Thirty is the new 20, if Jay-Z is to be believed. This means the 20s are a time for fun, travel, schooling, trying out jobs, and experiencing relationships, according to the new conventional wisdom. These Odyssey years are definitely not meant for settling down and confronting adulthood full on.
Hence, 20something marriage is a definite no-no in the eyes of many journalists, academics, parents, and peers. After all, “selecting a lifelong mate is difficult to do before you’re all fully baked adults,” argues Slate columnist Amanda Marcotte. Critics of early marriage have a point. Plenty of young adults today don’t possess the maturity to tie the knot. It is also true that women who wait to marry until their 30s:
• Are more likely to acquire education and experience that will boost their professional prospects and income (this is especially true for college-educated women, who make about $10,000 more in mid-life than their peers who marry in their mid-20s); and,
• Are less likely to divorce than those who marry younger (though the heightened divorce risk is off the charts for teen weddings and relatively mild for those with weddings in their mid- or late-20s).
But postponing marriage also carries risks, risks that often go unacknowledged in our public and private conversations about marriage timing. Four risks are particularly salient:
1) Adults who postpone marriage — especially into their late 30s and beyond — are less likely to end up marrying at all. This doesn’t mean — as Newsweek erroneously claimed in 1986 — that a single 40-year-old woman is “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to ever tie the knot. But the longer you wait, the lower the odds that you will ever end up at the altar.
2) Women and men who put off marriage and parenthood are more likely to run afoul of the biological clock in one way or another. Women’s fertility typically peaks in their 20s and begins to fall in their 30s. And a growing body of evidence indicates that women and men who have kids later in life are more likely to have children with cognitive and emotional disabilities ranging from autism to schizophrenia.
3) Adults who marry later in life are more likely to acquire a relationship history — e.g, multiple sexual partners — that can cloud their future marriage. Men and women who have multiple partners prior to marriage may take a more cynical view of the possibility of lifelong love and may also accumulate emotional baggage from a series of failed relationships. One University of Chicago study found, for instance, that women who had multiple sexual partners were significantly more “likely to report low relationship satisfaction” and less global happiness.
4) Adults who postpone marriage until their 30s or beyond appear somewhat less likely to enjoy the highest-quality marriages. Research by the late sociologist Norval Glenn and his colleagues found “the greatest indicated likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality” was for couples who married in their mid-20s. They speculated that such couples may have more success in establishing a common marital and family identity, a sense of “weness”, compared to couples who marry after 30 and take a more individualistic view of things, where “me” is often more established, and more likely to trump “we.” The irony, of course, is that husbands and wives who put “we” ahead of “me,” who cultivate a sense of mutual dependence rather than hold onto their own independence, tend to be happier in their marriages.
Given the mix of rewards and risks associated with postponing marriage, the research indicates that:
• Young adults who are most concerned with work and money would do well, on average, to follow in the footsteps of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and marry and have kids later (Mayer and her husband, Zachary Bogue, tied the knot in their mid-30s).
• Young adults who put a premium on marriage and family would do well, on average, to marry in their mid-20s (think Kelly Ripa, Mark Consuelos, and their brood of three kids).
But more than the timing of the wedding, couples considering marriage should look to the quality of their love, maturity, and community support. Be they 25 or 35, couples who have the makings of a strong marital friendship, who are ready to put aside partying and the PlayStation, and who enjoy the support of friends and family are most likely to go the distance. For them, true love need not wait