Marriage and Young People

Still reflecting on my wedding anniversary this week, I was interested to read an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald today, in which American researcher Mark Regnerus implores young people to “take the plunge” because “deferring marriage is un-healthy and unwealthy”.

I do see Regneruses point of view.  He reports that his research on young adults’ relationships found that “many women report feeling peer pressure against seriously thinking of marriage until they are at least in their late 20s.”  This is certainly the case for many people I know (women and men).  When I look around at friends in their late 20s like me, it is only in the last year or two that some of us have started tying the knot; having kids is even rarer.  And he hits the nail on the head when he argues that parental pressure to complete our education, to launch our careers and become financially independent before even contemplating marriage is a driving factor behind the increased average marriage age.  Most people I know have certainly been given that advice.

But far from the picture that Regnerus paints of young people driven (by their parents or otherwise) to achieve experience, control and power in their lives before ‘settling down’ is another factor.  Not once did his article mention the increase in divorce rates (which reached a peak in Australia in 2001) that my generation lived through.  As a child of parents who divorced when I was 20 years old, I can testify to the devastating effect that divorce has on the kids’ sense of caution when it comes to signing themselves up to that life-long treaty which has the potential to end in the most bitter and destructive process imaginable.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the increased caution leading up to marriage these days actually accounted for the decrease we are now seeing in divorce rates compared to the last two decades!

When I say that young people have an increased sense of ‘caution‘, however, I don’t just mean that we are worrying ourselves about choosing ‘the right one‘ – although for some who have seen the effects of choosing ‘the wrong one’, this no doubt remains a concern.  Even if your parents aren’t divorced, these days the chances are that someone close to you has gone through the experience.  Throughout high school I was acutely aware of the effects that divorce had on my closest friends.  Everyone had their go – of seeing the counsellor, of acting out a little, of milking teachers for sympathy concessions…and of grieving.  My feeling is that our generation is mostly cautious about being able to get their marriage off to ‘the right start‘, as a way of honouring their own marriage and distinguishing their marriage as one built on well-established trust and resilience.  We feel we owe that to our future kids.

What Regnerus also fails to mention are the many couples who live in de facto relationships – who consider themselves as ‘married’ in the sense that they are emotionally, financially and even legally joined, permanently, but who for whatever reason haven’t been through the wedding process.  Speaking from my own experience, although I do admit feeling a bit ‘different’ since being married, there were many years before the wedding that we considered ourselves married in every way bar officially, and yet the only categories of relationship listed by Regnerus besides ‘married’ were ‘single’ or ‘cohabitors’.  A real de facto relationship is about much more than living together, or ‘cohabiting’, and in today’s increasingly secular society it is the  real start of a ‘permanent’ relationship – the wedding is more of a celebration of it.

Which leads me to another factor that wasn’t accounted for in Regneruses article: the cost of a wedding, and the effect of the contemporary trend of couples paying for all or part of their own wedding.  Maybe it is because our generation is marrying later, which makes them feel a bit silly as independent, wealth earning adults to ask thier parents to foot the bill.  It is logical that young people need more time these days to save up for their wedding, especially given the pressure to engage in that other costly endeavour – entering the property market.

I must say I was a bit insulted by the last paragraph of the article, in which Regnerus praised a 23 year old student on her decision to get married, contrasting her to the “many young people [who] mark their days by hitting the clubs, incessantly checking Facebook, and obsessing about their poor job prospects”.  This comment is a slap in the face to young people trying to relieve stress and maintain personal relationships to balance the extended education and training needed in this increasingly credentialised society, who now rightly worry about their job security in a declining global economy.  It also wrongly (and somewhat disrespectfully) positions marriage as a kind of panacea to the ills of a misspent youth.


People are full of advice when it comes to what young people should do to have a better life.  This is understandable; welcome and useful, even.  But we do ask that you give us some credit, and don’t try to oversimplify the problems of this generation.  It is not that we are so cynical and unromantic that we won’t settle for anything other than a “recipe for success”.  I love my husband, and we knew we were meant for each other from a very young age.  We took our time getting married because we were in no rush, plain and simple.  I think that’s pretty ‘healthy’, really.

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  1. #1 by darcymoore on April 30, 2009 - 9:45 pm

    Good post. Here’s a few unstructured blatherings…

    I find many of my generation, born in the late 60s, would never to do the marriage thing due to disgust at mainstream religion and the points that you mention, Kelli. Gen Y, as a generalisation, do seem much happier to marry than Gen X-ers.

    For me, I grew up RC, attending Sunday School and church until I became an ‘atheist’, aged 10. I have some baggage in that my Mum’s Mum didn’t attend her wedding ’cause Dad wasn’t Catholic. Hate that stuff and the RC vows and children being the ‘possession’ of the church (more real estate) turned me off it all.

    Kate & I never married but expect that we will continue as a couple for ever and a day. We have two kids now…that is more important than any doco.

  2. #2 by TroyMartin on May 1, 2009 - 4:54 pm

    Great post!!
    I was always openly against marriage, for some of the reasons you suggest (imagine Jerry on a New York street listening to two people argue, and his reply: yep, can’t wait to get married!) until I met my wife. It is interesting that SMH is picking up US research. What about other perspectives? How about people in our region, are their pattens changing?
    The generalisation he makes about young people could be easily transferred to older generations speaking about their children in the 1960’s, or the 1970’s or between the wars! People from that era might have had the Beatles and Dylan or Jazz clubs and cafes…well we have political, cultural, social leaders who grew up through the cultural landscape of the 1960s, amazing role models!

  3. #3 by mgiddins on May 2, 2009 - 12:54 pm

    I was married at 17, and by the time I was 21 I had been married, divorced (at 20) and had a three year old to show for it. I did not marry because I was pregnant, though that is everyone’s first assumption, because who gets married that young anymore? I had an experience of being a pariah – definitely not accepted by society, even in hospital giving birth to my son I dealt with prejudice and unacceptance, despite being lawfully married apparently 18 is considered too young. I am now 38, still single, and giving advice to my almost 20-year-old son who is living with his girlfriend. I tell my son now to wait for 22. I think the massive changes that we undergo coming into adulthood from 18 to 21 start to settle into more of who we will be at 22. I would be the first to warn teenagers of the dangers of getting pregnant too young, but only because it is SO hard to raise a baby on your own, and I know that from experience.

    My take on all of this is that caution is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t mutate into a fear that keeps you from living a full and happy life. Marriage is a good thing, and it should be carefully considered and not rushed into. Children are an awesome thing, and we should not wait too long before having them 🙂 My life is infinitely richer, and I am so much the wiser, for being a parent.

  4. #4 by Lyntiernan on May 10, 2009 - 11:08 am

    Our own experiences seem to be the shaping forces in the discussion how we feel about this topic. As a 50 plus who met my husband at 16, married at 19 and had the first child at 21, I still say ‘when it is right for you’. And I don’t think the doco is essential although kelly’s point about the wedding being the celebration of the relationship is the ‘feeling’ I remember from my own wedding. I keep telling my single friends who have loved and lost a few times, you really know you love someone after you have been together a while, are still best friends and know the worst things about each other. Right now when I think of my own grown up girls I don’t think ‘hurry up and get married’ but I have had a wandering thought a few times that it would actually be quite nice if they produced some grandchildren and they would both be terrific parents!

  5. #5 by kellimcgraw on May 10, 2009 - 10:04 pm

    Thanks everyone for sharing these personal comments.
    Being an atheist and a feminist, I did grown up intending to reject marriage for a range of social and political reasons. I think in the end you are right – people have to do what feels right to them, when it is right for them. Trying to live up to other people’s expectations is not a good basis for making any big decision!

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