Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Early Marriage Through Rose-colored Glasses

This weekend's WSJ saw an article defending early marriage -- or at least, what qualifies in these times as early marriage: getting married in your early 20s. My wife and I got married when we were both 22, and I couldn't be happier that we've spent the last nine years of our lives married, so you would think that this would be an article I'd find it easy to like. And yet, it proved to be one of those pieces that set me growling, such, indeed, that I found it difficult to stop growling.

At issue here is that one of the things which has come to bother me more and more about some strains of moral conservative argumentation in regards to issues like early marriage, having large families, birth control vs. NFP, etc. is the tendency to make the choices the writer is advocating sound like they are as easy if not easier than the opposing choices. All of these are things which I think people should consider, despite strong counter pressures from the mainstream culture, but the fact of the matter is that they are not necessarily easy. And I worry that too often when we elide "good" into "easy" we set people up for failure.

While not everyone meets the right person to marry young, if you do, I don't think that merely being in one's early 20s is a reason to put marriage off. Mr. Lapp does a good job of running through the basic data of how, contrary to some claims, marrying in your 20s is not necessarily a short ticket to divorce. (While people who marry in their teens have a very high divorce rate, marriage in your early 20s is only very slightly more likely to end in divorce than later marriage. I suspect one could reduce the remaining disparity by controlling for economic class and religious practice.) However, I find myself less sympathetic to this cheery section:
And as Mr. Arnett explains, "Many of the identity explorations of the emerging adult years are simply for fun, a kind of play, part of gaining a broad range of life experiences before 'settling down' and taking on the responsibilities of adult life." Young people sense that marriage marks the end of adventure and the beginning of monotony. Implicit is the dichotomy between individual fulfillment now and commitment later.

It's a false dichotomy. Instead of trekking to Africa or exploring Rome alone, why not marry the person of your dreams and take him or her along? What about discovering, as the characters Carl and Ellie in Disney Pixar's "Up" do, the good of marital friendship?
I think there are much better ways to combat the "make sure you have all your fun now!" mentality, without necessarily giving those thinking about marrying at 22 the idea that you can have it both ways. Yes, if, while still very young, you have met the person you believe you are called to marry, you are right to get married rather than living together or some other less "committed" lifestyle. (Both in that it will work out better in the long run not to start your relationship in such a half-way manner, and in regards to this little thing we Catholics call mortal sin.) But at the same time, it's important to understand this will be hard.

Yes, getting married right out of college is hard. Society doesn't expect it -- though if you live deep within the conservative Christian sub-culture, you may get a fair amount of support from other members thereof. Your finances will be tougher for a while. Sure, you can save money sharing an apartment and cooking at home -- but you're certainly not going to want to live with your parents or take in roommates. And if you marry at 22, you're likely to be a parent by 24 (and by 26, and by 28, and...), with the increase in expenses and decrease in secondary income that inevitably entails.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't get married, but it does mean that realism is necessary. This is a hard thing -- advocating that people follow a path while at the same time not overselling it as being easier and more fun than it is. And I don't want to suggest that getting married young, having a large family, using NFP, etc. are not good and satisfying things. I have found them to be very good, and satisfying in the deepest way. But this it the kind of good and satisfying that applied to things like running marathons or mountain climbing. They may be good things to do, they may be good for you, and they may be fulfilling. But they're not easy. And although they get easier with time, they never actually get easy. (Not to mention that along the way you get tired, and sustain the occasional injury.)

Exercise or diet or time management programs that sell themselves as easy, fun and fulfilling all at the same time get a lot of first-time triers, but those triers often don't last. And the reason is simple: they've been sold a bill of goods. These things are not easy. You're better off telling people that they're hard, but that its worth the hardship.

And yet, living in an age which seems to believe more than ever in the quick fix, and that if it feels good it must be good, the temptation seems almost overwhelming to tell people that it will all be fun and easy if only they'll do the right thing. Chastity is sexy. Marriage is one big adventure. Having more kids is easier than having just one or two. NFP is a sure thing, and it's romantic and divorce-proofs your marriage too. And please try out our new chocolate fudge diet -- it's the fastest way to lose weight.


Rebekka said...

I married when I was 23 and my husband was 27 and that was soon 8 years ago. It has not been easy (having to move abroad, chronic illness, infertility, stuff like that) but it has been, as you say, good and fulfilling. I can't imagine how aimless my life would have been if I hadn't married... But I don't need to imagine it, I can just look at my younger sisters. :-(

Just a little anecdotal evidence in support of your argument.

Dorian Speed said...

I thought of you two when I read that article and wondered what you'd think. Now, I need wonder no more!

TS said...

Thought-provoking post. I'm always fascinated by the "already/not yet" conundrum in the Christian life in which we have graces and powers that unbelievers have not and yet it doesn't always feel that way. (A visiting priest on Sunday mentioned how he was given the grace of obedience when he was transferred to another parish despite his wishes; similarly goes the gift of chastity. Do we tend to think of gifts as easy when they can be hard?)

ekbell said...

I found this sentence "Sure, you can save money sharing an apartment and cooking at home -- but you're certainly not going to want to live with your parents or take in roommates." amusing. My husband and I started off our married life living in a townhouse with three other people (I was 22 for less then a month when we married).

When we first moved to an apartment expecting to live there by ourselves, we ended up taking people in during our stay there (extra bedroom, needy friends-these things happen).

As for living with parents, my inlaws and parents are marvelous people because it worked out when we had to do so.

While we will never regret marrying as early as we did, I'll agree that it can complicate matters.

Mama Hobbit said...

Wow, I never considered that my husband and I married early, the summer after we both graduated college, until a year later when a new acquaintance mentioned it. Maybe it was college-specific scenario, but it felt like a third of our classmates at Texas A&M were engaged by the time we graduated.

Dorian Speed said...

My earlier comment was useless so I would just like to add that I agree with your extremely well-phrased post and have found the comments perceptive, as well.

Is that better?

You know, I always read everything here but I never comment unless it involves diapers.

I suppose this post does, in a way, involve diapers.

I found the tone of the article ineffective in preaching to anyone but the choir. The statistics were interesting but something about the ending with "free to kiss my wife and my house smells like fresh-baked bread" set me off, EVEN THOUGH I am a wife who enjoys baking bread. Perhaps I feel that I was free to discover that on my own after trying out my other options (not being a wife, not baking bread, applying to the Peace Corps but chickening out) due to my marrying a few years later than the author. (age 25, husband age 28)

Anonymous said...

My husband and I married 8 years ago--before we were even finished with college. We'd been dating since high school, he had a good job, and we were tired of waiting. We both finished our degrees, and we've had three kids so far. Things have been good, but far from easy much of the time. It's been hard for me sometimes to avoid envying my friends who are still single--they are traveling, writing, pursuing doctorates. All of which are things I would like to do. After a long night of nursing a baby, and then getting up with a cranky toddler, the single life can look awfully good. Of course, I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's, but it's often hard. Trying to sell this kind of life as the easier way of doing things is a bit misleading.

--Elizabeth B.

Emily J. said...

This topic was discussed at another blog some time ago - here it is -- in response to a Protestant book out about the benefits of marrying young. The blog writer had a failed early marriage, so was put off by the suggestion that marrying young was a good thing. It was an interesting discussion, although the comments had a condescending tone.

Your point that portraying early marriage as easy and preferable when it isn't always might is well made. Of course, as another person who married young, I also support the idea that it can work. And I love that the author quotes JP II, whose writing influenced my decision to marry young by convincing me that life with the man I loved raising a family would be a better way to get my soul in shape for heaven than finishing a grad degree or doing volunteer work or teaching (or other measly paying choices available to liberal arts majors - not that those can't be roads to heaven also). My husband and I married right after he graduated at age 23 (I had a year on my own) and had a baby 9 months later. 13+ years later we're still going strong, despite the challenges you rightly point out. But I wonder if we had married shortly after we first fell in love at 19 if the marriage would've lasted. Did we need a couple years to grow up? There are plenty of 19 yr olds who are more mature than we were, by young romance can be mistaken for the real thing when it isn't always. And not everyone finds the real thing in their 20's. But it was easier to do the sleepless nights and chase toddlers in my early 20s with my olders than it was in my early 30s with my youngers. And certainly marriage and childrearing have provided voluminous opportunities to learn about forgiveness, humility, selflessness, and all those other virtues that lead the soul closer to God instead of further away. (Not that I've mastered them or anything - just have plenty of opportunities to practice them.) Maybe age isn't as important as both spouses being willing to try to die to self.

Unknown said...

There is nothing that I have done as a single person - graduate school, Peace Corps, working in the corporate world - that I could not have done as a married person.

I just didn't meet the right man until I was 42. I wish I had met my husband when we were both in our 20s. We would have been young enough to have children together. But it didn't happen that way. I'm just happy I did find him.