Research shows a “sweet spot” for marriage — but should we believe it? (Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma)
Go to college. Get your career established. Date around. Find out what you’re looking for in a life partner. Wait to get married.
That’s been the prevailing logic when it comes to minimizing your odds of divorce for some time now. But in a study released last month, University of Utah researcher Nicholas Wolfinger, PhD, asserts there is actually an optimal age range for lasting marriage — and you shouldn’t wait too long. He found that likelihood of divorce is lowest when you get hitched between the ages of 28 and 32.
Wolfinger, an adjunct professor of sociology at the university, had previously found a U-shaped relationship between age at marriage and likelihood of divorce by looking at data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) back in 2006 to 2010. The NSFG polled more 22,000 men and women aged 15 to 44 on topics ranging from factors determining marriage and divorce, to attitudes about sex and pregnancy.
Ever the good researcher, Wolfinger wanted to see if he could replicate those initial findings by pulling additional NSFG stats from 2011 to 2013. He got nearly identical information: Age 28 through 32 is the sweet spot for marriage — get married before or after that, and risk of splitting from a spouse increases.
“The odds of divorce decline as you age from your teenage years through your late twenties and early thirties,” Wolfinger writes. “Thereafter, the chances of divorce go up again as you move into your late thirties and early forties.” After age 32, divorce risk climbs about 5 percent each year.
But not so fast. Wolfinger’s findings are something to consider, sure — but they’re not a reason to freak out.
There have been some naysayers of the findings, notably Phillip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. He has found a slightly older “perfect marriage” age range, using different data than Wolfinger. He found there’s, ultimately, no reason to worry if you get married later on. Cohen’s stats were from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, sent out to 295,000 American households per month to collect ongoing data on social, economic, and housing characteristics of individual communities.
And here’s another very important thing to point out about Wolfinger’s study: It only looks at divorce during the first five years after marriage, says psychologist Karla Ivankovich, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ideally, a marriage is going to last longer than half a decade. “So there is still possibility of divorce, just not in the time frame identified within the study,” she tells Yahoo Health.
In a way, that 28-to-32 demographic does make sense. By that age, you know a lot more about who you are, what you want out of life, and what you want in a life partner, than you did in your early 20s.
Interestingly, Marisa T. Cohen, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab, has polled the masses on this very subject: What’s the best age to get married? She found daters are pretty in sync with Wolfinger’s findings: After examining opinions from 773 people, “an overwhelming majority — 83.7 percent — felt that it is ideal to get married in between 25 to 34 years of age,” she tells Yahoo Health.
But even though getting married in this age range is something we say we want, that doesn’t mean this is the time all of us are universally ready for marriage, she caveats. “You need to be committed in order to make a marriage work. Some of the causes of divorce, besides infidelity, are lack of communication, being incompatible partners, and growing apart,” Cohen notes. “Basically, if you don’t know who you are as a person, you won’t be a good partner.”
Instead of focusing on age as the decider of when to get married, we should instead focus on social environments and life experiences — and growing out of that “emerging adulthood” phase, which generally rolls through our post-grad, mid-20s years — to determine when marriage is appropriate.
What we do know: Younger marriages are more likely to end, research shows — and the reason is the romantic landscape in a person’s early dating years. “We aren’t just seeing a change in the overall divorce rate and an increase in the divorce rate of those who marry young, but overall we are seeing a shift in the basic way in which people court one another,” Cohen explains. “What was once dating and courting, is now more of a ‘hookup’ culture in college. What was once getting to know you, your values and morals, is now right and left swipes.”
It takes time to get all those “options” out of your system, and settle on the person who is right for you. And it’s not just the romantic aspects of marriage, but also the practical ones, that come into consideration. It takes time to come to fully bear all the responsibilities Mom and Dad had been shouldering before — like car payments, rent, insurance, general life decisions — and all that takes place during this “emerging adulthood” period.
Now for the other side of that 28-to-32 group. If you choose to get married at an older age, you have been flying solo much longer, says Carin Goldstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Santa Monica, California. “You’re pretty set in your ways,” she tells Yahoo Health. “You’re less willing to compromise or accommodate a partner’s opinion into your own. When you’ve been supporting yourself and making your own decisions for years, it’s harder to get used to the idea of someone else’s opinion.”
Now that we’ve looked at the logic behind the magical “28 to 32,” it’s time to examine why getting hitched before or after that age range is by no means a death sentence for your marriage. (Do relax.) In fact, that range won’t be right for everyone.
Ivankovich compares determining the ideal age a person should get married to spinning the mystery wheel at your favorite casino. “It is not so much a number, but dependent on an individual’s maturity, and ability to commit to a long-term relationship,” she explains. “Prior experiences with marriage — how [a person was] raised, psychosocial situations, religious factors, you name it — all impact readiness.”
Indeed, there are many factors that determine marital success, according to Liz Keneski, a PhD candidate in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s conducted work alongside Tim Loving, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Human Ecology at the university, examining the recipe for marital success.
One major predictor: how family and friends in the couple’s sphere of influence view the developing relationship. “People readily recognize norms for relationship development — or how relationships ‘should’ go, based on what’s typical for our society,” Keneski tells Yahoo Health.
For instance, according to Keneski and Loving’s work, couples’ friends and family members report liking a loved one’s partner more when they perceive the relationship is progressing normatively (a.k.a. nothing out of the ordinary, no apparent red flags). “They report doing things to show their support for the relationship more, too, like inviting the loved one’s partner over for an event, hugging the partner, or asking about the partner,” Keneski says.
In other words, people really like when relationships follow the “typical” script — and just like friends and family, we probably like to see that regular progression in our own relationships, too. Keneski and Loving have found that dating milestones matter a great deal, checking boxes like first kiss, first intercourse, meeting one another’s friends and parents (and so forth), in a steady order. However, what seems to matter is the order of these events and how well they go — and not necessarily how fast they occur.
No matter your age, you have to be open to amending your timeline to marriage a bit. Everyone’s journey to the altar, should they want to reach it, is very personal. But here are some areas of focus couples must work on to make a marriage last at any age.
Early on: Smell the roses.
Early in your marriage — especially if you marry in or before that “sweet spot” — Ivankovich suggests taking some time for yourselves as a couple. Plan for the future, instead of rushing through it. Discuss family, instead of starting one. Travel the world, instead of settling in one place. In other words: Stop and smell the roses. “Life is just beginning, so take a moment to explore before settling down,” she explains. “Learn about careers, enjoy time together.” There will be lots of time to establish yourselves.
As you grow: Build strong relationships apart from your significant other.
Keneski says that, ironically, a strong pairing is not just about two people. “Working on your relationship with your partner is certainly paramount in creating a great foundation for a relationship,” says Keneski, “but don’t forget to foster strong relationships with friends and family outside of your relationship. What they think of your relationship and how they interact with you and your partner matters for the happiness of your relationship.”
As you add family: Flexibility goes a long way.
Ivankovich says that the more you are able to roll with the punches and make adjustments to your plan, the happier you will be — especially as you begin to factor kids and family into the equation. “Long-term plans involve love,” she says. “Take some time to create a map for the future and consider how this will impact a life that involves family — but be willing to adapt to whatever life throws your way.”
As you mature: Decide to stay married…
Marriage and family therapist Jodie Voth says she’s polled couples in the later stages of their relationships, asking them how they’d made it last. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again,” she tells Yahoo Health. “If ‘marriage forever’ is your goal, every successful couple past 40 years of marriage has told me the same thing: It is a decision to stay married. Not romance, not flexibility, not negotiation or communication skills — it is a decision. Sometimes, every day.” So, the next time you two get into an argument and cannot see eye-to-eye? Voth says you say, “I’m gonna stick this out, because I want to be married to this person for the rest of my life.” And then, you keep working on it.
… And don’t foster contempt.
While deciding to stay married is hardly romantic, Voth says studies from psychologist John Gottman reveal what can make the whole experience much happier — and more likely to remain intact, too. “His research tells us that allowing yourself to be influenced by your partner and refraining from contemptuous behavior are what make marriages last,” she explains. “So, yes, keep divorce off the table — but also be open to hearing your partner’s opinion, and stop rolling your eyes and using sarcasm to communicate.” Marriage is more pleasant if you work together constructively. Leave contempt at the door.
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