Is There a ‘Magic Age’ We Should All Get Married By?

Is There a 'Magic Age' We Should All Get Married By?
Is There a 'Magic Age' We Should All Get Married By?

By Melissa Wall forHowAboutWe

Newsweek's Megan McArdle wrote an interesting piece on the benefits of marriage - specifically, the benefits of doing it sooner rather than later.

It's become commonplace (for the first time in human history) for both women and men to spend their first decade or so of adulthood getting their adult-selves in order - finishing an education, pursuing a career, dating around, learning their relationships styles and needs, and generally solidifying into emotionally mature adults who are capable of choosing a partner and making a lasting relationship work.

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The results of this shift away from the "get married at 22, get divorced at 35″ paradigm have been astounding - divorce rates show a significant drop for couples who marry after age 30, and those who marry later have higher incomes, greater marital satisfaction, and better overall health.

But are we in danger of waiting too long? Is there such a thing as a "magic age" by which anyone who wants to get married needs to get cracking on finding a spouse?

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McArdle lays out a number of arguments for why you may not want to rest on your laurels for decades before thinking about marriage. The strongest of the bunch (for those who want children) is this one:

For highly educated women who delay until they're settled, the risk is that they will outrun their fertility….Anyone who has watched a friend struggle through rounds of fertility treatments will attest that when this small risk hits, it is emotionally catastrophic. For those who delay, it also means higher risks of birth defects, as well as the probability that couples will be sandwiched between the needs of infants and aged parents.

She then presents a few less-than-stellar arguments, like this one:

The longer you spend dating, the more likely you are to get pregnant by someone you don't intend to marry, forcing the unhappy choice between an abortion, adoption, and single parenthood.

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(Uh, so you should just nail down the first guy that comes along, so you can deliberately get pregnant by someone who isn't right for you?)

But she also outlines a more nuanced (and valid) point:

[W]aiting can run you into what Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys has dubbed "Grandma's Lamp" problem. When you've lived in a room a long time, it can be difficult to find a lamp that exactly suits a lifetime of accumulated bric-a-brac. And similarly, when you've spent decades building a life, it can be hard to find someone who fits with all the choices you've already made about where to live, what hobbies and interests you will pursue, what sort of hours you will work, and so forth. "He has his life's apartment," Humphreys writes of an acquaintance who is searching for a spouse as he approaches 40, "the wallpaper, the carpet, and the furnishings, and wants that perfect lamp that will accentuate everything in its current form, detract from nothing, and require nothing to be moved even an inch. And he is dating women who are on the same quest, but apparently looking for an equally particular but different lamp. Good luck to him."

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In other words, if you wait too long, you may be be so set in your ways that you won't have room (emotionally or physically) to let someone else into your life. Which is an often-ignored point - but it's hardly new. Plus it doesn't offer much in the way of takeaway wisdom. If you're 40 and never-married, does that automatically mean you're too rigid and individualist to have a happy marriage? What if you're incredibly picky at 28 - should you cast off your selective ways in case they keep you in singlehood at 35? (Answers to both: of course not.)

Now that society has relaxed its vice-grip on our relationship patterns and expectations, the onus is on us - to figure out what we want, and to figure out how to get it. You get to CHOOSE whether you want to be married - which in itself is a revelation.

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If you do choose marriage, it may take something in order to achieve your goal. You may have to let go of your decade-old view that you'll never date a Republican, or clean some of the crap out of your apartment to make room for someone else's crap. Having what you want requires a willingness to examine the self and make any necessary tweaks in order to accomodate another human being. If those tweaks aren't worth it, or if the self-examining is too much of a chore, then don't get married just because you feel you should. Because while married people may be healthier/happier/wealthier than singles, divorcés are still the least healthy/happy/wealthy of the bunch.