Marriage works best if the guy and girl both have a degree, a job, financial security, and plenty of life experience, right? Early marriage leads to divorce, right?

Wrong. A major new American report finds no empirical reasons to favor later “capstone marriages” (over the age of 25) over “cornerstone marriages” (those who married between the ages of 20 and 24).

The State of Our Unions 2022 report, a joint initiative by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the Wheatley Institution and the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, used three recently collected datasets with large, nationally representative samples to examine marital outcomes for both cornerstone and capstone marriages.

“We know that teenage marriage continues to be a significant risk factor,” says Alan Hawkins, a professor in the School of Family Life at BYU and the primary author of the report. “But, after that, age is not the strong indicator of success in marriage that many believe it to be, and yet many couples who marry in their early and mid 20s are swimming against a cultural tide that says they are too young and immature to be taking such a consequential step. Instead of accepting this as preordained, society ought to consider that cornerstone marriages can be just as nurturing, stable and satisfying as capstone marriages – if not more so for many couples.”

Highlights of the report include:

  • Many young Americans are marrying and desire to marry in their early and mid-20s. In the United States, 20% of young adults currently marry for the first time between the ages of 20 to 24 and another 25% of young adults report that they desire to marry by those ages.

  • Early-married husbands report they are more satisfied with their marriages than later-married husbands (81% vs. 71%) and report greater sexual satisfaction (63% vs. 49%).

  • Similarly, early-married wives report they were a little more satisfied with their marriages (73% vs. 70%) and reported greater sexual satisfaction (62% vs. 51%).

  • There were no significant differences between capstone and cornerstone marriages on reports of household division of labor and a sense of teamwork. Comparisons on financial values, relationship worries, and couple distress were also minimal, and early-marrieds were not more likely to be getting financial help from their families.

  • There were no pronounced demographic differences between early-marrieds and later-marrieds, although early-marrieds tend to have less education. Religious differences are also not as wide as might be expected. Not surprisingly, however, early-marrieds are more likely to report that they feel like adults and feel ready to marry at earlier ages than later-marrieds.

  • While current generations are delaying marriage, they are not delaying the age of first residential union or sexual coupling. Young people today are living together as couples at the same age as older generations – they are just doing it outside of the setting of marriage.

The median age at first marriage has increased dramatically over the past 50 years in the United States, from 23 in 1970 to about 30 in 2021 for men, and from 21 in 1970 to 28 in 2021 for women. There is no evidence that this upward trend is leveling off.

Dangers of procrastination

Delaying marriage may be widespread, but the report raises some red flags. For example, the capstone model fosters individualism in young adulthood that may be challenging to flip at marriage. Some research associates delayed marriage with behaviors that are associated with an increased risk of future divorce, like multiple sexual partners before marriage and pre-engagement cohabitation.

The report also explores research-confirmed links between delayed marriage patterns and declining marriage rates and high levels of nonmarital childbearing, both patterns that have disproportionally risen among disadvantaged Americans. They appear to be important drivers of economic inequalities in our society.

“There are legitimate reasons for wanting to delay marriage – financial concerns being the most prominent – and getting married later in life certainly works well for many,” said co-author Jason Carroll.

“But we believe that there should be greater cultural acceptance and support of couples who wish to marry in their early 20s, especially as our research and other studies have found no significant differences between early-marrieds and later-marrieds in terms of relationship instability and proneness to divorce. Contrary to the accepted narrative that marrying in the early 20s should be avoided, early marriage can be a solid cornerstone that some couples use to build a meaningful life together.”

“Twentysomething marriage is not for everybody,” adds Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project. “It requires an extra measure of maturity and intentionality. But, surprisingly, this report finds that those who marry in their early twenties are somewhat more likely to report that they are happy and sexually satisfied compared to those who marry later.”

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.