Monday, August 17, 2009

The Marriage-able Age

The August edition of Christianity today contained an interesting article by Mark Regnerus - "The Case for Early Marriage". He begins by surveying our changing habits and conception of marriage, as well as the changing sexual, financial, and spiritual ethics that accompany it. Regnerus points out that the average age at first marriage has risen from 21/23 (women/men) in 1970 to 26/28. Meanwhile, he states that "over 90 percent of American adults experience sexual intercourse before marrying." (23) In other words, while young adults are waiting longer before getting married, they are not waiting longer before getting into bed together.

So, why are people waiting longer for marriage? And is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Finances: one of the changing ethics concerns financial stability. The prevailing ethic today, and I have heard it frequently myself, is that one should be financially stable and independent prior to marriage. As Regnerus says, "Marrying young can spell poverty, at least temporarily." This is pretty much true. But is this a legitimate reason to postpone marriage? I think not. Incidentally, if Vanessa and I had followed that advice, we would certainly not have married when we did. I was 20, she was 19, I was entering the last year of an Honors B.A., she was one year out of Dental Assisting and new in the workforce. Shortly after we were married, God called me to pastoral ministry - so we embarked (together) on another three-year educational process to complete a Masters of Divinity. Fast-forward another eight years (and three young children), and I am back as a full-time doctoral student, and our family lives in the States as "Non-Resident Aliens". We are not poster-children for financial stability - if we waited to have our economic portfolios together, we'd still be dating or engaged!

If I were to put it bluntly, I think many Christians have bought into a lie, a cultural myth, which professes that financial security is an imperative life goal, and a pre-requisite to a happy marriage. I am certainly not proposing that poverty or financial insecurity is a guaranteed recipe for marital bliss - I am simply insisting that the cultural value is an absolute lie. You do not need to be financially secure before getting married. You do not need to have your career launched prior to tying the knot. Marriage can come before, during, or after school; before, during, or after the launch of your career.

An interesting (and sad) sidenote is that often parents of college students will support their college age children either partially or totally while they are living at home (or in dorm) - but if their children get married while they are in college, they are on their own. I have to say that this makes little sense. Regnerus deplores the attitudes that some "well-meaning parents" convey by using "their resources as a threat, implying that if their children marry before the age at which their parents socially approve, they are on their own. No more car insurance. No help with tuition. No more rent." Again, I have seen this attitude conveyed - and it has a negative impact both on our view of marriage and on the resulting sexual practices of our Christian youth.

Sex: Regnerus reminds us that historically, young adults were often considered to have reached "marriage-able age" when they biologically became adults (let's not make me spell that out, shall we?). Consequently, girls were married as young as 14; boys as young as 16 or 18. Again, I am certainly not advocating child brides, but Regnerus makes a good point. Sexually speaking, boys and girls are becoming adults, complete with adult sex drive and desire, long before (an average of ten years before) they are marrying. Do we really expect that they are going to "wait" for ten years before seeking fulfillment of their natural sexual desires? Should we expect that? If a young man and woman (say right around 20 years old) are attracted to one another, desire to marry and spend their lives together, are committed to their relationship with one another - should they be asked to wait another six years before getting married, and to abstain from sex until they are "stable" or "mature" enough? Or should they be encouraged to enter into the God-ordained covenant of marriage, and explore the full wonders of human sexuality that God opens to them? I think my bias shows through.

A final reason that perhaps people are postponing marriage is an unhealthy, idealistic vision of marriage partners. Some young Christians (perhaps encouraged by well-intentioned pastors like myself) have the idea that there is one (and only one) person out there whom God has prepared as their future spouse. This conception (which I insist is entirely un-biblical [not anti-biblical, but un-biblical in that it has no warrant from God's Word]) makes them exceedingly fearful (usually unconsciously so) of marrying "the wrong person". Reality is that no matter who you marry, it will require hard work, communication, and compromise throughout your married life. Regnerus suggests that although "it may be nice to find an optimal match in marriage, it cannot hold a candle to sharing a mental and spiritual commitment to the enduring covenant between God, man, and woman." Why? Simply because the person you marry will change over time, as will you! "People change. Chemistry wanes. Covenants don't."

Which brings us full circle to a Christian conception of marriage, as a life-long covenant between a man and a woman in the sight of God; the two becoming one united flesh (and spirit), guided and led by the Holy Spirit. The individuals will change, often dramatically, over time. Vanessa and I are both incredibly different people now than we were when we got married thirteen years ago. But our commitment to one another, expressed through our covenant vows many years ago, stand unchanged, and so does the God in whose name we promised our lives to one another. If this is how we see marriage - a life-long covenant based on more than financial security, sexual desire, and personal compatibility - then we are doing our young adults a disservice when we discourage them from marrying "young".

From personal experience, and with the confidence that it lines up with (although is not required by) a biblical ethic of marriage - I agree wholeheartedly with Regnerus: the case for early marriage is strong, and growing stronger by the year.

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