Isn't 16 a little young for marriage?

I fear my niece is making an age-old mistake.

By Cary Tennis
Published September 6, 2007 2:00PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

Several days ago my 16-year-old niece announced her engagement and asked my 16-year-old daughter to be the maid of honor.

My daughter is thrilled. I am horrified. This niece has been home-schooled and raised in a very conservative religious environment by my brother-in-law and his wife. When she started dating about a year ago, we heard that the couple was "courting," which meant that they were not allowed to be alone together, ever. I remember remarking to my husband that these kids would be married at 18 just to get some privacy. Apparently, they couldn't wait that long.


My problem is that I am so appalled by this wedding that I don't want to attend it. I've told my husband that unless I have a change of heart, he and my daughter can go alone. He is afraid that my absence will cause a rift within the family. We are not that close to his brother and his family, geographically or most definitely ideologically. I just feel that the parents have orchestrated this marriage -- in fact, encouraged it -- by this insistence on constant chaperoning and keeping these kids virgins.

We have four teenagers of our own. I so much want our kids, our girls as well as our boys, to be independent and self-sufficient before they take on the responsibilities of a marriage. I am afraid that they will think that marrying at 16 is OK, even desirable.

I don't understand why I am so upset about this wedding. It could be that my own life experience of being left as a young single mother has made me know firsthand the importance of self-sufficiency. It could be that my own grandmother married at 16 and never had a dollar of her own money to spend until she got her first Social Security check at 65. It could be that the thought of my 16-year-old daughter getting married now fills me with fear for her.


I feel like the world is spinning backward on its axis and that all of the possibilities that have been opened to young women, all women, have been rejected by this "new" ideology that idealizes the "old." Why do I even care what this family does? And most important, how do I get over this anger and wish this couple well? Because really, unless I can do that, I don't belong at their wedding.

Reluctant Aunt

Dear Reluctant Aunt,


As one reads the words, "I don't understand why I am so upset about this wedding," one can sense that you're looking inward for answers. And you seem to find them quite readily, which is a burdensome delight -- to see that it is indeed in our own tangled and difficult histories that our present upset is found. In particular, that for you the world seems to be spinning backward on its axis is a wonderful metaphor. This sense of a surprising and sudden repetition of the past both takes us back in time and also destabilizes us, threatens to knock us off our feet. We thought we were moving inexorably forward into greater freedom and autonomy for women ... and now this?

But the question is not simply why certain older forms of courtship are making a resurgence, if indeed they are. The question is not just about the role of women in society. For you, the question is, what do you do with your own history, a history that is so meaningful and powerful for you that, indeed, you have built your life on it? What lessons do we draw from our own harrowing experience? Obviously, we sure don't want that to happen again! But how can we pass on our experience in a way that is meaningful to others? It is not simple. There is ever-present paradox at work. There is the return of the repressed; there is the way obsession seems to attract what it professes to abhor. So we cannot say simply, There's a lesson learned once and for all! It's never that simple.


Instead, so often, events conspire to bring about a concentrated challenge, or rebuttal, to everything we thought we had learned. When this happens, what is required is a larger framework that encompasses both our own personal history and values and also these apparent contradictions to those values, these apparent repetitions of mistakes we thought would no longer be made.

It is complicated by the fact that kids are going to differentiate themselves from elders in any way they can. Some of the ways they will differentiate themselves are going to be surprising. That is the point. That is real differentiation -- the kind that really freaks us out. For instance, our assumption has been for some years now that youth is a sort of inherently revolutionary force, that it will always oppose tradition, will always exert itself against the constraints of society, will always push for more freedom and autonomy. That may not be true today to the extent that it once was.

This of course is conjectural. But you get where I'm heading? I'm saying that it's exactly in those areas that really freak us out where we have to truly examine our assumptions and ask, well, maybe youth has a right to shape its own future. I mean literally youth has this right. Maybe we really do have to get out of the way and let it happen -- even in instances where, to our eyes, it appears that it is ultra-conservative religious leaders who are pulling the strings.


As this phenomenon relates to your life, for instance, you may think of the search for autonomy as grounded in feminism and progressive politics, something to be found outside the traditional church and family. You may see church and family as threats to this autonomy. (I am accustomed to seeing them in that way.) But these two kids may truly be in love and be truly seeking autonomy -- an autonomy that flows, strangely enough, directly from family and established religion. As you say, the only way they can be alone together may be to get married. Rather than fight the institutions they were reared in, they may be seeking the only kind of autonomy those institutions offer. It may not have occurred to them, or they may not even have been educated about, ways to seek autonomy outside their cultural world. Again, one might say, well, it is the duty of educational institutions to inculcate values of individualism and skepticism in youth. I would agree. And, we might say, well, that system is inherently an enemy of women's rights and progressive values. We may say that the autonomy it offers them is bogus. But as they say in New Jersey, what you gonna do?

What one is forced to do, I think, is to acknowledge that first and foremost this is family. These young people are family. You are an elder in this family system, at least in relation to them. You hold a store of knowledge that they will perhaps seek out. You have world experience. You have a system of knowing that is secular and based in the greatest traditions of American thought. You have a political history and a history as a woman and a mother struggling for dignity in a world that does not readily offer it. And you have love. You have love for these young people, and for your own children.

So what do you do about the wedding? I do not feel that our presence at a wedding must necessarily mean that we approve of every aspect of the couple's life. I think it can mean that we care about the couple and are hoping for the best. So I think you go to the wedding. More important, you stay engaged. You try to be of assistance to your niece. How can you be of assistance? You can be around, for one thing. You never know exactly what your assistance might consist of. So you stick around and listen. You may be needed one day. If history does repeat itself, you can be there to say, sure, I've done this before, I've been there, this is nothing new, this is solvable, here is how you undo this mess you've gotten yourself into.


Meanwhile, as you wait to see what unfolds, in a much larger sense you recognize that history comes in waves, washing up and washing back, constantly changing in response to unthinkably complex forces of nature, to ideas and great thinkers, to cataclysms both natural and man-made, and to phenomena so ephemeral one wants to call them mystical -- the unscheduled arrival of genius, the sudden acclamation of ideas by crowds, the mysterious embrace of multitudes. History works like this, full of paradox and reaction.

There I go, musing on large patterns again. I keep trying to stay with you, with your history, and with how you must feel seeing this event. But I keep veering off. I think it is because what you describe seems to hint at the deepest structures of history and story -- of myth. It seems very deep. It is not something incidental. It is a turning, or a closing, or a coming round full circle, something almost mystical: Here it is, the same pattern, born of the same hungers, again like before, after hundreds of years. Here we go again.

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