The Cult of Marriage: Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Marry Young

PH & TPRecently I read an article by Julia Shaw bemoaning the ever decreasing percentage of people getting married young.  Shaw bucked this trend and got married at 23. In her article, she wondered out loud what the rest of us are waiting for. The crux of her argument, that more people should marry young, pretty much centers around the fact that she got married young, and, a few years in, still hasn’t come to regret it. First and foremost, I think Mrs. Shaw needs to cool out holding her own marriage success up so high. After all, the real definition of a successful marriage is one in which someone dies before there is a divorce. I know this sounds morbid, but anything short of that is a failed marriage.

That said, there is one thing Shaw is undeniably right about, and that’s the fact that more and more people are putting marriage off till later in life. According to Pew Research, only 21% of Millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000 got married in their 20s. This is 8% fewer than Gen Xers and 21% fewer than the Baby Boomers. So is this something to be worried about, and what explains it?

No, it’s nothing to be worried about. And honestly, I think there’s a surprising amount of consistency in the reasoning of Millennilas for putting off marriage. Some are simple economics: It’s a lot harder to be financially ready for marriage than it used to be. My parents’ first house was 20 grand, they were comfortably middleclass without having college degrees or the debt that comes with them. Today’s reality would more likely be young people getting married and moving back home or getting roommates. I’m OK with having avoided that. Another reason Millennials are holding out is the culture of divorce we’ve grown up with. Seeing how often marriages end in divorce, even for those of us who aren’t from broken homes, makes us all a little more standoffish/serious about marriage.

Wholly related to these reasons, many of us come to see being young and single for what it is, a very small period of time in life where we can experience and live it on our own terms. Whether this means killing it at work, chasing a dream, traveling the world or just trying to figure things out, they can all be done more easily without turning our lives into a democracy of spousal consent. And while I have no doubt that the support of a loving spouse can be beneficial during any of these endeavors, I can’t help but to wonder if that support doesn’t stunt a person’s growth as an individual. Because as much as any 23 year old wants to think they’re grown, there is still a lot they have to figure out for themselves even if that means failing.  Many of us see our 20s as a time for trial and error and that is easier to do when you’re the only one affected by it. I’m by no means saying a person has everything figured out or are done growing and changing by time they’re 30, but I think any 30 year old will attest to the fact they know a few more important things about what they need and must avoid to live happily ever after than they did at 23.

Now by time Millennials hit the 30 mark their views on marriage start to diversify a bit more. I’ve found Millennials tend to fall into one of three groups: The “Oh Shit, I’m almost 30 and not married yet” group, the “I’m already married, you should be too” group, and the “I’m not in a rush” group. The Marrieds and No-Rushers both look at each other with suspicion and both believe the other wants what they have.

To that end, most of my married friends are unbelievably eager for me to settle down and join their ranks. They encourage me to marry with a near cult like fervor. But hey, maybe they just want someone to couple date with, or maybe they think I’m miserable and know the cure… Or, maybe misery loves company.

Whichever it is, their sales pitch about marriage and how everyone should do it right away has the same flaw as Mrs. Shaw’s argument: they never acknowledge the role the person you’re supposed to hurry up marry plays. And this is where the dirty little secret of many Already-Marrieds comes into play. Many of them used to belong to a fourth group of Millennials called the “Oh Shit, I’m almost 25 and not married yet.” As the name would suggest, most members of this group get married well before turning 30. The handful of them that remain unwillfully single at 30 are welcoming a 3rd cat into their home and scaring off any potential suitors by taking things too fast.

And as a member of the No-Rush group, I find this lack of concern with who I marry to be a glaring oversight and is where my suspicion of people who marry young comes from. Because, again, when pushing marriage on me like a drug dealer trying to hook a teen, they never seem to accept the answer that I haven’t met the right person. They view marriage as a formula that any ol’ person can be plugged into once you reach a certain age or point in life.

Let me give you one quick example. Back when I was a poli-sci major, a major full of type A lawyer wannabes with their lives mapped out years ahead of them, there was a 20-year-old girl whose stated goal was to be married by time we graduated. She had a serious boyfriend the whole first year I knew her before breaking up. A replacement was quickly found, and they dated right up until Christmas break of our final year. Obviously, with just five months left till graduation, this girl now had no chance of keeping her life on schedule, right? Wrong. In comes serious relationship number three that ends with a proposal at graduation. While this is obviously an unusual story, it raises the question: Which came first, the right person or her desire to get married?  I feel what happens more often than not with people who get married young is that getting married is their top priority whereas who they marry is, if not inconsequential, a distant second. What else could explain people giving up the awesome benefits of being young and single for the bad relationships many of us see young marrieds entering into?

Shaw said as much in her article when she wrote that people waiting for their “soul mate” to get married had it backwards. According to her, you marry someone and then they become your soul mate. And there you have it, the two real schools of thought on marriage in the Mallennial Generation. Either make marriage happen or wait for the right person to marry. If you make it happen through sheer force of will, you can “happily” marry young. However, if you’re waiting for someone to make you feel like you want to get married, it’ll likely take time because most of us are lucky enough not to meet that person when we’re 23.

Author: Brian M. Williams

Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

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9 Comments

  1. In the interest of full disclosure and before anyone calls me anti-love, and because I think it’s a bit ironic, I have to admit that the day this article was published I was performing the wedding of one of my best friends from college.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more. Also, depending on the city or state that you come from, the divorce rate for couples getting married in their 20’s (or god forbid their late teens) might be well above the 50% level. I know California is one of the national pack leaders for divorce rates, and I am confused when so many young people ignore the overwhelming evidence that marriages can and do fail… a lot. Just like a tattoo, maybe wait until you’ve thought things out first before you make a choice for the rest of your life.

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  3. “What else could explain people giving up the awesome benefits of being young and single for the bad relationships many of us see young marrieds entering into?”

    The glass is most definitely half-empty from this viewpoint.

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  4. I think that’s a very important point and distinction. We are by no means saying that people shouldn’t get married young, but it is extremely important that one finds the right partner. I think the biggest issue today is that people downplay the idea of finding the right person because they are trying get married “at the right time”.

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  5. Les, it’s all about the second half of that statement. Im not saying being single is better than all relationships and marriages, just the bad ones which I think many people have either been in or at least seen their friends in. When compared to those relationships, being single and waiting for the right person most def has awesome benefits, not the least of which is being available to meet the right person instead of taking the right now person.

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  6. There is nothing you can do married that you can’t do unmarried, other than go around telling people you’re married.

    IOW, all the endless blather about marriage is much ado about nothing, times infinity.

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  7. I found this article to be heavily anti-marriage, based on observations of many unhappily married couples and many more divorced ones.

    And I support that point of view 100%.

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  8. You forgot the fourth category, which I fall into! The ”I waited until I was older to get married, and I encourage everyone else to do the same!”

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