At my parish moms’ club, mothers arrive in the church hall with their preschoolers and toddlers ready for play. They speak lovingly of their husbands and their home life. Most of the women I encounter in my slice of suburbia outside of Washington, D.C.—a kind of Norman Rockwell world with intact two-parent families—married in their late twenties or even their late thirties.
Many cultural conservatives insist that this trend to later marriage is a problem for marriage and society. In a Christianity Today cover story two years ago titled “The Case for Early Marriage,” Mark Regnerus argued that delaying marriage was “battling our Creator’s reproductive designs.” Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, argued that we risked temptation by delaying marriage through the years of peak sexual interest and that years of dalliance threatened to make marriage another exercise in self-therapy, a mere “capstone that completes the life of the autonomous self.”
Popular Catholic writer Harold Fickett has written that he hopes his children marry young because “what I don’t want for them is to have sex with a string of people as they try to put an economic life together, only to find that the best part of life—marriage and family—has passed them by. And I very much doubt that they are possessed of heroic virtue.”
Yet later marriage has been typical in the United States and among other Western cultures at many times in the past. The difference between then and now is that there was no cultural assumption that individuals who delayed marriage would naturally abandon traditional sexual mores, even if they did not always succeed in obeying them.
In many ways, the earlier marrying age of the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer offspring was an aberration. The Census Bureau estimates that the median marriage age in 1890 was 26.1 for men and 22.0 for women. By 1930 it had dropped to 24.3 for men and 21.4 for women. The lowest recorded age for marriage came in 1956, when the median man and woman got married at ages 22.5 and 20.1, respectively.
Since then, figures have rebounded, coming closer to the ages typical in the nineteenth century—over 28.7 for men and, a relatively higher 26.5 for women. As Kay Hymowitz noted in a City Journal essay on the current rise of young single women, “The cultural anomaly was the 1950s and ’60s, when the average age of marriage for women dipped to twenty—probably because of post-Depression and postwar cocooning.”
Few in previous generations believed it required “heroic virtue” to save oneself for marriage, and those who failed to do so usually accepted it as an ideal. Human biology is no different today, but societal expectations are. The Baby Boom generation and new technologies changed the norms. As Jennifer Moses, a Boomer, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “We are the first moms in history to have grown up with widely available birth control, the first who didn’t have to worry about getting knocked up. We were also the first not only to be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputation but actually pressured by our peers and the wider culture to find our true womanhood in the bedroom.”
It is this societal pressure that Generation X and the Millennials inherited. Now young women and men enter campus cultures where they are greeted with condoms at the dorm entrances and where student health nurses offer them contraceptive pills if they walk into the clinic for a sinus infection. Even high school teachers assume that sexual activity is normal among their students, and popular media, advertisers, and intellectual leaders send the same message.
In such a culture, could early marriage somehow lead to a greater respect for sexual virtue or at least respect for those who wish to strive for it? There is no particular reason to think so. The later marrying age in the United States is here to stay, and there is no reason for people of faith to fear it. In fact, we should embrace it as a good thing. Individuals who marry after age twenty-five have lower divorce rates than those who marry before then, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. (The difference is even greater compared to those who marry in their teen years.) When individuals delay marriage they actually increase their chances of an enduring union as long as they do not live together beforehand.
Many argue that if women marry too late they will risk their chance at having a biological family of their own. Yet a woman who marries at twenty-eight or thirty still has about ten years of potential fertility ahead of her. While conceiving and bearing children after thirty-five and certainly after forty can be more difficult, the rise in infertility in the United States in recent decades is not due to age alone. Contemporary times have also seen an epidemic rise in venereal diseases like chlamydia, an asymptomatic STD that can have decimating effects on a woman’s fertility and is often discovered too late to prevent its long-term consequences.
Later marriage can lead to a more stable union for several reasons. First is the maturity or wisdom people can gain during their early twenties. Those who are emotionally “needy” or immature are unlikely to be ready for the sacrifices of matrimony. The first years out of college in which a person must learn to survive on his own can be a significant time for growth. Understanding the challenges and rewards of single life can help one better respond to the call to marriage. Recent research may lend this view some credence. A study by the National Institutes of Health last year found that the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, the part associated with reasoning and judgment, is not fully developed until age twenty-five.
The second benefit of delaying marriage is greater knowledge of the world. The college (or high school) romance is often insulated from many of the demands of the working world—the schedules to keep and bills to pay. Learning how you and yours bear up under these pressures is far from a necessary condition for marriage, but it can be a considerable advantage. Financial stability and education are strong predictors of marital success, and people who delay marriage to achieve either one will have gained useful assets for building a successful married life.
The other possible advantage of later marriage comes in the realm of virtue. Marriage is no cure for a roaming eye or roving heart, and those who master themselves before entering the union will be much less likely to try to leave it. Abstaining from sex may seem well-nigh impossible to some, but pursuing chastity provides single people an invaluable education in virtue and a fitting preparation for faithful marriage.
The problem with our marriage culture is not that individuals are marrying too late. It is that there is a presumption that individuals should sexually “experiment” before marriage, as though human beings were laboratory animals, not whole persons possessed of souls and bearing human dignity. Rather than encourage people to marry early, we should embrace later marriage but reframe the idea of what the single years are all about. Instead of being a time to get moral recklessness out of one’s system, these are years when men and women can grow in wisdom, knowledge, and virtue, all things that can make one a better spouse.
Elise Ehrhard is a freelance writer whose articles on culture, religion, and politics have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Washington Times, Crisis, and other publications.