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Key Factors That Impact Your Odds of Marital Success

Well-educated individuals spend more time dating a potential spouse.

Because it felt important and timely, I deviated last week from my central topic to write a short piece on deceptive marketing practices affecting untold numbers of returning Veterans with G.I. Bill funding. This week brings a refocus on the central theme of this blog: What are the multiple reasons that well-educated people have better marriages relative to the general population?

In addition to being a highly accomplished group, well-educated people are thoughtful planners and strategists. They do not leave their futures—including their marriages—up to chance, but instead proceed through life in a very intentional manner. Many have delayed receiving their relatively high incomes for several years to pursue graduate degrees. Similarly, the married respondents in my well-educated sample (The Lifestyle Poll) indicated that they spent an average of 3.6 years dating their husbands before committing to marriage. This is much longer than the 2 year relationship “trial period” suggested by some theorists.

These quite happily married women knew what they were looking for and spent considerable time building their relationships before making the decision to partner for life with their husbands. Within the Lifestyle Poll sample, the average age at marriage was also significantly higher than the average age of marriage for the population at large. Specifically, the average age at marriage for women in the Lifestyle Poll sample was 27.17 and the average age for their husbands was 28.94. The average age of marriage across the United States for the same time period was 23.6 for women and 25.8 for men*, so the men and women in this sample were 3 to 3.5 years older on average at the time of marriage.

I suppose the relatively high average age of marriage in the Lifestyle Poll sample would explain a curious personal experience that I once had that has never been repeated at other weddings I’ve attended. I was attending a close friend’s wedding at the Harvard Club of New York, an elegant “Harvard on Harvard” marriage. When the bride threw the bouquet, the cluster of single women immediately jumped away from it and the unclaimed bouquet landed on the floor. I believe it may have ricocheted off my hand, because someone handed me the bouquet (now that I think of it, I realize I was, in fact, the next to get married).

This bouquet toss experience was illuminated when I reviewed responses to the open-ended question “At what age or stage of life do you feel is the optimal time to get married and why?” Here are some representative answers to this question:

• I believe you should not get married before your late 20s at the very earliest. Any earlier, and both people are still figuring out who they are. They are starting to establish themselves in the working world, they are still maturing emotionally. What's the rush? If two people really love each other and are committed, why not wait a few years to get married? Plus you can usually afford a better wedding and honeymoon.

• Late 20s/early 30s. You have had “fun” as a young adult, established your independence socially and professionally, and you really know yourself better. I thought I really knew who I was just after college...but it has taken me years to become more comfortable in my own skin. I am SO glad I did not marry the person I thought I would marry when I was 21...we would be divorced by now.

• 30–33. You are a full grown-up and know yourself better than you did in your 20s. Your education is finished, and your career is far enough along to have established professional credibility and worth, such that employers will be more flexible when it comes to children/family.

• I don't think there's any particular age—it's more a matter of maturity. But if I were to peg an age, it would probably be around 30—old enough to know yourself, but young enough to grow with someone.

• I think the best time to get married is when you are in a good place emotionally, professionally, personally, financially because by then it should be clear to you that you are able to do great on your own, but life is just that much sweeter married to this one person.

• Your early 30s because people are more aware of what they want and have grown up—remaining independent and less likely to project unhappiness onto their partner.

• I met my husband at a very young age, when we were both college sophomores, so to be honest I wasn't looking for anything like a life partner. I thought he was cute, and funny, and he was a jazz musician, so we shared that common interest that was not necessarily common among the other friends that I had. When we finally did get close to settling down I already knew that he and I were compatible as individuals—what I required from him was the promise that he was really ready to be committed to the intensity of a serious relationship (we had broken up a few times, mostly because he felt unready to be serious...not so surprising considering how young we were, and [in] retrospect, the times we had apart from each other were very valuable, they allowed us to do more “growing up” on our own before getting married).

As illustrated above, the clear consensus in the open-ended responses in the Lifestyle Poll was that personal and professional development should be fairly well established before marriage. The collective wisdom of the Lifestyle Poll participants to wait until the late 20s or early 30s before marrying fits with clear consensus in the literature.

Author Danielle Crittenden warns that “by waiting and waiting and waiting to commit to someone, our capacity for love shrinks and withers.”** Crittenden's statement could apply well to the experience of diminishing returns when individuals pursue a series of dead-end relationships. We might even see a parallel between indulging in the cocaine-like high of falling in love with a string of unsuitable partners, and taking ecstasy, because both decrease the range of maximum pleasure capacity in all future cases.

The results of the Lifestyle Poll, and the research of several widely cited demographers, suggests, in contrast to Crittenden’s assertion, that any association between age and capacity to love or to create a beautiful, sustainable marriage is utter nonsense. Demographers Teresa Castro-Martin and Larry Bumpass assert that “the inverse relationship between age at marriage and the likelihood of marital disruption is among the strongest and most consistently documented in the literature.”***

Dating for a sufficiently lengthy period allows us to establish a stronger sense of self and to define life goals and priorities. A later age of marriage and a more lengthy courtship explains in some part the high levels of marital satisfaction reported within my well educated sample of respondents. In 3.6 years, the average time before marriage in my research sample, there is plenty of time for two people to carefully evaluate each other’s character, assess compatibility, set off future land mines, and figure out how to work through conflicts together.

*U.S. Bureau of the Census. Table MS-2. Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890 to Present (Internet release date: September 15, 2004). Accessed March 8, 2011.

**Crittenden, D. (1999). What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman. New York, NY: Touchstone Press (a division of Simon & Schuster), p. 74.

***Martin, T.C. and Bumpass, L.L. (1989). "Recent Trends in Marital Disruption," Demography, 26, 41.

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