Please Stop Telling Us When to Get Married


Should you get married while you’re young and have “peak nubility,” or wait until you’re older and have not-as-great boobs but a more emotionally mature attitude toward compromise? Careful, I think it’s a trick question. But if you’re the sort of person who needs an article or someone else’s experience to answer that question (assuming you’re among the “lucky” portion of the population who is actually allowed to marry), then rest assured the advice is out there, chomping at the bit for you to put a ring on it either now or never. Hint: Do it now!

That’s right: As if it isn’t obviously ludicrous to tell people what to do or when to do it when it comes to crazy, madcap, culturally condoned unions such as marriage, people are out there still telling you when to do it. Mostly, they want you to do it now. Because now is better than later, when you might not be able to do it anymore. I think if you would just do it now, the argument goes, you would see what all the rest of us who already did it have, and you could get in on this, too, like a hotly tipped stock destined for greatness that only other rich people know about.

Why? Are we all just a grandmotherly stereotype of worried fretting over whether all the young ladies are settled yet? Why do we want to tell (mostly) women to get married so soon? Does it just make us feel better? Is this a hookup culture backlash? Are we afraid that women are reaching peak fulfillment in their lives and careers and finally holding out for the most equitable, manageable arrangement in the history of forever, and it’s making us nervous? Do we not know how to deal with new generations of women who might never have kids or find “Mr. Right?”

Newsflash: We know when or if or how we want to get married. We do. And even if we haven’t decided, we still know that advice is great and all, but that we will ultimately make this decision for ourselves relative to our situations and lives and desires. Stories about what other women do or did are perfectly interesting but ultimately not really applicable to us and our lives. Please stop pretending that they are.

Take this “marry young” lady who is making the Internet rounds. Message: She married young! And so should you. More specifically, Julia Shaw married at 23, an age when I believe I was literally doing bong hits before original-run Melrose Place came on. Shaw met husband David in college and angels burst through the clouds, so they entered post-haste into the Maturity-Commitment Generator. (Princeton Mom would be so proud!) And since it worked out so well for Julia Shaw, she wonders why everyone isn’t busting down the doors at City Hall to shack up with the quickness:

I’m a married millennial. I walked down the aisle at 23. My husband, David, was 25. We hadn’t arrived. I had a job; he, a job offer and a year left in law school. But we couldn’t buy a house or even replace the car when it died a few months into our marriage. We lived in a small basement apartment, furnished with secondhand Ikea. We did not have Internet (checking email required a trip to the local coffee shop) or reliable heat.
Marriage wasn’t something we did after we’d grown up — it was how we have grown up and grown together. We’ve endured the hardships of typical millennials: job searches, job losses, family deaths, family conflict, financial fears, and career concerns. The stability, companionship, and intimacy of marriage enabled us to overcome our challenges and develop as individuals and a couple. We learned how to be strong for one another, to comfort, to counsel, and to share our joys and not just our problems.

Great, that’s great. I don’t mean to diminish in any way the success of her arrangement — applause for everyone who does a thing they like and is happy with the thing. But this argument is deeply flawed as a case for marriage for anyone other than Julia and David Shaw, and it’s almost too easy to refute.

One: All kinds of relationships, with lovers and friends, with pets you care for, with yourself, in all varieties, can offer something toward our growth and/or stunting as people. Two: marriage, in and of itself, isn’t stable. Or intimate. Nor does it offer companionship. It’s a legal/religious agreement. The people inside of it can foster and nurture those things. Or not. A lot of ’em do. A lot of ’em don’t. That’s what the whole divorce rate is about.

I don’t see why people attribute what’s good about marriage to marriage as a concept, as opposed to the people in it and the work they are doing. Marriage is just a framework. Everything about the way it goes comes down to the two people in it and how they face the challenges that befall them.

There are things, to be sure, about making it harder to leave a relationship that will influence the way you work on the relationship. Committing for life provides a framework for doing the heavy lifting over the long-term in a way that a casual relationship wouldn’t. But in either situation, people can be for the notion of working it out no matter what or not. It’s not marriage that creates (or more importantly, keeps) this promise. It’s people.

This can also be achieved by living together, tangling up finances, having children out of wedlock, sharing a pet, being in love, buying a very expensive couch. At City Hall, no one hands you your intimacy award. No one delivers a maturity certificate. And nowhere on the marriage license does it grant soul-mate status.

Shaw goes on to itemize the particulars/benefits of their arrangement in a way that suggests they are universally desired goals: jump-started independence, scraping by together, and then a whopper of a heads-up about how soul mates work:

Sometimes people delay marriage because they are searching for the perfect soul mate. But that view has it backward. Your spouse becomes your soul mate after you’ve made those vows to each other in front of God and the people who matter to you. You don’t marry someone because he’s your soul mate; he becomes your soul mate because you married him.

Hey, I’m sure that’s one way it can go. But I’m willing to bet right now that plenty of people made their vows in front of God and everyone including their 3rd grade teacher and ended up with something far short of the glory of soul mates: divorce.

But ultimately, Shaw just wants everyone to know that you don’t have to have a lot of money to be married, “just maturity, commitment, and a desire to grow up together.”

That’s fine. But I find it really hard to believe that people who want to get married are waiting and somehow missing out on it because they thought they needed more money or a better job first.

Plus, tons of people in their twenties don’t want to punch through the milestones and challenges of this notoriously tenuous decade figuring out who they are and fucking it up magnificently already shackled to someone else inside the Maturity-Commitment Generator. Some of them prefer to make some mistakes during this age, the kind that don’t require lawyers to extricate from.

But of course, the ultimate flaw of her argument and all when-to-get married arguments is that she generalizes what is ultimately real specific-like: She was ready to get married, so she did.

Being ready to step inside the tangled web of marriage and make the best of it, fight the good fight, foster decency and harmony and all that jazz, is what makes marriage a good, worth-it thing. If you want it. Not being ready won’t produce those results. Which is why, as we all know, lots of marriages end, and lots of people like to wait.

Amanda Marcotte over at Slate discusses the fact that women wait because they don’t want to get divorced.

Not that any of this matters anyway. Watching conservatives desperately try to bully women into younger marriage with a couple of promises and a whole lot of threats is highly entertaining but clearly not persuasive. Women marry later because it makes sense given their own career aspirations. Even many of those pushing the ideological argument for young marriage, like Megan McArdle, tend, when it comes to their own lives, to opt out of the pressure to be young divorcees martyred for the cause. I’m glad young marriage is working out for Shaw, but for the majority of women, dating and cohabitating until they’re more sure is working out just fine. If he’s good enough to marry, he’ll still be around when you’re ready to make that leap.

And if he’s not? That’ll be OK too. Isn’t it weird to assume women don’t understand the risk of marriage, or not marrying, just as we understand the risk of marrying young, or old? There certainly are all kinds of situations where individuals put off getting married and then don’t find a suitable partner so easily. There are situations where people spend their young lives married and regret it, only to finally experience something like freedom or personal growth once the marriage ends.

Marriage is a gamble. Not marrying is a gamble. Life is a gamble. It’s all so particular, so multi-layered, so irrational, and given the chances for any relationship’s success, to enter into one at all is to take a kind of magical leap off of Logic Cliff. This is why it seems foolish to be evangelical about such things in either direction. Understanding of the kaleidoscope of risk/reward in what it means to pair off will help you make the decision whether to do it or not. Stories — like anyone’s, like Roger Ebert’s, or especially Julia Shaw’s — may give you useful anecdotal evidence or insight into how it works for other people. But not you. You have to get your hands dirty and figure it out on your own dime.

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