Some days you get out of bed and one of the first things you read is a piece pressuring young women—and explicitly just women—to get married young, and you want to go right back to bed. Is this 2009? Is Mark Regnerus aware that women aren’t legally considered chattel any more? Well, of course, and he’s not having it.
The average age of American men marrying for the first time is now 28. That’s up five full years since 1970 and the oldest average since the Census Bureau started keeping track. If men weren’t pulling women along with them on this upward swing, I wouldn’t be complaining.
Really, you have to give him points for honesty. A lot of social conservatives take a stab at pretending to be egalitarian about this. For instance, they make purity rings for boys, even if they’re not usually expected to wear them.
The whole piece is an exercise of Regnerus saying things that are actually good things in this mournful tone, and hoping that substitutes for an argument. It’s a weird strategy. Like this:
The age gap between spouses is narrowing: Marrying men and women were separated by an average of more than four years in 1890 and about 2.5 years in 1960. Now that figure stands at less than two years. I used to think that only young men — and a minority at that — lamented marriage as the death of youth, freedom and their ability to do as they pleased. Now this idea is attracting women, too.
That’s like saying: “It used to be that everyone smoked inside and out, and everything stank to high heaven and everyone died of lung cancer. You kids don’t know how good we had it.” Sometimes arguing from tradition is merely irritating. Sometimes it’s beyond fucking stupid. But I suppose the good thing is that Regnerus is coming right out and stating a value that social conservatives tend to avoid baldly stating—they desire young marriage (for women), because it’s an effective tool at clipping women’s wings. But this is rarely stated outright. It is the whole reason for abstinence-only and other movements against making contraception available and acceptable to young people, though. The hope is that teenagers will get pregnant and “do the responsible thing”, i.e. they’re trying to use subterfuge to get the desired results. That’s why most of America thought Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was devastating to Sarah Palin’s image, but it in fact made the base love Palin more. Though now that they’re seeing that the young marriage they hoped for is drying up, perhaps that will change.
But there’s so much more fail to address.
In my research on young adults’ romantic relationships, many women report feeling peer pressure to avoid giving serious thought to marriage until they’re at least in their late 20s. If you’re seeking a mate in college, you’re considered a pariah, someone after her “MRS degree.” Actively considering marriage when you’re 20 or 21 seems so sappy, so unsexy, so anachronistic.
Well, it is sappy, unsexy, anachronistic and usually pretty stupid. But I get the impression he thinks that perceptions and reality are different on this front, and they’re not. Young people are right if they think that it’s a depressing waste of fleeting youth to marry and have kids instead of have some young adventures, and women are especially right if they realize that youthful marriage and child-bearing is going to mean that their career opportunities will slip from their fingers. It’s not impossible, of course, to have it all. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Those who do fear to admit it — it’s that scandalous.
I wouldn’t say scandalous so much as pitiable. I remember the girls who wanted to marry young in college, and everyone felt like they were desperate and weird, not scandalous. I just finished reading Regnerus’s book about teenage sexuality, and while the research was interesting, one issue I had with it was that he played this very trick often. If he agreed with a teenager’s values (that it’s wrong to fuck, early marriage is desirable, girls who have sex are broken people, it’s best to wait until marriage), he tended to put it forth like it was a value springing from their deepest heart of hearts, and not something that they might be saying because they’re young and don’t know any better. He reserved skepticism, however, for teenagers who said things like, “I’d like to know I’m sexually compatible with someone before marrying them,” even though I personally thought that kind of statement demonstrated maturity.
But our children now sense that marrying young may be not simply foolish but also wrong and socially harmful. And yet today, as ever, marriage wisely entered into remains good for the economy and the community, good for one’s personal well-being, good for wealth creation and, yes, good for the environment, too. We are sending mixed messages.
That’s not a mixed message. People who suggest you wait until your late 20s to marry are upholding the value of marriage “wisely entered”. That’s the point. Marriage is a huge commitment, and leaving it is a giant headache. So you want to enter it with more self-knowledge and maturity, because it significantly raises your chances of making it work. The stats are behind this assumption—if you wait until you’re 25 to marry, your odds of divorce are only 24%. People caution you to marry when you’re mature because they value marriage.
This is not just an economic problem. It’s also a biological and emotional one. I realize that it’s not cool to say that, but my job is to map trends, not to affirm them. Marriage will be there for men when they’re ready. And most do get there. Eventually. But according to social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, women’s “market value” declines steadily as they age, while men’s tends to rise in step with their growing resources (that is, money and maturation). Countless studies — and endless anecdotes — reinforce their conclusion.
I have no doubt that youth and money influence people’s decisions on who they marry, but personality, compatibility, and maturity are also factors. He also brings up the fertility issue, which is both overblown (if it’s just a matter of declining egg supply in your 30s, apparently that means you usually just have to try harder—other, more intractable forms of infertility as you age are often a matter of undiagnosed STDs, something that could be addressed with better screening instead of pushing people into marriages that run the risk of breaking up in a vale of tears), and also something that’s rarely balanced with mention of women’s desire to have quality children, not just quantity children. We know what increases the chances of having healthy, well-educated kids—giving them the sort of home that’s much easier to construct in your 30s than your teens. Also, children enjoy stable marriages, which are more likely to happen if you marry later.
Regnerus admits that youthful marriage is more likely to end in divorce, then blows right past that to make some silly arguments.
First, what is considered “early marriage” by social scientists is commonly misunderstood by the public. The best evaluations of early marriage — conducted by researchers at the University of Texas and Penn State University — note that the age-divorce link is most prominent among teenagers (those who marry before age 20). Marriages that begin at age 20, 21 or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume.
Sure—every year you give it, the better your chances are. But young women who resist marriage aren’t stupid. It significantly clips your wings, starting with the amount of housework you suddenly have to do—7 hours more a week on average. And that’s just housework. Being married means handing over a lot of yourself to a man, especially if you’re in your puppy years and haven’t learned to stand up for yourself yet. Jessica had a great piece about “Against Love” where she talked about this.
But once I got over the initial shock of thinking of couplehood as something potentially limiting, I couldn’t get enough of the idea. I passed the book around to friends (especially those who liked to ask when I’d be getting married), showing them the section where Kipnis lists pages of answers to the question, what can’t you do because you’re in a couple?: “You can’t just walk out on your job or quit in a huff. You can’t make unilateral career decisions, or change jobs without extensive discussion and negotiation. You can’t have your own bank account.” She continues, “You can’t leave the dishes for later, wash the dishes badly, not use soap, drink straight from the container.” All of a sudden, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea to spend my energy on more selfish pursuits. I don’t think it was a coincidence that after I dropped my beau, I ended up cranking out my first book.
And that—women writing books, women competing with men in the workforce—is exactly what pieces like this are trying to assault without coming right out and saying it.
More from Regnerus:
Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life.
First of all, the unformed nature of younger people is why youthful relationships fall apart so easily. You grow as individuals, and odds are that you will grow apart. If you marry when more fully formed, you can find someone you know you’re compatible with.
But I’d suggest that Regnerus, especially since he advises that only women marry young and therefore that they marry men significantly older, is not saying that people should be formed by marriage. He’s saying women should be. And the form that forming will take is obvious—the more malleable you are, the more likely you are to give into the pressure to be the support system for you husband, to give up your hopes and dreams to support his. The problem with older women (well, not problem—I’d say solution!) is that they are set in their ways, and that means they have more bargaining power in their relationships. If you already have your career, for instance, you know what you stand to lose if you give into the pressure to give it up. But if you don’t have it yet, it makes it much easier to let your husband’s needs and desires dictate the entire relationship.
But Regnerus plays this off like it’s “pooling”.
Married people earn more, save more and build more wealth compared with people who are single or cohabiting. (Say what you will about the benefits of cohabitation, it’s a categorically less stable arrangement, far more prone to division than marriage.) We can combine incomes while reducing expenses such as food, child care, electricity, gas and water usage. Marriage may be bourgeois, but it’s also the greenest of all social structures. Michigan State ecologists estimate that the extra households created by divorce cost the nation 73 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and more than 600 billion gallons of water in a year. That’s a mighty big carbon footprint created in the name of solitude.
Cohabitation might be less stable, but it still has those benefits. For a social scientist, Regnerus is being a little less than thorough, too. Would cohabiting couples suddenly have more stable relationships if they married? Does the piece of paper confer magic benefits? I would argue that cohabiting couples break up more than married couples, because more and more often, people only marry when they’re sure it’s stable. Which is to say a couple who lives together that decides that their relationship is stable will marry, not that marriage makes relationships stable.
Also, a lot of the “pooling” is actually an unpaid transfer of wealth from women to men in the form of labor. Married men do make more, because they have women handling all the distractions in life for them—they’ve even found that the more housework a wife does, the more money her husband makes. This isn’t “pooling”, but yes, unpaid labor is cheaper than paid labor.
It’s hard to imagine now that later marriage is the norm in the middle class, but one thing that feminists in the 60s and 70s agitated against was the way that early marriage was used to improve men’s careers on the backs of women, in the way that Regnerus is promoting without coming out and saying it. For a lot of couples, the model was this—meet and marry in college, perhaps because the woman got pregnant. Now you have more responsibilities and need more income, and the “rational” thing to do is for the wife to drop out, take a low skill job and put her husband through school. Her presumed reward for this sacrifice is the opportunity to be dependent on him, when he gets a high-paying job and she gets to be a housewife. Of course women are better at marriage than men in this situation. They don’t have a choice. Employees often put more work into pleasing employers than the other way around.
I have no doubt that early marriage would largely return us to these circumstances, because it still seems more “rational” for women to do most of the sacrificing in marriage, because men’s jobs are generally better paid and more prestigious. People like to talk about how the emphasis on college and career-building has delayed marriage, but I’d argue that it’s women’s need for college and career-building more than men’s that makes this so.
The deepest irony in this is that while early marriage especially is about transferring women’s labor over to men, the situation isn’t so great for men, either. It’s not like men are any more eager to marry at 20 than women. And now they don’t have to. After all, the number one reason that people are marrying later is that they don’t have to get married because baby’s on the way anymore. The birth control pill, abortion, and the growing acceptability of single motherhood means that men benefit, right along with women, from being able to marry because you want to, not because you got stuck. This makes marriage much happier:
Not surprisingly, researchers in the ’50s found that less than one in three married couples reported being happy or very happy with their relationship. Compare that to today, when 61 percent of married Americans report themselves to be “very happy” in their marriage.
Also, Regnerus is wrong if he thinks that early marriage is such an economic boon. From the same article, we find that one in four Americans in the 50s lived in poverty, and part of the reason was that youthful pregnancy and marriage clipped women’s wings, which meant that couples just had less income coming in. We tend to think that people in the 50s did fine with single-income households, but obviously not.