Wait to Get Married – But Not Too Long

Those who walk down the aisle after their early 30s are more likely to divorce than those who marry in their late 20s – past the early 30s, the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year of age at marriage, according to Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah. 
It is not clear why people in their early 30s who wed face elevated risks of divorce, Wolfinger says, but for almost everyone, regardless of background, the late 20s seem to be the best time to say “I do.”

Research and conventional wisdom for many years supported the idea that the longer a person waited to wed, the better because the relationship between age at early marriage and divorce risk is almost linear: The older the bride and groom, the lower the chances of divorce. Teens who marry still face an elevated divorce risk relative to older adults.

Teenagers and people in the early twenties who face routine marital problems often lack the maturity, coping skills, and social support to make marriage work. In the face of ordinary marital problems, teens and young twenty-somethings lack the wherewithal necessary for happy resolutions. In terms of statistics, a person who marries at 25 is over 50 percent less likely to get divorced than someone who weds at age 20. Postponing marriage to the early twenties produces the largest declines in divorce risk, for totally understandable reasons: people change more from year to year as teenagers than in our twenties or thirties. Parents and friends may frown of young marriage, but they can accept the marriage of people in their late twenties. Research found that the risk of divorce continues to decline past that point, albeit at a milder rate. Couples in their thirties are more mature and usually have a sounder economic foundation. Conversely, youthful marriage is correlated with lower educational achievement, which compounds divorce risk at any age.

Using data collected between 2006 and 2010 from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), Wolfinger argues that his analysis shows that prior to age 32 or so, each additional year of age at marriage reduces the odds of divorce by 11 percent, but after that the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year. Wolfinger claims that it is only recently that thirty-something marriage evidenced a higher divorce risk. It appears to be a trend that’s gradually developed over the past twenty years: a study based on 2002 data observed that the divorce risk for people who married in their thirties flattened out, rather than continuing to decline through that decade of life as it previously had.

The 30-something marriage continues to yield a higher divorce rate even after controlling for respondents’ sex, race, family structure of origin, age at the time of the survey, education, religious tradition, religious attendance, and sexual history, as well as the size of the metropolitan area that they live in. (The NSFG is a cross-sectional survey, which means that all respondent information was collected at a single point in time. Consequently the effects of education, religious attendance, and other impermanent demographic attributes on marital stability may not be causal. Results involving these variables should therefore be treated as provisional.)

None of these variables appear to have an effect on the relationship between age at marriage and divorce risk. “Additional tests revealed that the relation seems to function more or less the same for everyone: male or female, less or more educated, religious or irreligious, intact or broken family of origin, and limited versus extensive sexual history prior to marriage. For almost everyone, the late twenties seems to be the best time to tie the knot.”

Wolfinger suggests singleness past the age of 30 may make people unfit for a lasting marriage. A person who has had many boyfriends or girlfriends may find that former partners may “play havoc” with a marriage because they may offer the temptation of adultery. Children with one or more former partners increase what he calls the “baby mama drama.” Moreover, multiple sexual partners prior to marriage significantly increase the chances of getting divorced. Be that as it may, the number of prior sexual partners NSFG respondents had does not explain the relationship between age at marriage and marital stability. This result suggests that the mere experience of waiting past your early thirties to get married – a so-called “direct effect” – cannot explain why thirty-something marriages now have higher divorce rates than do unions formed in the late twenties.

Wolfinger believes the kinds of people who wait till their thirties to get married may be cantankerous people who have trouble with interpersonal relationships because they can’t find anyone willing to marry them. When they do tie the knot, their marriages are automatically at high risk for divorce. People who marry later face a pool of potential spouses winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony.

Wolfinger suggests consideration of social forces that discourage marriage in the United States. As of 2011, the median marriage age was 29 for men and 27 for women – the highest it’s been in decades for men and the highest ever for women. Many explanations have been proposed for the record-setting rise in people’s age at marriage, but two stand out. First, people wait to marry because they can’t afford it (or feel like they can’t afford it) due to wage stagnation. People now need more work experience to make the same wages, so they delay tying the knot. Second, there are now many more alternatives to matrimony. Young adults need not be married to have sex lives, and they are free to live with their partners out of wedlock.

Wolfinger believes that the newly heightened divorce rate for people who wed after their early thirties as a sort of practical pushback against the social forces that are driving up the median age at marriage. Many people who delay marriage nowadays for financial reasons marry as soon as they feel they can afford it. These are the people who wed in their late twenties, the years of peak marital stability. The folks remaining in the pool of marriage-eligible singles are the kinds of people who aren’t well suited to succeed at matrimony (irrespective of their financial well-being). In previous years, when people didn’t feel like they were holding off on marriage because of money, the folks who waited into their thirties perhaps didn’t represent people ill-disposed to have lasting marriages.

Moreover, modern alternatives to marriage are too successful at siphoning people out of the marriage pool. Maybe some of the thirty-somethings who would have made good spouses now feel perfectly comfortable being single, or living with partners out of wedlock. With median marriage ages as high as they’ve ever been, perhaps some people who delay marriage get so used to single life that they make lousy spouses should they ever decide to give marriage a try.

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