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Source: SPY_studio/Shutterstock

"There is no wrong time to do the right thing."  —Charles M. Blow

Is there a right age to get married or to begin a long-term relationship? A new research article published in the Journal of Family Psychology explores this question in depth. Matthew Johnson of the University of Alberta and a team of co-researchers specifically examined marital timing (whether a person marries early, on time, or late compared with their age peers) and how this can be linked to different indicators of subjective well-being.

Though extensive research has already shown that married people tend to report greater overall life satisfaction than their single or divorced counterparts, there is still some controversy over why this is. Are people with a heightened sense of well-being and a positive outlook on life more likely to get married, or does marriage itself lead to a greater sense of subjective well-being? Certainly people who get divorced are much more likely to report emotional problems, such as depression. Still, this is usually a relatively short-term phenomenon, as the newly divorced learn to adapt and seek out new relationships.

But there are other factors that can influence how marriage affects well-being. As we grow older, we experience important life transitions, such as when we pass from adolescence to young adulthood, and start taking on new social roles as a result. We also find ourselves dealing with family and societal expectations about the kind of roles we are "supposed" to assume by a certain age. This includes marriage and all the responsibilities that go with it. Failing to live up to these expectations, i.e., delaying marriage or avoiding it altogether, often means having to deal with social or family disapproval. While this kind of social disapproval often varies from one culture to another, certain milestones such as "the big 3-0" can also mean increased anxiety and a sense of shame over not having accomplished what we are often taught to believe we should have accomplished by then.   

In their current study, Johnson and his colleagues used data from the Edmonton Transitions Study (ETS), a longitudinal project surveying Canadian adults from the age of 18 over a period of 25 years. Beginning in 1985, 983 high school seniors from the Edmonton area completed a baseline survey, and follow-up surveys were given at ages 19, 20, 22, and 25 (for a concentrated assessment of young adulthood), as well as later surveys at ages 32 and 43. Despite attrition over the years, there were 403 participants in the final survey.   

Over the course of time, participants provided information concerning marital status, age of first marriage, and whether they were ever divorced. They also provided demographic information on parental education, level of education attained, gender, and gross household income at age 43. Subjective well-being was measured with survey items relating to level of happiness, presence of depressive symptoms, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. The same items were administered for the baseline survey at age 18 and the final survey at age 43 to provide a direct comparison.    

For the purpose of the study, participants were placed into one of three categories depending on whether they married "early," "on time," or "late." For women, early meant marrying before the age of 23 (accounting for 22 percent of female participants), on time if they married between the ages of 23 and 27 (45 percent), or late if they married after the age of 27 (33 percent). For men, early was defined as marrying before the age of 26 (29 percent), on time was between the ages of 27 and 30 (38 percent), and late if they married after 30 (33 percent).

Results showed that people who married on time or late were least likely to report depressive symptoms in midlife. Also, people who reported depressive symptoms at age 18 were more likely to be divorced later in life though reported happiness or self-esteem had no relationship with later marital status. Along with earning a university degree, marrying late also predicted higher income at midlife, as well as increased midlife self-esteem.

In examining their results, Johnson et al. suggested that people who marry earlier rather than later may face greater challenges due to the added responsibilities of starting a family at a relatively early age. This can include greater difficulty in reaching their educational goals or putting in the added time needed to launch a career. Early marriage can also occur due to increased pressure from family members or an unexpected pregnancy, which can lead to greater emotional distress.

While the authors recognized that their study has significant limitations, including relying on participants from a single Canadian city, the results still suggest that marital timing may play an essential role in future happiness. Not only do people who marry early seem to have an increased risk of depression, but marrying late often means greater happiness overall.  

Considering that early marriages were the norm just a few generations ago, the shift we currently see toward later-life marriages may mean a happier life in general for people who are willing to wait.   

References

Johnson, M. D., Krahn, H. J., & Galambos, N. L. (2017). Better late than early: Marital timing and subjective well-being in midlife. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(5), 635-641. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000297

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When Is the Best Time to Have Children? is a reply by Susan Heitler Ph.D.

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