The right time to marry is not a simple math equation with a clear answer. Once the teen years are past, the marriage-minded find both baggage and benefits to different marriage ages, which experts say should not be the determining factor.
A recent national report documented declining marriage rates and an increase in the number of children born before marriage to women in their 20s and 30s. The report, "Knot Yet," also showed sharp benefits and few disadvantages to marrying in the 20s, a time that instead increasingly serves as a period of adventure and self-discovery. These "Odyssey Years," the report said, are marked by fun, travel, school, jobs and multiple relationships instead of the marriages that earlier generations used as launching pads to family life. More Americans are either postponing or forgoing marriage.
Pluses and minuses
"Clearly, waiting has an upside for some. Women who can get their education and experience in their 20s and marry in their 30s clearly benefit professionally from taking that approach," said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, which put out the report in mid-March with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the RELATE Institute, a consortium that promotes strong premarital and marital relationships. Wilcox said those women who use their 20s to get an education and launch a career enjoy a $10,000 premium in earnings. Others don't derive the same benefit.
Delayed marriage also makes divorce less likely, but "as divorce insurance, it has diminishing returns," Wilcox said. Within five years, 31 percent of teen marriages end in divorce, compared to 15 percent of mid-20s marriages and 11 percent of mid-30s marriages.
On the other hand, the report also found that women who were married in their 20s are more likely to call themselves "very happy" in marriage. Waiting brings risks, including a smaller dating pool from which to select a partner. Besides that, young adults who marry in their 20s are more likely to have children in wedlock, which creates a more stable family footing. Couples are more likely to keep ties to and share the same faith. And they are more apt to avoid what the researchers call "relational cynicism." Fertility also peaks around age 28.
"If you're in a good relationship AND your friends and family are enthusiastic about the character of your beloved, it's time to discern if you're called to marriage — even if you're in your 20s," the researchers concluded.
Among those more likely to thrive married than single are young adults, mothers and fathers and men in general, according to the report.
Still, not everyone wants to be married, and that's fine, said Lori Gottlieb, psychotherapist and author of "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." But she believes that for the majority who do hope to marry, it's possible to wait too long or be too picky. "I think that a lot of people feel that there is something negative about getting married in your early 20s. A lot of people are waiting much longer. There is not a perfect age. You meet the person when you meet the person, and I wouldn't advocate marrying younger just to get married.
"I don't think everybody needs to get married. But many people want to get married, so I think it's important to really focus on how that's going to happen," said Gottlieb, who did not help write "Knot Yet."
As those around a person find mates, the pool of potential partners becomes smaller. A single person in his or her 30s and beyond will not have as many opportunities as someone who is younger. Many single people won't admit they want to get married because it doesn't seem to be politically correct. Research, however, shows most people still value marriage as a goal, she said.
Wilcox and Gottlieb are among experts discussing the age-related findings Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif.