Featured Life Relationships

Young or Old, Please Get Married (if it will make you shut up)

For what gives you the right to make such a judgment? What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift? (1 Corinthians 4.7)

At the outset, let me state my intention:

I’m going to try to be nice about this.

Got that? Everything that follows is me trying to be nice.

If you’re on social media…(heh heh, I love saying that)…you’ll have seen some reference in the past month to Julia Shaw’s disquisition on marrying young in Slate, titled “I Married Young; What Are The Rest of You Waiting For?”

I can easily forgive a potboiler headline, especially on the Internet. It’s how you get readers. Don’t lie–it’s probably why you clicked on this link, am I right?

Less forgiveable is the self-righteous tone, to say nothing of the statistical and anecdotal collage, that followed her headline. People argued with her point who might have considered it, if she hadn’t been such a priss about it.

I hoped that, like so many other articles and books and advertisements and earnest conversations of its kind, this one would roll over and crash its rhetorical bulk while I ducked underneath and waited for it to pass.

But no.

Ms. Shaw’s post was not the first on this subject. Only a month previous, the Atlantic Monthly featured another evangelical female (Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University) daintily pontificating on the advisability of marrying young.

Oh, the Atlantic. How the mighty have fallen.

Nor was Ms. Shaw’s word the last; inevitably, her Slate article spawned the bacterial proliferation of rebuttals, outraged and, many of them, proportionately overstating their case.

My bloggish friends have already taken note of this trend, and submitted it for their readers’ consideration. The resulting comment threads look like a lot of cats fighting in a sack.

In searching the Internet for a reasonable voice on this subject…yeah, I know…I came across David French’s post in the National Review. I was really digging his response, as well as his highly amused tone, until I got to his version of The Point–

You’re old enough to marry when you possess enough wisdom, character, and emotional maturity to recognize that you are no longer the center of the universe, and you can and should love another person more than you love yourself.

The first commenter at the scene voiced the same objection I had:

“When the he(ck) does that happen?” (That’s a paraphrase, by the way.)

But seriously…when does that happen? More importantly, how do you know that it’s happened? Knowing when you have the requisite maturity for marriage seems as nebulous as knowing whether or not you’ve found true love.

…Maybe they are the same thing. (ooooh…)

I get mighty tired of these platitudinous “you should” screeds about when and how to get married. At a certain point, it doesn’t even matter to me whether I agree with them–I just want them to stop.

Because unlike other journalistic life advisories–“How to make the most of your 20s” or “What no one told me about grad school” or “Things to know before buying a house”–getting married depends on the most undependable thing imaginable:

Someone Else’s Emotions.

The foremost problem with a “you should” article about getting married is that you can’t follow the advice independently. I wonder if writers like Ms. Shaw realize that a good many of their readers are shotgunning the tallboys of regret and bitterness, as they read yet another message saying “You did indeed miss the boat; enjoy some statistics showing how happy your luckier friends are going to be, and how unlikely it is that your marriage, if you get one, will last.”

For someone who wanted to get marry young, and did their da(r)ndest to follow that writer’s advice long before the article was published, this advice is on par with Gwyneth Paltrow advising housewives on what sweatpants to buy. It’s just galling, and makes you want to eat a lot of chips.

The “marry-later” articles are no better. They are just as condescending to the opposite camp, make just as many generalizations, and cull the same patchwork of statistics to support their position.

But that!–right there!–is the key to understanding where these articles are coming from. (And, I hope, where to find the off-button for them.)

You’ll notice that nobody writing these articles is claiming their authority to give this advice on the basis of having done it wrong. Ms. Shaw, Dr. Swallow Prior, Mr. French and all the “marry-young” advocates I’ve glanced at are writing articles in support of the choice they made. So are the “marry-later/never” writers.

I’m sure that none of these articles are intended to rub salt in any wounds. In fact, I’m sure that they’re meant as a palliative for troubled marriages…maybe principally the author’s own, but also for the other spouses out there who are stealing sidelong glances at each other and thinking “If only I’d waited a little longer.”

Or “If only I hadn’t said no to my high school sweetheart.”

We all need the support of others in our camp, who can reassure us with their stories that we haven’t ruined our lives with a single choice, which we made thinking it was the right one.
But do you have to do it at the expense of the other side?

The ad nauseum comments on these articles show that every person has their own story. Some people got married at 40 and are living it up like nineteen-year-olds during spring break. Some people got married at 19 (or 23, or whatever you consider “young”) and have a maturity that most couples won’t reach until their silver anniversary.

And some people are miserable.

And some people are lying about their misery, because they can’t handle the truth.

The main thing these articles offer is a foothold for self-righteousness, and its flipside: regret. Depending on the temperature of your marriage, you’ll read one of these articles and think “Oh, so that’s why we’re doing so well” or “Oh, so that’s why we’re struggling.”

It makes the marriage’s success or failure all about you.

You followed the advice of your elders or you chose to blaze your own trail or you were enlightened enough or you were daring enough…and as a result, you have a right to expect years of ensuing marital bliss. More right, anyway, than those other schmucks who did it differently from you.

I wouldn’t quarrel with this message if it was delivered from a nonsectarian perspective. Human nature’s default is to deal with relationships they way we deal with the stock market.

But from professing evangelicals, I expect something better informed by the gospel. Or, anyway, I hope for it.

So, then…what are the would-be married, young or old, supposed to do with themselves?

Hell if I know. I’m single.

When my sister was getting married…at the age of 20…I was just out of yet another gnarly relationship and wondering how someone as young as her could be confident about committing her life to the first boy she’d ever dated.

So I asked her. How, I said, did she know she was ready to be married?

Here’s what she said:

“I don’t necessarily feel ready to be married. But I feel ready to be married to Andrew.”

Enough with when and how. My glass is raised to those who have taken a good long look at why they want to get married, and make a decision on that basis.

Every single great thing brings some disadvantages along with it. Even lottery winners confirm this. Make your decision, and support yourself through the bad times by focusing on the advantages.

I wish that all evangelical marriage ageists would read Matthew 20.1-16.

I wish that all these marriage journalists would just tell their stories, rather than try to feel better about the decision they made by selling it as an agenda.

I wish everyone who wants to be married, would marry, and then go on to do more with their lives than simply keep talking about it.

Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Dr. Swallow Prior’s article in the Atlantic Monthly was published subsequent to Ms. Shaw’s article in Slate. Converge regrets the error.

Did you get married young? What do you love about it?
Did you not get married until later? What do you love about it?
Are you single? What do you love about it?