As a newly-engaged person myself, it’s hard not to look back and think about which couples got it right and which couples got it wrong. Most people in the United States get married at some point in their lives, but statistics show that about 50 percent of those marriages end in divorce. Among my friends and relatives, the ten-year success rate so far is about 90 percent—pretty darn good—but is there any way to predict which marriages will be successful? A survey by the National Fatherhood Institute found that aside from issues like arguing and infidelity, one of the most common reasons couples gave for divorcing was that they married too young. How young is too young? Is it possible to be “too old” for marriage?
Age and Old Wisdom
It’s true that half of all marriages fail, but that statistic can be misleading. Just because 50 percent of couples get divorced doesn’t mean that every marriage has only a 50/50 chance. The fact is, some marriages have a 90 percent chance of success, and some marriages only have a 10 percent chance of working out. Beyond the issues of religion, profession, or compatibility, one of the greatest predictors of marital success or failure is the age at which people marry.
Marriages that happen before the age of twenty are two to three times more likely to fail, researchers say, a finding established by countless studies. People who marry when they’re slightly older tend to be more stable and happy, and they have a smaller chance of divorce. Most experts place the ideal age of first marriage somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-seven. Jeffrey S. Larson, author of the book, Should We Stay Together?, believes that the late twenties are the ideal time for marriage, and that the older, the better.
Many Americans agree. A Gallup poll in 2006 showed that Americans believe men should ideally get married around age twenty-seven and women should get married around age twenty-five, which is not far off from the national average of twenty-eight and twenty-six. The age of the man seems particularly important. According to a 2007 Australian study, marriages where the man was nine or more years older than the woman were twice as likely to fail, as were marriages where the husband got married before age twenty-five.
The life experience that comes with age seems to be the defining characteristic that makes later marriages more desirable, and having gone to college contributes greatly to this experience. Experts say that teenagers and very young adults simply don’t have the self-awareness or the maturity to handle marriage, no matter how prepared they may feel at the time. Those few years between high school and college graduation make a big difference. Married college graduates only have about a 16.5 percent chance of divorcing, a much lower chance than those with less education. Psychologists and family therapists attribute their success to enhanced maturity. Couples who marry older tend to be surer of their goals, they have more experience from dating, and they have the capacity to earn more money than high school graduates, which can be a big bonus, since financial strife is one of the biggest marriage stressors. College grads also tend to have fewer children outside of marriage, another factor that can lead to divorce.
Avoiding Divorce Remorse
Even though older marriages tend to be more successful than early ones, it’s not always appropriate to wait indefinitely. Some studies from the University of Texas showed that marriages begun at age thirty or older were more likely to fail, possibly because the couple were more likely to be set in their ways and averse to compromise. Another reason not to wait too long is that although fertility treatments are common, there’s still no guarantee that they’ll work, and women’s best years for childbearing are before age thirty-five.
There are also groups of people who traditionally marry younger, but still have lower rates of divorce. Couples living extremely religious or traditional lifestyles are less likely to divorce because their religion frowns upon it. Certain ethnic groups are also less likely to divorce because of the cultural stigma, including groups who practice arranged marriage, and these are often the same groups where couples marry earlier and younger. However, these groups with lower divorce rates do not report having happier marriages than other groups.
Research has pinpointed a number of factors besides age that strongly correlate with marital success. Marriages that happen as a result of pregnancy have a 50 percent chance of ending within five years, as are marriages where one person smokes, but not the other. People whose parents are separated or divorced are also more likely to end up divorced themselves, as are serial cohabiters.
Looking back on the weddings I’ve witnessed, it’s a little clearer why some couples survived and some didn’t. Marital success depends mostly on maturity, and the age at which people become ready differs greatly. Some people are ready for marriage immediately after college, and some take a few extra years before they’re ready to settle down. And just as not all marriages between thirty-year-olds are blessed from the start, not all marriages between twenty-year-olds are doomed to failure. It depends on the couple’s temperament, commitment, and attitudes. Whether you’re seventeen or seventy, the best time to get married is always when you’re ready to be in a serious relationship.