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Over recent decades, the age for first marriages in the U.S. has climbed steadily across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. The median age for marrying is now the highest it’s been since the U.S. Census Bureau started keeping records in the 1890s. In 2005, the median age at first marriage for women was just over 25; for men, just over 27. That’s an increase of 4.3 years for women and 3.9 years for men since 1970.
Among the college educated and in the northeast, the age is even higher, with many couples waiting until their thirties to marry for the first time. A perusal of the engagement notices in the New York Times provides a fascinating look at the marrying habits of the well-educated cultural elite. These are hardly couples starting out fresh upon graduation from college. Many are already partners at law firms or brokerage houses, successful investment bankers and doctors with established practices, most with degrees that took years to acquire.
Across the board, a cultural shift has taken place. The prevailing wisdom nowadays is that one should reach a certain (though unspecified) level of maturity and financial stability, with a completed education and established career, before settling down. Perhaps because high divorce rates have made people wary of jumping into matrimony too early, there is a general perception on the part of both parents and their adult children that waiting increases the odds of having a happy, stable marriage.
The desire to get married, however, has not declined, in spite of cultural norms that would seem to work against it. The rise of feminism, the prevalence of cohabitation, and the acceptance of single parenthood have not diminished the appeal of marriage. In a national survey of high-school seniors taken every year since 1976, the percentage of young people expressing a desire to get married has remained constant, with approximately 80 percent of young women and 70 percent of young men indicating that “having a good marriage and family life” is extremely important.
So why all the waiting?
Why Men Wait
As far as men are concerned, the better question might be, why not wait?
Annually since 1999, the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University has issued a report titled “The State of Our Unions.” The 2002 report, co-authored by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, sought to discover “Why Men Won’t Commit,” that is, why they are in no hurry to marry, even though they expressed a desire to do so eventually.
One prominent reason, they learned, is that “the sexual revolution and the trend toward cohabitation offer them some of the benefits of marriage without its obligations.” Among the top ten reasons men listed for not committing to marriage were: the option of living together, the easy availability of sex, the desire to own a house before marrying, and the lack of societal pressure to tie the knot. And unlike women of similar age, men feel no pressure from a “biological clock” to have children.
The study determined that “men see marriage as a final step in a prolonged process of growing up,” a conclusion echoed by William Doherty, professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. “We have postponed adulthood into the late twenties and early thirties,” he writes. “It used to be that we saw marriage as something you did along the way to becoming a full adult in terms of responsibility. Increasingly, especially among educated people, marriage is something you don’t do until after you have arrived at full adulthood.”
Doherty believes that the explanation for this attitude may come from another cultural shift. “We’ve become more individualistic, living for our own pleasure—not for duty and responsibility. People have this feeling that they owe themselves a decade to have fun before settling down.” Delaying marriage allows men to delay adulthood.
But those who keep putting off marriage may find themselves in a state of self-perpetuated singleness that lasts indefinitely. According to Popenoe and Whitehead, “a prolonged period of single life may habituate men to the single life. . . . They have become accustomed to their own space and routines. They enjoy the freedom of not having to be responsible to anyone else.” These things reinforce their singleness.
But “Why Men Won’t Commit” found that the most significant factor contributing to the delay of marriage among young males is cohabitation. Why get married when you can just live with someone? “Men can get many of the benefits of marriage without the commitment to marriage,” write the authors, and “without exposure to the financial risks of divorce.” They also point out that “cohabitation gives men regular access to the domestic and sexual ministrations of a girlfriend while allowing them greater legal, social and psychological freedom to lead a more independent life and to continue to look around for a better partner.”
But it’s not just that cohabitation is easy and convenient for men. There is also a widespread belief among both men and women that living with someone is a good test of compatibility. For example, in the 2001 “State of Our Unions” survey, 62 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “Living together with someone before marriage is a good way to avoid an eventual divorce.”
The only trouble is, that’s wrong. Numerous recent studies show that couples who live together before marrying are actually more likely to get divorced than those who don’t. Cohabitation is not an indicator of a successful marriage.
Doherty offers one possible explanation for this. “The longer you postpone marriage, the more likely you are on average to have had multiple cohabiting partners. And the more breakups of quasi-marital relationships you’ve had may make you more likely to say, ‘Well, relationships end.’”
Another counterintuitive effect of delayed marriage is the detrimental effect it has on the ultimate quality of one’s relationship.
Professor Norval Glenn of the University of Texas surveyed 1,503 Americans 18 years and older for the National Fatherhood Initiative Marriage Survey in 2005. “One of the most surprising and important findings of the survey,” he wrote, “casts doubt on the widespread belief that persons can increase their chances of having good marriages by postponing marriage until their late twenties or their thirties.” Survey respondents who had married after their mid-twenties did not have higher divorce rates than those who married younger, but they were considerably more likely to be in marriages they described as “poor” or “mediocre.”
The report concluded that the most successful age for marriage is the mid-twenties. “When the quality of marriages is taken into account . . . first marriages of persons in their mid-20s emerge as distinctly more successful than those entered into either earlier or later in life,” Glenn wrote. Maggie Gallagher, President of the National Organization for Marriage, concurs: “If you are 23 and find the right person, you are plenty old enough to make a happy marriage.”
Marriage Age and Chastity
For orthodox Christians and others who don’t believe in premarital sex, delayed marriage presents some obvious problems. Michael Orsi, a Catholic priest, wrote in a 2001 article, “A Case for Earlier Marriage,” about the “moral and spiritual conundrum that delayed marriage . . . has caused for society and for young people who want to live a Christian life but find the burden of containing their sexual urges unbearable during their artificially protracted adolescence . . . To expect physically healthy and hormonally potent young people to contain for many years their natural urges is for some, if not most, impossible.”
In Orsi’s view, early marriages should be publicly promoted, and parents should encourage their children to see them as good and desirable.
Doherty agrees that preaching abstinence before marriage is tricky when there is societal pressure not to marry young. “From a traditional moral and religious standpoint, if you want to discourage premarital sex, you really need to be encouraging earlier marriage,” he writes. While he would not encourage teenage marriages, noting that they are, statistically, extremely risky, he points out that “when you get into your twenties, those teen risks go away.”
In the matter of refraining from premarital sex, Doherty says that some studies show that there may be advantages for marriages in which the spouses have not had sex with anyone else. In any case, “what we can say is that the cultural ‘common sense’ that really began in the sixties that you should never marry somebody without having tested your sexual compatibility is false. There are no risk factors we can identify with being virgins when you marry.”
This is an important fact to stress when preaching and teaching abstinence until marriage to young people. The teaching of chastity has to explicitly counter and expose the errors in the prevailing cultural wisdom. “What can potentially have influence is disabusing people of the notion that [premarital sex is] the smart thing to do, the wise and responsible thing to do. Because it is simply not true.”
As Doherty sums it up: “In one generation we’ve gone from thinking that it’s irresponsible to have sex before you get married to saying it’s irresponsible not to have sex before you get married.” The earlier generation turns out to have been right.
Disease and Heartache
Still, the vast majority of young singles aren’t concerned with the moral or religious aspects of premarital sex. They accept it, along with delayed marriage, as the cultural norm. But there are other long-term ramifications that should concern them. Unwanted pregnancies, often leading to abortion, are among the most obvious consequences of unchaste living, but there are many others.
Dr. Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist at UCLA, discusses these consequences in her book, Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student. In her practice, Dr. Grossman has witnessed firsthand the physical and emotional fallout experienced by young people who have bought into the “free love” mentality left over from the 1960s. It’s now called “hooking up,” and it’s still far from free. Her patients aren’t even deliberating about delayed marriage—that’s a given. They’re delaying commitment of any sort. But what they’re not delaying is sexual activity and its repercussions.
As Grossman writes, “Not long ago, a psychiatrist might call casual sexual activity ‘mindless’ and ‘empty.’ Before political correctness muzzled our nation . . . a campus physician might advise a student that it is love and lifelong fidelity that bring joy and liberated sensuality and provide the best insurance against sexually transmitted diseases. . . . Traditional marriage and parenthood were valued milestones. To search for meaning, and to make sacrifices for a higher purpose—these were noble endeavors that defined our humanity. Things have changed. . . . There is tacit approval of promiscuity and experimentation. . . . Young women think motherhood can be delayed indefinitely.”
One serious consequence of the promiscuity Grossman refers to is the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. She tells the story of one young woman who came to her in a state of shock: She’d been diagnosed with HPV (human papillomavirus). “I’ve only been with a few guys, and they always used a condom. . . . I know it’s the most common STD; they told me there are a million new cases every year, and that usually it’s harmless. But a few types of HPV are dangerous; they can even cause cancer! What if that’s the kind I have?”
HPV is the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer. Even a “low-risk” type of HPV can cause warts, and may be transmitted to infants during childbirth. This student, like millions of her peers, believed that by practicing what’s now called “safer sex,” she was keeping herself healthy. Not only was she wrong, but she also had no idea that by exposing herself to STDs through sexual activity, she was putting her future children at risk.
According to Grossman, “HPV is so common and so contagious, especially in the college population, that most young women are infected within a few years of becoming sexually active, from one of their first few partners.”
Grossman describes another patient, a 27-year-old woman about to get her PhD and start a great job. In the course of conversation, “Delia” happily discusses her dream of having three or four children someday. What she doesn’t know is that her sexual history—typical as it is—puts her at risk of not being able to fulfill that dream. She became sexually active at age 16, has had one STD, one abortion, has been on the pill for seven years, and has had eleven sexual partners. It’s that one STD—chlamydia—treated long ago with antibiotics and now almost forgotten, that could lead to problems this woman never anticipated.
Chlamydia is now the most common sexually transmitted bacteria, with three million new cases each year in the U.S. Even after treatment with antibiotics, it can cause scarring in the fallopian tubes, which can lead to ectopic pregnancy and fertility problems. A protein produced by the original infection may cause repeated miscarriages. And to top it off, women with chlamydia are more prone to getting cervical cancer. Many women don’t even know they have chlamydia until they try to get pregnant and can’t.
Thus, the risks of not “settling down,” of “playing the field,” as it used to be called, are high. Many STDs are life-threatening, some pose health risks to future children, and others can rule out future childbearing altogether.
Then there is perhaps the most critical issue of all when it comes to delaying marriage: infertility. It follows that couples who marry later have children later. Or at least try to. Women who delay childbearing too long risk simply running out of time.
It is a shockingly common misconception that women don’t need to take their advancing age into account when it comes to their ability to conceive. In a 2001 survey, 89 percent of young, high-achieving women expressed the belief that they could become pregnant into their forties. But according to statistics posted by the Department of Health and Human Services on its website, about one-third of women over age 35 have fertility problems.
Nevertheless, 20 percent of women in the U.S. now have their first child after the age of 35. It’s difficult to say how many may have waited that long to try to get pregnant and been unsuccessful. What is known is that 7.3 million women in the U.S. have fertility problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Another of Dr. Grossman’s patients is a 38-year-old woman with a highly successful career in academia and an outstanding resume. Like many women, she focused on those aspects of her life, putting off getting married and having a family. Back in her early thirties she had a serious boyfriend who proposed marriage, but she didn’t feel ready then. Now she is visiting Dr. Grossman’s office because she is overwhelmed by a desire to have a baby.
There is no doubt that this woman knew the ins and outs of contraception and how to avoid pregnancy. What she didn’t know—or failed to take seriously—was her ever-decreasing chance of becoming pregnant as she got older. Compared to when she was 30, the odds of her conceiving have decreased each month by 75 percent, while her chances of having a miscarriage have tripled. As she approaches her 39th birthday, the odds of her having a stillbirth are doubled, to say nothing of the risk of genetic abnormalities her child could suffer.
If she should nevertheless try to conceive and find that she cannot do so naturally, she might think the solution lies with what an estimated three million other women try each year: in vitro fertilization (IVF). But this is no easy road. IVF treatments are expensive, costing $15,000 each. Most women who have gone through the process describe it as an ordeal, and frequently suffer from anxiety and depression along with the artificially induced hormonal changes the treatment produces. And after all that, success rates are low. According to Grossman, the chance of a live birth from IVF for a 39-year-old woman is 8 percent. For a 44-year-old, it’s only 3 percent.
In 2001, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) launched a campaign to educate women about fertility issues. Called “Protect Your Fertility,” it was started because, as a spokesman for ASRM put it, “Our doctors were getting sick of hearing patients say, ‘No one told me . . .’” The campaign produced ads for placement on buses and other locations highlighting the four major causes of infertility: advanced age, STDs, smoking, and unhealthy weight. Guess who objected to the ad campaign? The National Organization for Women (NOW), which found the campaign offensive, saying it sent a negative message to women who wanted to delay or skip(!) childbearing. Under pressure from NOW, the ads were pulled or refused space, and the campaign died.
No Marriage at All
Delaying marriage, like delaying childbearing, can end up meaning never marrying. For those who are content in their singleness, this is not a problem. But for many, especially women who find themselves older, single, and without marriage prospects but with a sudden desire for children, it is.
More and more of such women are opting for single motherhood. But that means an ever-increasing population of children who will never have a father in their lives, many of whom will never even know who their father, or sperm donor, is.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of babies born to unmarried women between the ages of 30 and 44 jumped by almost 17 percent between 1999 and 2003. The support group Single Mothers by Choice, which was started 27 years ago, likewise has seen a surge in membership in recent years. Three-quarters of this group’s members chose to conceive using donor sperm.
In 2006, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called “Wanted: A Few Good Sperm.” It contained stories of women who had nearly run out of time. They had successful careers, but no husband. And they found themselves suddenly, desperately, wanting to have children. One 39-year-old ad executive had been inseminated repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, with sperm from a gay friend. Her next step was going to be to find an anonymous sperm donor.
A 44-year-old single mother of a two-year-old conceived by IVF, pregnant again with the same anonymous donor’s sperm (after eight failed attempts), had a boyfriend who wasn’t interested in marriage. She told the reporter about his regular Sunday morning visits. When he arrives, “a huge wave of relief comes over me,” she said. While he watches her son, she can do chores or nap. “I feel, like, Wow, this must be what it’s like to have a husband every day of the year.” Too bad her children won’t know what it’s like to have a father any day of the year.
Delayed marriage may have become the norm, but like so many other current cultural phenomena, it’s hardly without its victims. •
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