The conventional wisdom is that waiting until you're older to get married will reduce your chances of divorce. But one new analysis suggests there may be a sweet spot to marrying — between the ages of 25 and 34.
Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies and sociology at the University of Utah, looked at data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) for an analysis at the Institute for Family Studies. He found that although it used to be true that waiting until you're older was best, it may no longer be the case.
As Wolfinger notes, there are several reasons why marrying younger can significantly increase your chances of divorce. For one, teenage years are more transformative, so people are likely to go through bigger fits of change that can separate them. But it's also the case that marrying younger correlates with lower educational attainment, which heightens the risk of divorce across the board.
As for why marrying past 35 would increase someone's chances of divorce, Wolfinger poses a possible explanation:
Does the experience of staying unmarried well past the age of 30 somehow make people unfit for a lasting marriage? It's possible to envision a scenario where this might be the case, particularly in the form of a complicated relationship history. If you've had many boyfriends or girlfriends, your exes might play havoc with your marriage. They may offer the temptation of adultery. If you've had children with one or more of your exes, there could be "baby mama drama." Indeed, having multiple sexual partners prior to marriage significantly increases the chances of getting divorced. Be that as it may, the number of prior sexual partners NSFG respondents had does not explain the relationship between age at marriage and marital stability. This result suggests that the mere experience of waiting past your early thirties to get married — a so-called "direct effect" — cannot explain why thirty-something marriages now have higher divorce rates than do unions formed in the late twenties.
Instead, my money is on a selection effect: the kinds of people who wait till their thirties to get married may be the kinds of people who aren’t predisposed toward doing well in their marriages. For instance, some people seem to be congenitally cantankerous. Such people naturally have trouble with interpersonal relationships. Consequently they delay marriage, often because they can’t find anyone willing to marry them. When they do tie the knot, their marriages are automatically at high risk for divorce. More generally, perhaps people who marry later face a pool of potential spouses that has been winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony.
For example, Wolfinger points out that surveys show people are now delaying their marriages until they can afford it — to around the ages of 27 to 29. Since these people seem to be approaching marriage rather responsibly, they could be the ones who are most likely to succeed, explaining the sweet spot around their age.
But Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, disputed Wolfinger's findings. Using a separate set of data from the 2011-2013 American Community Surveys, Cohen found that getting married later in life will still reduce the chance of divorce:
It's hard to say which analysis is right, given that they're using different sets of data from different time periods. But it seems like an issue that will get more debate and study as time goes on — especially if a long-accepted trend is really changing.
Of course, this all comes with the caveat that all of this data measures general trends, not individuals' experiences. So don't freak out if you married at 21, like I did, or after 35. Every marriage is different. These charts give us more of a look at the general people who tend to marry at certain ages, rather than whether individual marriages are doomed.