About six months ago I read a fabulous book, which helped to confirm for me my love of sociology of religion. The book, by Mark Regnerus, was called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers and one of its themes included the discrepancies between adults’ teaching/teenagers’ belief/teenagers’ practice when it comes to evangelical sexual ethics. This, among other things, has led Regnerus himself–who is evangelical–to advocate for younger marriage.
The stereotype, of course, is already that conservative Christians tend to marry younger. Still, along with the many non-evangelicals, there are plenty of evangelicals who also would question Regnerus’s recommendation.
I used to be one of them.
It’s not so much that I thought everyone that got married young did so just for sex or that all young marriages were bound to fail. It was much more of a feminist thing for me–it seemed the younger the marriage the more traditional the gender role expectations tended to be. (I’m not certain that there is any social scientific evidence for this, but this was my probably unfair stereotype.) I’ve changed my mind, however, and I feel like sharing some of the reasons with the world. So here is my brief treatise on the benefits of marrying young:
Some Christians criticize others for their lack of a “consistent ethic of human life”–i.e. supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion. I think we Christians need to do some reflection on a consistent ethic of marriage. We have so emphasized not committing adultery and not divorcing that we neglect to discuss many other important things. These items range from how to best support those who have divorced for legitimate or illegitimate reasons to better supporting dual-earner families, from acknowledging female sexuality to recognizing the significance of emotional abuse. I also believe that among these issues is the need to thoughtfully consider and teach the beauty of the very countercultural aspects of marriage.
While marriage is something that has existed throughout history and in many different cultural contexts, it has undoubtedly been done differently depending on the particulars of those contexts. Our context today introduces many interesting elements into the equation, ultimately leading to later marriages. First, the high divorce rate of my generation’s parents has left many anxious about commitment and a few quite jaded. Secondly, casual sex is not always as common as portrayed in movies but is still a part of the cultural landscape (facilitated, of course, by modern methods of birth control). Thirdly, our current economic situation and the direction of our society more generally is encouraging more education, postponing careers. Fourthly, American culture is extremely individualistic. To me, these seem to be some of the most significant factors in delaying marriage today. Together they make marrying young look unnecessary at best, foolish at worst.
Taking even the most positive approach, younger marriage is just likely to cause problems. When you’re in your 20s, you really don’t know what you’re doing with your life. “Emerging Adults” have a lot of growing up to do and are still waist-deep in questions about their future educations and careers. What if you marry someone, only to find out that they work in New York, while you’ve accepted a great job in California? What if you can’t both get accepted into the same or nearby grad schools? What if in your continuing to grow up, one or both of you changes significantly? When you’re not planning on having kids yet anyway, why get married? You can still live together with some degree of commitment, and yet be able to get out if things don’t go as you hope. Additionally, weddings are expensive, and it makes more sense to wait until you have enough money to pay for the accoutrements you’ve always dreamed of, right? Anyway, it seems wiser to wait until you have stable careers with stable incomes.
In this culture with these attitudes, marrying young is weird. And clearly it’s not for everyone–some people haven’t met the right person or aren’t at the right place in their relationship or personal growth to make that kind of a step. And yet, I wonder what it’d look like for Christian communities to encourage a different attitude toward marriage–not so much marrying “young” vs. marrying older as much as Christian marriage as an intentionally countercultural act. You’re deciding you don’t want to leave your options open, you’re not going to try to guarantee the stability of every aspect of your life, you’re going to take some risk as far as your education and careers work out, and you’re willing to commit yourself to one person when you don’t necessarily have to yet and even though you’ve seen a lot of marriages die. To me, that sounds pretty radical in our society.
I’m not trying to say that non-Christians can’t have good and purposeful marriages, of course, just that as Christians we should especially be thinking about how the gospel applies to every aspect of life, including marriage. I know not everyone should actually marry young but going into marriage with a different set of attitudes toward partnership and commitment can be really significant, I think. For example, many Christians emphasize that commitments are important to keep, yet many also still promote some sort of hesitancy (whether in serious conversation or innocent jokes) about commitment. I would argue that an actually more Christian view of commitment maturely measures the risk, yet in the end embraces that uncertainty with excitement and hope.
To truly apply this to our ideas about commitment would go beyond our natural enthusiasm for those who are already planning to marry. I think it would change the way to consider things like, “What if we get stuck accepted to two different schools?” or “Shouldn’t we wait until we’re financially stable?” When you’re already acknowledging the risk inherent in commitment (no matter what the circumstances!) and daring to believe that good can come from it, these questions fade in importance. After all, marriage is about more than cleverly engineering your life circumstances to support a relationship. You can grow it in a greenhouse, if you prefer, but the unexpected is likely to make you feel like you’re in the wild, anyway. Why not just start there? Yes, some times might be harder–you can’t really know–but if the whole point of this is commitment, what does school or money or whatever else have to do with it? If you don’t think you want to be committed if some things don’t go as planned, why do you think you might ever want to get married at all?
Personally, I’m enjoying the fact that things don’t always go the way we thought, as it shows me just how good my decision to get married has been. While Jeremiah and I are both waitlisted for PhD programs, we have an uncommon advantage: each other. I’m surprisingly calm about the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing yet or what will happen if one of us gets in and the other doesn’t. I’m remarkably happy about it all and just excited to see how it turns out. Our life together in and of itself seems much more important than our particular plans. What good would it have been for us to wait to get married, apply to various programs, and end up at opposite ends of the country? If you don’t know you want to get married, that’s ok. But if you want to, don’t wait. It doesn’t accomplish anything. And actually going through with something that seems crazy can end up being a really wonderful thing.
And about gender roles: Despite my hang-ups, marrying young says nothing about gender roles. Though this was hard for me to get over (so few of my female friends are married that I was sure there must be something awful about feminists marrying young and that I must be crazy!), I’m learning that we can wait as long as we want to have kids. We can divide chores however we want. We can get as much education as we feel like. We can split time with kids more evenly than most parents. We can be flexible. People can think whatever they want about women and men who marry young–but for us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company longer before we have more intense responsibilities, as well as even more time to figure out how we can best make two careers work. And I don’t know what isn’t feminist about that. ;o)