Not long ago, a young couple named David and Cassandra came to see me for premarital counseling. As these fresh-faced lovers sat down on the couch at our first session, they gazed at each other with puppy eyes and sat so close I thought one might end up on the other’s lap.
“Dr. Warren,” David said, “we’re here because we’ve announced our engagement -and our parents think we’re too young to get married.” They gave each other syrupy smiles and squeezed each other tightly.
“Well, how old are you?” I asked.
“I’m twenty,” he said, “and Cassandra is eighteen.”
“But what does age really matter anyway?” Cassandra chimed in. “We love each other, and we’re right for each other. Everything in our hearts tells us we should be together.”
We talked a while, and I remained as open-minded as possible. After all, occasionally even eighteen-year-olds can be surprisingly mature. But the truth became clear when I asked some specific questions, such as how David envisioned his life in ten years.
“I’ve always been good at art,” he replied, “so I’ll probably end up in the art field somewhere. But I’m not really sure what I’ll choose to do for a career or where we might live or any of that. All I know is that if Cassandra and I are together, we’ll be fine. We can make it through anything.”
I was beginning to suspect this relationship was long on fantasy and short on reality. So I asked them both to describe themselves — their strengths and weakness, their personalities, their style of communication — and I received more vague responses. They fumbled for answers and always returned to their “love-will-see-us-through” theme.
Finally I said them, “Look, as a psychologist I try to tell the truth as clearly as I know how, and the truth is this: All those warm, tender feelings you have for each other are important and necessary for marriage. But it’s even more important for you to know who you are as individuals, to be clear about where you want to go in life before you make a commitment as critical and all-encompassing as marriage.”
Naturally, my truth-telling didn’t sit well with these starry-eyed lovers. But I had to give it to them straight. The fact is, whenever a couple in their early twenties or younger comes to me and declares their plans to marry, a neon sign in my mind flashes Danger! I know the divorce rate for couples under twenty is incredibly high (between 80 and 85%). Social scientists have found that people who marry young are seldom prepared for marital roles.
So how old should two people be when they marry? That depends on many factors-maturity level, ability to earn a living, progress in education, and so on. But we can say for sure that, statistically, marriages seem to be much more stable when they begin no earlier than the mid-twenties. As a matter of fact, a recent study indicates that the most stable marriages of all have a “starting date” of twenty-eight years of age. In their book, Marriage and the Family, researchers Marcia and Tom Lasswell conclude: “Divorce rates are lowest for men and women who marry for the first time at age 28 or later. The chances for a stable marriage increase as both partners reach the age of 30 and then the rates level off.”
At the heart of the issue is this: Young people can’t select a marriage partner effectively if they don’t know themselves well. Until they can identify themselves in a precise and detailed way, they are in no position to identify the person to move through life with them. In our culture, the identifying process usually requires most of the first twenty-five to twenty-eight years of life. Identity formation is incomplete until individuals have emotionally separated from their parents and discovered the details of their own uniqueness. Prior to their mid-twenties, most young adults haven’t defined their goals and needs. They haven’t had time to learn to be independent. They haven’t yet “grown into themselves.” They simply need more life experience.
The statistic that never fails to hit me with a jolt is this: The divorce rate for those who marry at twenty-one or twenty-two is exactly double the divorce rate for those who marry at twenty-four or twenty-five. Self-identity has to be the reason.
Sometimes the self-identifying task takes even longer than twenty-five years. It’s not uncommon for two middle-aged persons to marry with little understanding of who they are as individuals. When your identity process is well developed-when you are clearly in touch with the person you truly are-the task of selecting the right marriage partner becomes significantly easier.
Some couples seem intent on convincing me they’re ready for marriage at a young age, that people have married young for eons, and it worked out fine for them. I’m sure that was true in some eras, probably when the general population wasn’t expected to live past forty or fifty. But consider: In 1890, the average age of American males at first marriage was slightly over twenty-six years. The median age for females in 1890 was 22 years. Through the years, the average gradually declined to 22.8 for males and 20.3 for females after the Second World War in 1950. But by 1988 the average age for men at first marriage was back up to 25.9, and the average age for women had reached an all-time high of 23.6. The average age at marriage for females is higher now than at any time in our history, and there is a slow, upward trend.
The bottom line is this: If you want to avoid becoming a divorce statistic?or living for years in an unhappy marriage? Take seriously the need to wait until you have personally developed your identity and life goals. If you do, your selection of a mate will be based on the “totally grown up you” and prove to be as good twenty or thirty years from now as it is today.
Neil Clark Warren is a psychologist and popular speaker based in Pasadena, Calif.