Many couples who plan to get married struggle with the decision of when. Is there an ideal number of years they should date first? Is there a magic age at which they will be “ready”? Is there such a thing as “love at first sight,” and if so, how do you distinguish instant attraction from infatuation?
These are great questions. We live in an era where, despite the high divorce rate, couples still plan to marry and live happily ever after—a laudable goal. Considering the variation in age and stage in life when modern singles decide to tie the knot, however, when it comes to timing, is there a sweet spot?
Timing Is Everything—or Is It?
Suzanne Bartle-Haring et al., in a piece entitled, “Is There the ‘Sweet Spot’ for Age at Marriage” (2018), analyzed age at marriage and marital stability, as well as marital satisfaction, using three nationally representative data sets. [i]
They began by detailing the shifts in median age at first marriage. They report that early-20th-century first marriages had a median age of 26 for men and 22 for women. By the 1950s, the numbers were 23 years and 20 years respectively. Since 1960, the authors note the median age at first marriage has continued to rise. As of the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau, they report the median age at first marriage is now 29 years for men and 27 years for women.
In light of the increasing age of first marriage, how does age translate into marital satisfaction and stability? Bartle-Haring et al. acknowledge the association between age at marriage and marital stability, but note that the link between age at marriage and marital satisfaction is less understood.
Despite the belief held by many that there is an ideal age to tie the knot, the researchers found no clear distinction between age at marriage and impact on marital satisfaction. They note these findings indicate that relational experiences are affected by many factors, as opposed to just one.
Better Late Than Never, or Better Late Than Early?
Matthew D. Johnson et al., in a piece aptly entitled "Better Late Than Early” (2017), examined how the timing of marriage impacts well-being later in life. [ii] The authors looked at the relationship between marital status and subjective well-being (SWB), which they defined to include happiness, depressive symptoms, and self-esteem.
Their findings indicated that couples who married “on time” or “late,” as compared with same-age peers who chose early marriage, experienced less depressive symptoms in midlife—a finding the authors note lends support to the age norm hypothesis, which holds that transitions in life are impacted by common beliefs regarding the “right” age for a transition.
In discussing the results, Johnson et al. considered three explanations of the association between marriage and SWB: social selection hypothesis, social role theory, and the adaptation perspective.
They found little support for the social selection hypothesis—which holds that people who experience a higher sense of well-being are “a unique group whose positive disposition increases their chances of marrying,” as compared to individuals who are less happy and more depressed, who might find it harder to attract a partner.
They did find, however, that marriage and divorce were associated with future SWB (in directions as could be expected), consistent with social role theory. In contrast to the selection hypothesis, the authors explain the concept of social roles, noting, “Marriage represents a socially sanctioned expression of love that may facilitate connections to family and community and ultimately lead to heightened levels of SWB.”
For couples who chose to delay a walk down the aisle, the authors found that tying the knot at an older age predicted higher self-esteem in midlife for men, a finding they suggest might imply potential adaptation. They describe the adaptation perspective as suggesting that transitions are “disruptive and may cause short-term fluctuations in SWB,” while also noting that individuals “adapt to the transition and revert to their prior level of well-being.”
Time Is a Priceless Resource
Although research studies all come with limitations, in general, it appears that the “right time” for marriage is personal to every couple and is impacted by a variety of factors—age being just one of many. Daters desiring a family might interpret the sound of a biological clock ticking as wedding bells ringing, but there is much more to the analysis.
The decision to marry should be reflective, not rushed. Both parties should take as much time as necessary to ensure they are prepared to make a lifelong commitment. Thoughtful, patient, consideration is time saved in the end and increases the chances of couples walking down the aisle and into the sunset.
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[i]Suzanne Bartle-Haring, Samuel Shannon, Eugene Holowacz, Rikki Patton, and Felisha Lotspeich-Younkin, “Is There the ‘Sweet Spot’ for Age at Marriage and Positive Marital Outcomes?” Journal of Family Issues 39, no. 4 (2018): 1085–1107.
[ii]Matthew D. Johnson, Harvey J. Krahn, Nancy L. Galambos, and Fiese, Barbara H., "Better Late Than Early: Marital Timing and Subjective Well-Being in Midlife." Journal of Family Psychology 31, no. 5 (2017): 635-641.