Marrying Young

As many of my peers and I have observed, there seems to be an epidemic of sorts sweeping the Modern Orthodox community. This outbreak is not directly health-related in nature, but is a manifestation of a basic human desire – the desire to marry.

Virtually every guy from Yeshiva University (YU) or girl from Stern College for Women complains of the long list of weddings they have attended over the course of the spring and summer and of how the trend will continue into the fall and winter. I myself will have been invited to around a dozen YU-related weddings by the time January rolls around.

Marriage is by no means a phenomenon unique to our community. Almost everyone, religious and secular alike, marries eventually. What is distinctive about Modern Orthodoxy is the age at which we choose to wed. Almost every single one of the aforementioned couples consist of recent or impending college grads. I myself am guilty of this – I graduated from YU in January and was married in June (I know of 3 or 4 other YU weddings that occurred the same day). I was 22, my bride a year older.

At the time, I was working for a large corporation. There, as well as at the graduate school I currently attend, I was constantly beset with exclamations of surprise at my choice to marry at such a young age. I imagine most Orthodox youngsters in my position have had similar conversations – not that I am surprised. The current average wedding age in the United States is 28, and in progressive New York City that number is even higher, hovering at around 32.

Familial pressure and social taboos push us into joining our lives with another at so tender an age, but it is easy to wonder, as I know many of us do, whether our counterparts in the secular world have it right. Especially in today’s economic climate, it is not uncommon for working professionals to lack the wherewithal to support a family (and pay yeshiva tuition) until their early 30s. Furthermore (for those of us who aren’t shomer negia), our 20s can serve as an opportunity to sew some wild oats, so to speak, before we are ready to settle down.

Is the American way the correct course of action? One maverick researcher says no.

Mark Regnerus is an up-and-coming Sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He gained a level of notoriety for his controversial study on children of same-sex parents (available here).

I first discovered Dr. Regnerus when I stumbled across his piece “Freedom to Marry Young” in The Washington Post. In this article, Regnerus maintains that the current model of waiting to marry is unproductive and unhealthy. His rationale for this can be summed up with the well-known adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Essentially, as people get older, they become more set in their ways, and they have more difficulty enmeshing another into their lives. Marrying young mitigates this issue to a large degree, as people are more susceptible to compromise – that pillar of successful marriages – at a younger age. The idea, says Regnerus, is that marriage is a formative institution in and of itself. Expressed in other words, married couples should ideally grow, make mistakes, and learn together. Marriage is a skill like any other.

Of course, as Regnerus qualifies, it is important that newlyweds first reach an age at which they are mature enough to be mindful of another before consigning themselves to a nuptial state. The ideal age? Twenty-two, according to recent research which designates 22-25 as the ideal age range.

Sound familiar?

I would be remiss not to suggest that perhaps the young age at which we marry in our community contributes to our low divorce rate when compared to the general population. As far as financial concerns go, Dr. Regnerus points out that married couples earn more, save more, and advance more than do singles or cohabiting couples; this too is backed up by research. It seems that sharing a life with someone is a surprisingly efficient arrangement.

I recently had a conversation with my dentist, a cheerful 33-year-old who met her husband (and business partner) in their 1st year of dental school and married two years later. She could never begin  a marriage now, a journey on which many of her friends are currently embarking, she told me. “I have my ways, and he has his ways. We’d never be able to change them now. I’m happy we married young. We grew together.” She smiled contentedly.