STATS ARTICLES 2008

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Is there an ideal time to get married?
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D., Nov 10, 2008
The time to start living happily ever after is whenever you find the right person. Why comparisons between people who marry early and not so early tell us very little about when to say “I do.”

Is there an ideal time for marriage – a time when personal maturity, finances and career path coincide with the best available pool of mates? USA Today took the plunge into the pool of available data, questioning sociologists and family experts as to when living happily ever after is best begun. The result – a lot of mushy research that reminds us correlation doesn’t mean causation.

Background: The average age at which people marry in the United States has been steadily increasing over the past few decades –  from a low in 1960 with averages of 20.3 years for women and 22.8 years for men, it has risen to 25.6 years for women and 27.5 for men.

So, is it better for people to marry younger? It should be obvious that those considering marriage today are not the same as their forebearers almost 50 years ago. The economic situation for married couples has changed significantly (with far more two-income households); the educational needs of most couples are different (with both sexes earning more advanced degrees); and the social pressures are different, as it now acceptable for many unmarried people to have sex and even live together – both of which used to be the exclusive realm of the married.

So it’s not all that surprising that some research suggests that marriage is “better” at a young age (though past the teenage years), and other research suggests that it’s better in your thirties.

For all the opinions collected by the paper, such as, it’s better to marry earlier so there’s less of a risk for problems having children, or it’s better to marry later when you “know yourself” USA Today misses some really obvious issues that cast a shadow on the research. First, what is the definition of “better”? There are many couples living together that are not married, and while they have not officially tied the knot, they may live happier lives than some married couples, where one spouse sleeps on the couch. So one way to try and answer the question is to look at divorce rates.

One fact that USA Today neglected to mention is that divorce rates went up from 1960 to 1980, and then experienced an overall decline from then until now. Was this a result  of all those who married young in 1960 coming to their senses? Or was this the result of tumultuous social change in the United States? n other words, are the divorce rates higher if you marry earlier or later? Again, the question and its answer are loaded with confounders.

In fact, the divorce rate is lower among older people who get married – but it’s also lower for more educated people, and these people are more likely to get married later. So which is the cause (if either) of the reduced divorce rate, later marriage or education? Instead of recommending people to marry later to ensure a successful marriage, should we recommend, instead, that they get more college credits?

And then there’s money: Greater economic security is also correlated with less divorce – but those searching for economic security also tend to marry later.

Some people also point to the advantage of living together first and “testing out” whether the union is good before involving the legal status of marriage and possibly divorce; others point to the notion that such a “test” is simply marriage without commitment, one that will more likely end in divorce.

USA Today’s confusion between causation and correlation is encapsulated in the lines:

“It's well documented that those who marry before age 20 are two to three times more likely to divorce, researchers say. But studies are still trying to determine whether marrying at certain ages may improve relationships and help marriages survive.”

While marrying before 20 is generally rejected as an “ideal” norm, is there really an age that will “help” marriages survive? Or are there other, more dominant factors that play a role, and eclipse the difference between marrying at 23 and marrying at 31? It’s too bad that USA Today didn’t ask the various sociologists and psychologists it interviewed about whether divorce would decline if income improved, if people had more college education, or if people dated for a specified period of time first. Of the many, many factors that impact the success of a marriage, age is at best a rough correlate with the real deal. And it’s almost impossible to decipher whether certain ages could improve relationships, or whether we can “help marriages survive” by addressing other, underlying problems with marriages that fail.  But getting married because it’s the “ideal time” is a disaster in the making.

One of the reasons that research is so difficult in this field is that those who get married at 20 are not the same as those who get married at 30, even after controlling for obvious confounding factors like education level. One of the quoted researchers on the issue (Norval Glenn of the University of Texas-Austin) claimed to have found that those who marry in their early 20s are happier and more satisfied with their partners than those in their 30s. But it could be that those in their 30s are pickier people -- which is why they didn’t marry in their 20s to begin with.

While these chicken and egg questions might plague us for many swings in the marriage curve to come, we can only point to the most obvious aspect of marriage: the spouse. Finding the right person with whom to get married may be more important than anything else. And for that, notions of the “ideal age” have to be cast into the winds of chance.


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