The Best Age to Get Married

A new analysis of family data challenges the conventional wisdom that going to the altar as an older person increases the chance of marital success.

Dr. Nicholas H. Wolfinger, a sociologist at the University of Utah, suggests that after a certain point, the risk of divorce starts to rise again as a person gets older.

The risk of divorce declines steadily from the teens into the late 20s, but somewhere in the early 30s it starts to creep back up again. As Dr. Wolfinger puts it: “Those who tie the knot after their early thirties are now more likely to divorce than those who marry in their late twenties.”

The research is based on a statistical analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth, a nationally representative survey administered by the CDC every few years.

The increased divorce risk of younger couples makes some intuitive sense because in the teens and early 20s, a person comes to terms with himself or herself and life expectations. A perfect match at 19 may seem a lot less perfect by the time at 30.

A person who waits to marry until 40 would seem to be very settled. Dr. Wolfinger thinks there’s a selection effect happening here. People who wait a long time to get married simply may not be the marrying type, for instance. “Perhaps people who marry later face a pool of potential spouses that has been winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony,” Dr. Wolfinger writes.

Waiting until later in life is still a much wiser option that marrying early, he says. Looking at the raw divorce rates, for instance, Dr. Wolfinger found that people who married at age 35 or greater had a 19 percent risk of divorce, compared to a 20 percent risk for those aged 20 to 24, and a 32 percent risk for those who married before they were 20.

Overall divorce rates are still on a 30-year decline from their peak in the early 1980s. But the important thing, Dr. Wolfinger says, is that “we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that people who marry in their thirties are now at greater risk of divorce than are people who wed in their late twenties. This is a new development.” And it will take some further research to determine what this means for the demographics of marriage going forward.

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