There have been a slew of articles recently in Slate, The New York Times and the Daily Beast, among others, espousing the benefits of nailing down a spouse earlier rather than later in life. Of course, there have been equally passionate responses back on Slate, Cosmo and Jezebel articulating precisely why marrying later in life is a better idea.
You should be a tad disturbed, because underlying these articles is an assumption that women aren’t individuals – they’re a group with a collective experience that should be put in a test tube and studied.
But here’s where I believe these articles go awry.
Experience breeds bias. Let me put it this way: There’s a woman who started a very successful business after escaping a terrible family and economic situation, and there’s the woman whose husband left her when she was pregnant and who is now working at a fast food restaurant and accepting food stamps. It is far more likely both that the businesswoman will believe ALL people could have escaped like she did, and that the second woman will believe ALL people need government assistance. Both scenarios, in the mind of that individual woman, aren’t an individual experience – they’re just how the world is. And that’s true. In their experience.
Timing matters, whether you’re 22 or 32. If you are reading scads of articles about when you should get married, chances are you’re in the market for a soul mate. But the fact is that we live in a world with a finite number of resources; there’s not always going to be someone you want to marry and have babies with (or not) just sitting there, waiting around. All the benefits in the world to marrying young or old don’t matter very much if you can’t find your person at that time.
Furthermore, the authors are making an assumption about causality. As the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews so beautifully put it,
None of the data we have on marriage are definitively causal. That’s a good thing. To have rock-solid evidence that marriage causes anything, we’d need to randomly require some people to marry at one age and others to marry at another age and then compare the results (and event that study design would have plenty of problems).
Fundamentally, these articles seem like a justification for personal choices. Imposing our own preference onto someone else defeats what’s so wonderful about marriage! Marriage – or rather, two people choosing to live with one another and put their faith in one another and whisper their secrets into a confiding ear – has defied the strictures of state and media and church resiliently, if not perfectly, since history has been kept. In Ferdinand Mount’s (columnist for The Sunday Times) classic, The Subversive Family, he writes:
This insistence on making and unmaking our own relationships without let or hindrance from society is anything but a soft option. Nor is the project undertaken because it offers a greater assurance of contentment, either for ourselves or for our children, than our forefathers enjoyed. The modern insistence on liberty in personal relationships stems from that most modern, most protestant of reasons, the dignity of the individual.
Ultimately, it’s up to you, the individual, to decide if you want to get married young or old. These advice columns can help you reach that decision, but the choice is fundamentally, and can only be, yours.