Engaged and underaged

Are adults foolishly postponing that walk down the aisle? An Op-Ed writer extols the virtues of getting married young -- but there are more than a few problems with his arguments.

Published April 28, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

I love the smell of napalm in the morning. And so does the Washington Post, which lit up the beginning of this work week with an Op-Ed by University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Mark Regnerus headlined "Say Yes. What Are You Waiting For?"

Regnerus' piece is about the values and virtues of getting hitched while you're young. Marriage, Regnerus feels, is an institution that in the United States is being foolishly postponed by young people who have pushed the average age of initial union to 28, up five years since 1970, and the oldest average since the U.S. Census Bureau started keeping track. Regnerus claims that if it were just men tying the knot later, he wouldn't complain. After all, he used to believe that some young men were the only ones who "lamented marriage as the death of youth, freedom and their ability to do as they pleased." But now guys are "pulling women along on this upward swing," the idea that marriage is an impingement on freedom is "attracting women, too," and it's time to raise an alarm!

Regnerus has done research among young adults and found that "many women report feeling peer pressure to avoid giving serious thought to marriage until they're at least in their late 20s. If you're seeking a mate in college, you're considered a pariah, someone after her 'MRS degree.' Actively considering marriage when you're 20 or 21 seems so sappy, so unsexy, so anachronistic ... How did we get here?"

OK, part of how we got here? Trafficking in lame stereotypes, like those about young men lamenting marriage as a loss of youth and about women of every age being ring-coveting, proposal-demanding, husband-hunting, baby-smelling penis harvesters! You think college-age women face social disapprobation if they're looking for commitment? Regnerus might be surprised to know that they're not exactly welcomed warmly on the dating scene when they're in their 20s, 30s, or 40s either!

Regnerus' vision of college women shamefully pining for marriage is remarkably dated, and it doesn't do them any favors, either. Of course there are men and women who are actively looking for a spouse. But in college, and beyond, what most people are seeking is connection -- romantic, sexual, long-lasting, brief, whatever. The idea that "mating," whether you are 20 or 40 or 60, is all about securing a walk down an aisle is more than a little stale in a world in which divorce is common, cohabitation is both a norm and a serious commitment, and marriage between same-sex couples remains illegal in most states.

But this is all part of Regnerus' faux concern for passive femininity, for all those poor girls being dragged by their hair away from the altar, by men or by other malevolent, marriage-delaying forces.

According to Regnerus, the problem is not foot-dragging brides and grooms, but their ambitious parents, and here he includes himself, whose ideas about marriage changed as they "climbed toward career success," got advanced degrees, and then advised their kids "to complete their education before even contemplating marriage, to launch their careers and become financially independent."

So this is the fault of the "parents" out there who, sometime between 1970 and now, started climbing toward career success, getting graduate degrees, and worrying about personal and financial independence. Huh. That's so weird. Because as far as I know, "parents," as in "fathers," had been doing all those things for, well, really for centuries before 1970, and the average age of first marriage hadn't risen tremendously.

Could it be that Regnerus is talking less here about "parents" than he is about "mothers"? Because it's really "mothers" who have had the opportunity to shift the level of their education, the priority of their careers, and the pace of their marital and reproductive lives since 1970. Before that, it was much harder for women to get advanced degrees, succeed in the workforce, control their reproductive health, or live alone if they chose. That is, if they also wanted to feed themselves, to have sex without getting pregnant or being shunned, or to maintain social viability.

But Regnerus doesn't see the marriage delay as an advancement or expression of liberty, but as a serious biological, emotional, economic and environmental problem.

"Marriage will be there for men when they're ready," he explains to all those women who may not yet have been made aware of the fact that they have a biological clock that is destined to one day toll for them. Women's "market value" -- this is in a marital sense, not a professional one, just in case you were unclear on that -- declines as they age, but men's rises, because of their growing economic resources and maturity. (Regnerus does not address the possibility that women's economic resources and maturity also increase with age, because, obviously, those things have nothing to do with the value of girls. For girls, value is about how young and pretty they are and also their eggs. Duh.)

But Regnerus points to the great sadness of all the women who "suppress" their fertility in their 20s -- "their most fertile years" -- just to find themselves having to "beg, pray, borrow and pay to reclaim it in their 30s and 40s." I mean, thank God they made so much money getting that J.D. and climbing toward professional success, right?

Regnerus acknowledges that getting married young remains the single biggest predictor of divorce, but gives three reasons to ignore this niggling factoid:

  1. "Early marriage" statistics are really about those who marry before they're 20. "Marriages that begin at age 20, 21, or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume."
  2. Young women are mature and young men are immature, so really a lady can marry when she's super-young, like 18, and should preferably marry a guy who's already 21 or so, because then everyone's grown up enough.
  3. Age isn't an actual indicator of divorce, just of "immaturity and impatience with marital challenges -- the kind that many of us eventually figure out how to avoid or to solve without parting." Unfortunately, writes Regnerus, "well-educated people resist this," inventing their own recipe for marital success: "Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve."

But they're wrong. According to Regnerus, "marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you're fully formed."

And there's an economic upside. Noting that married people earn more and save more than single or cohabiting people, by combining income while reducing the expenses of food, childcare, water, gas, electricity. Don't forget cable! And Regnerus wants us to know that marriage is "the greenest of all social structures." The extra households created by divorce apparently cost tons of electricity and more than 600 gallons of water a year. "That's a mighty big carbon footprint created in the name of solitude" -- or in the name of having married a 21-year-old (super-mature) guy when you were 18 (and super-mature) and then realizing that Mark Regnerus was wrong and you didn't want to be married to him anymore when you were 30 but you had three children in your 20s instead of going to law school and getting a job because your fertility was going to decline, so now you have no job and no money and three kids and you're making a huge carbon footprint!

Regnerus celebrates one of his former students, the 23-year-old Jennifer, who is marrying her boyfriend Jake because she loves him and decided "there was no point in barhopping through her 20s" -- because, folks, that is what single women do in their 20s when they are not climbing toward career success and suppressing their fertility. Jennifer's friends objected, but she stood firm. And those friends of Jennifer? Well, "now they're bridesmaids." And if you have an ear for the subtle unspoken threat here, you understand that these marriage renouncers will never be brides.

Look, there's nothing wrong with early marriage if it works for you. It works for a lot of people! There's lots to be said for growing up together, getting through hard times together, helping each other through school, and -- the thing that makes me curse the stretched but still unbroken biological limits of the female body -- the possibility of having a decade or more together as a couple, to have fun and form a lasting partnership, before the parameters of their life together become partially defined by their children.

But that is not what Regnerus is talking about here, what with his worries about declining female fertility. He's talking about couples who get married and start taking advantage of their peaking fertility. I have certainly known young mothers who had kids by choice or accident as teens or in their early 20s, and who in their mid-30s now have teenage children, robust careers, and thriving social and dating lives. But that's a hard path to follow unless you have enough solid financial or familial support -- and pure gumption -- to help you get through college and into a workforce with young children. And if you recognize that, as multiple studies show, married women do more housework than single women, more than their husbands, and more than their unmarried but cohabitating peers, it's clear that pressing marriage on young people -- not on an individual basis, but as some sort of universally superior choice, as Regnerus is doing -- is bad for women.

One final point about the marriage uncoolness factor that Regnerus seems to feel is inhibiting young people from taking the plunge: If your decision to legally bind your life and future to another person is made largely in the context of peer pressure you're facing from your friends, it might not be a bad idea to hold off for a few years.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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