By John R. Buri, Ph.D.
Summer seems like an appropriate time to celebrate our independence as a nation, as students free of classes, or as working men taking an earned vacation. Living in the land of the free, we sometimes grip our independence a bit too tightly in the context of our civil status. Anymore, it seems men, especially, tend to be hesitant to tie the knot.
Not too long ago I had a conversation with a group of recent college graduates including both men and women. To a person, they all agreed that they would not be getting married anytime soon, and several of them were even more specific. “Definitely not until after 30,” was a phrase which frequently captured the essence of the responses. I walked away asking myself the question, “Why do so many intentionally plan on marrying later in life?”
Men have a well-know reputation for their stiff-arming approach to marriage. Yet, surprisingly, single women are the fastest growing demographic in America. The median age at first marriage for women has gone from age 21 in 1970 to age 27, presently. Furthermore, the marriage rate for women under 35 has declined from 7.5 percent in this same year to just under four percent today – nearly a 50 percent reduction.
Recently, I had a conversation with a young man named Eric, who is 27 years old. While in college, he dated a woman, named Andrea, whom he described as the love of his life. Eric looked back fondly on their relationship: “Andrea and I got along great. We had chemistry. We could talk for hours, or we could just hang out. We were perfectly comfortable simply being together…saying almost nothing. We never seemed to be at a loss for things that we enjoyed doing together. It stayed this way for over three years.”
It sounds like Eric had found the love of his life, doesn’t it? They had chemistry. They were able to communicate. They enjoyed each others’ company. The relationship had shown staying power by thriving for over three years. It doesn’t get much better than that.
However, as Eric continued to explain, a problem emerged shortly after their graduation. Andrea wanted more. She was interested in “a future” together. The more she wanted to talk about their future, the more Eric pulled away. Within a year, had they split up.
Eric lamented, “I have dated a lot of women since then, some more seriously, most less so. I haven’t found anyone quite like Andrea. I think I blew it. I think I missed out on a wonderful woman. I let her get away.”
Unfortunately, Eric’s story is not unique. I wish I could say that after a break-up, few people look back with regret. It would be a nice to be able to say few people feel that they passed on an individual who would have made a great life companion. I can’t say either of these is true. I’ve heard it recounted dozens of times. Men and women often realize, almost always too late, that they let “get away,” someone with whom they could have truly been happy.
Most of us are familiar with studies which report that one’s age at marriage is inversely related to marital success. In other words, the earlier one marries, the less likely one will experience a lifetime of joyful companionship. In light of such studies, it makes sense to hesitate when it comes to marriage. This type of logic leads us to believe that the longer we wait, the better off we are.
However, it is interesting to note that this only applies for individuals up to approximately the age of 22 years. Marriages begun before the vow-takers are 22 years old, see the probability of their marital success drop drastically. On the other hand, if the marriage license is signed by couples older than age 22, this is no longer true. In fact, recent evidence has suggested that the highest quality marriages are found among those who married between the ages 22 and 25.
Recent evidence has also revealed that couples who wait until after 30 to marry, risk having to endure undesirable marriages. Many people over the age of 30 can attest that as they get older they tend to get set in their ways. This is one characteristic that is notoriously detrimental to the type of mutual give-and-take so essential to intimate, loving and caring relationships.
Obviously, this does not mean that all marriages that occur after the age of 30 are doomed to fail, or even must expect mediocrity, but it does suggest that such marriages may require a modicum of extra energy, effort, and attention. To be successful, they will probably require an added dose of give-and-take, as well.
So, what’s the answer to my question, “Why wait?” Given all this data, it doesn’t appear the mass majority of the dating world has determined a viable solution. Perhaps to some the answer has become far too complicated. Could it be that many think through the decision to the extent that they confuse even themselves?
It might be that after a while we tend to acquire a pessimistic attitude which echoes a statement the author of Ecclesiastes once made, “while I was still searching, but not finding—I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all” (Eccl.7:28). Although this passage is about a search for moral character rather than a suitable spouse, it captures a sentiment which can snowball during the dating process. We can easily start to believe that our searching will end in vain, and we don’t have a chance at enjoying the blessings which come from a strong, loving matrimonial bond.
Perhaps sometimes as men, we have expectations which are not realistic. Our ideal concept of a wife could be so close to perfection that she doesn’t actually exist. If this happens to be the case, perhaps a simpler approach is worth considering. If a woman has the desire to marry and has proven to be a wonderful traveling companion along this journey we call life then why not seize the opportunity? Why not marry the woman and “make it official”? While it is not wise to enter into marriage brashly or spontaneously, neither should we avoid it on a foolish search for the perfect woman. Take all the time needed to make a sound decision, but realize some opportunities don’t last forever, and some don’t come around again.
John R. Buri, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of the book How To Love Your Wife. He also has published over 75 articles, questionnaires and professional papers. John has spent 20+ years working with couples and has extensive experience doing marriage prep and marriage enrichment with groups in the upper Midwest.
This article was reprinted with permission from “Love Bytes: Insights on Our Deepest Desire”, a blog of PsychologyToday.com.