Thursday, May 25, 2006

When to Get Married -- Choice or Circumstance?

From Ash:

Today's Chicago Sun-Times has a nice piece by Andrew Herrmann entitled "Waiting (longer) for Mr. and Mrs. Right," about how American men and women are getting married at increasingly older ages. But what I think is perhaps the best part of the piece is that he never once used the phrase "delaying marriage."

Because "delaying marriage" is an all-too-commonly-used phrase to describe a non-existent phenomenon. People are getting married when they can get married -- not because they feel they should be married. And that, in my mind, is exactly the right time for them to do it.

I'm guilty of saying "delaying marriage" myself. I did it in our Factbook. But not in the next version. Because "delaying marriage" implies that the timing of marriage is some sort of freestanding event on a calendar, that we can do too early or too late. That there's some right time for it, and we missed it.

There's this implication that if men and women "delay marriage," that they're just procrastinating. That youth and -- uh -- the youth+ are delaying marriage, we imply that they've chosen to postpone an event. And that it was likely a bad decision.

It's like saying I chose to leave the milk in the fridge after the expiration date. That I've been putting off finding Mr. Right the same way I put off doing the laundry or paying the bills. And okay -- I do admit to putting off the laundry -- but most of the time, there's a good reason for it. I ran out of detergent. I don't have enough quarters for the laundry machine. I'm busy writing a blog. I had to work late.

Similarly, there are good reasons why people aren't getting married before their mid-20s. We used to spend just a few years in school. Now, it's not uncommon to go from grade school to grad school -- meaning some sort of school for 20 years.

In years past, you might have gone straight from school to till your family's farm or join your father in the factory he worked in. Now it can take years to even find a job, much less establish a career. In the meantime, there are bills to pay.

People are getting married later than their grandparents or their parents, because they don't feel like they have the option to get married earlier. There are just too many unknowns, now to get married at 18 or 21.

Historically, it's the marriages at the late teens and early 20s that are actually the aberration. On the average, people got married in 1961 younger than they did in the 1890s -- even though the life expectancy was much shorter back then.

Looking at a chart of age at first marriages that extends past the last 50 years, something occurs to me. People put off marriage -- or never got married at all -- during the Depression. They couldn't afford a relationship; they couldn't afford kids; they were too busy scraping by.

And it was during the years of World War II -- before and after -- that Americans really started to get married at younger and younger ages. So then too -- it wasn't that people were choosing to get married at such a young age.

They were getting married young because there just wasn't any alternative. You married your sweetheart before he shipped out to Europe or Korea, because who knows when or even if he'd ever return. Or you married the second he came home because the GI Bill was sending him off to college, or marrying him because of the housing shortage, and you didn't know what else to do.

Or maybe the guy you'd dated in the Depression, couldn't marry because you didn't have the money then, then served his time in the Military, and now that he's home with a job, you could finally afford to marry and have the family you'd been waiting for for a decade.

The only ones I can't figure out are the early Baby Boomers. Why'd they get married so young? They had choices -- work, school -- their families were comparatively well-off. What gives? What was it? Societal expectation? Boredom?

Perhaps. But -- whatever the answer -- we all found out what happens when you time marriage according to one's age, and not one's circumstance. Unhappy marriages and higher divorce rates.

Instead of thinking that people are delaying marriage, because they are too immature, that they're in danger of missing their marital expiration date, we should consider that late marriages are a sign of maturity, a thoughtful consideration of their circumstances and the desire to develop abilities brought into a marriage -- since both will challenge and serve that relationship from thereon in.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comments.

My personal story is a little different.

My grandmother's father was a Rabbi in Chicago. When my grandmother was 17, she was already a beauty queen. My grandfather was getting started in his law career (later became a Judge). He asked my grandmother to marry him. She said yes. But her parents wanted her to go to college. My grandmother promised to go to college if they gave the OK for the marriage. They did but my grandmother decided not to go to college. My grandmother was 20 years old when my aunt was born.

The next generation was interesting. My aunt married at 22 and her husband was a 19 year old college student. They had several kids in the next twenty years. He got his PhD. before the last child was born.

My parents married in their late 20s after meeting a few months before. My father asked my Mom to marry him on their first date but my Mom wanted to wait a year. I believe my father would have been better as a father if he and my Mom had me when they were 40 after my father mellowed out a little and grown up first. But my father wanted to start a family before age 30!

My Mom had me a few days before her 30th birthday. She was considered an "old mom" because the other mothers in the maternity ward were 19 years old, 23 year old (2nd child) and 28 year old (3rd child).

But Princess Margaret of England was over 30 years old when she had her first child.

A socialite in San Francisco was 38 years old when she had her first and only child. Her son wrote a book about his family last year.

Several actresses were 30 or older when they had their first child. Like Dyan Cannon or Jane Fonda.

When I was a kid growing up, it seemed that I was the only kid with the oldest parents. It seemed to me that all of the kids in my classes had mothers who were 18 years old when they were born.

BUT when I started high school, it was a different story. One of my best friends' mother was 35 when her older sibling was born. One of my boyfriends' mother was 40 when he was born (and he is an only child like me). His parents lived through the Depression.

Several friends had parents lived in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. These friends' parents were in their late 30s or early 40s when they were born.

My grandmother became a grandmother at 42 when my cousin was born. And that same cousin was in her early 40s when she had a baby.

In some ways, times have changed and in some ways, things have remained the same.

Again, this column made me ponder these points. I think what you said was right on target! I think it depends on where you look. In some places, there are younger parents and in other places, there are older parents.

8:13 AM  
Anonymous This Man said...

I agree with you Ash. I think that many people are getting married later because of modern day circumstances dictate that we have Maslow's pyramid of self actualization pretty well built, before we embark on such a momentous decision.
Financial security is a major reason why many people do not get married. Instead they have 'crutch' relationships--girlfriends / boyfriends --live-ins, etc..
They are a 'crutch' to carry us to the next step-marriage. And as you said so well, getting married / marriage is not an event that has a due date. It is very much a process. And because is it a process we have to be aware of all the mechanisms that keep that process optimal, so that we can actualize it as a result one day.

12:29 AM  
Blogger Andreia said...

It is interesting to me that we have gotten a completely different view of what is happening from Hollywood. Remember all the recent buzz about the younger actors getting married? Could they be ahead of a turn in the trend?

The major downside of these later marriages is of course the effect on fertility as more and more older women are trying to conceive and pushing the envelopes of both science and good sense. (thinking of the 63 French mother)

9:43 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Thanks very much for your comments. As I was writing, I really kept thinking of the cliches we say in terms of marriage-timing, such as "They're too young" and the thank-God largely gone-by-the-wayside "Old Maid."

Andreia, while I think that older marriages are probably better, and sort of inevitable, I wonder, too, about the related fertility issues. Although I'm less worried about women try to have children too late, and more concerned about those who learn that it is, in fact, too late, and that they've missed out entirely (wondering if I myself fall into that category). And that others will just forgo parenting altogether.

As for Hollywood's influence, I hope young people don't get married because of celebrity couples -- but I think most of them get divorced pretty quickly so that's got to be a mixed message. And it's more likely that even if they wanted to get married, economic realities, college, etc. will probably get in the way.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

Your article helped to reevaluate some things in my own relationship. I don't know if I should get marrried yet. I feel like it's a thing you have to do and a part of me wants to, but at the same time I'm so scared of it. I guess it hasn't happened for me yet because we're trying to wait when both of us are mentally and financially secure.

10:07 AM  

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