumes marriage is an unalloyed good. Maybe it was for him. But the freedom not to have to marry was hard-won, particularly for women. I suspect there’s much less social pressure not to get married at a young age than he assumes, especially in the south, and the truth is people are getting married at young ages less often not because of social pressures, but because that’s what they want to do. He makes a lot of careless assumptions, and draws a lot of careless connections.

    • universeexpanding April 28, 2009 at 10:14 am Reply

      “But the freedom not to have to marry was hard-won, particularly for women.”

      Thank you for saying this – I was too infuriated to articulate it.

  3. Jessica April 27, 2009 at 5:48 pm Reply

    I love the statement “women who marry at 18 have a better shot at making a marriage work than men who marry at 21.” It’s so blind- how about the alternate interpretation that those women who married at 18 have less chance of getting out of a bad marriage (e.g. less likely to have a higher degree and thus perhaps less likely to be able to get a job that allows them to support themselves, among other things).

    • G.D. April 27, 2009 at 5:53 pm Reply

      exactly. He’s using the “[YEARS MARRIED]” number and extrapolating all sorts of shit out from there.

      • Jessica April 27, 2009 at 6:00 pm Reply

        I totally agree. And here it’s not just that we’re lacking data on whether the 18-year-old brides had some other factor that may have caused them to stay married longer. It’s that getting married so young can actually be a trap. (Please don’t read this as a criticism of anyone who got married young and is totally happy with their decision- I don’t mean to say that it’s necessarily a negative.)

        • quadmoniker April 27, 2009 at 6:08 pm Reply

          Yeah, that’s the other thing. The idea that it’s completely individual, and that it might actually be a good thing to have the freedom to be an individual as we do now, is totally lost on this guy.

  4. FilthyGrandeur April 27, 2009 at 5:59 pm Reply

    this is why i hate statistics. they’re just numbers, and you can make numbers seem like anything without knowing the reasons behind the numbers. my grandparents have been married 53 years, and all they do is fight. on their 50th anniversary my grandma even admitted to everyone that the only reason she didn’t get a divorce years ago was she didn’t feel like going through all the work.

  5. quadmoniker April 27, 2009 at 6:11 pm Reply

    I also hate how he says in the story that women’s “market value” decline as the age. Because the only point of a woman getting married is to be a baby factory, obviously.

    • FilthyGrandeur April 27, 2009 at 6:32 pm Reply

      yet another perception of women as “goods.” ugh.

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