The Catholic Thing
Marry at Leisure, Repent in Haste? Print E-mail
By Mary Eberstadt   
Thursday, 17 September 2009

Alas and alack, the end of summer turned out to abound in the sort of personal news one really dreads hearing – especially the more one hears it. Several friends and acquaintances now have the same problem in common: they are all getting divorced. And though every divorce is apparently unhappy in its own way, the similarities among these cases are striking enough to suggest some common denominators. All have occurred among older, married, financially (and apparently otherwise) stable people. All have involved small families – most often, an only child. And each was a shock.

All of these divorcing partners, in other words, had ostensibly followed today’s secular wisdom about marital happiness to a T: don’t rush into marriage, take time to find yourself first, establish your own career before settling down, don’t have more children than you can afford. So what went wrong?

I suggest that at least part of the answer – and by extension, perhaps part of the explanation for the staggering Western divorce rate more generally – might be summarized in two words: late marriage. Of course, we can all conjure examples of blissful marriages made in mid-life or even later, just as we can all think of early ones that have been flaming disasters. But if we step back from individual cases and look instead to the general good, the pluses of early marriage do loom large.

Many a sociologist would quarrel with that point, of course. Teen marriages, they remind us, are in fact the most likely to break up. As the contrary-minded sociologist Mark Regnerus has recently observed, that cautionary note is true – and truly misleading; for who said we were talking about teens here? What about marriage in the slightly higher demographic – say, people in their twenties? Why aren’t our churches and other organizations dedicated to family life encouraging more of that?

Regnerus has written a compelling essay in the August 2009 Christianity Today called “The Case for Early Marriage.” He zeroes in first on one particular (and rarely discussed) problem with discouraging early marriage: it means that men and women generally are expected to stay chaste during the same years that are best for childbearing, and in fact far longer than many of them will. “Over 90 percent of Americans,” he observes, “experience sexual intercourse before marrying,” and “the percentage of evangelicals who do so is not much lower.” (The percentage of Catholics probably isn’t, either.) Yes, abstinence education is all to the good, and yes, religious teaching itself is not at issue here; to the contrary, it is a given. “I’m certainly not suggesting,” the author concludes, “that they cannot abstain. I’m suggesting that in the domain of sex, most of them don’t and won’t.”

Regnerus goes on to detail other drawbacks to waiting till today’s fashionably older ages to tie the knot. It encourages men to have a ridiculously prolonged adolescence, as the popular “culture” of many twenty-something males readily demonstrates; it encourages churches to lean too heavily on sexual ecstasy as the foundation of marriage itself; it forces many women, especially believing Christian women, to look long and hard for a suitable partner in a world where many men their age have become anything but; and very seriously indeed, such waiting risks compromising the fertility of any woman who wants to have a family of size – sometimes even the fertility of any woman who wants a child, period.

To these minuses admirably addressed by Regnerus, I would add one other potential plus for earlier marriage that sociologists have yet to grapple with: treating marriage like the home version of Waiting for Godot also risks perpetuating a kind of human consumerism, a habit that cannot possibly be good for anyone.

After all, once a sufficiently large number of relationships have all failed to lead to marriage for one reason or another, it becomes terribly tempting to view the whole enterprise as more like comparison shopping than spiritual discernment. For example, I once knew a man who had dated a great many women by his late twenties – so many that his friends privately rejoiced when one finally appeared who seemed perfect for him. They shared the same religion, political views, and other interests; she was smart, successful, and what today would be called a real babe, to boot. Yet the consumer’s diffident response upon meeting her rang far more of the Consumer Checkbook than of the swain. “I’m not sure,” he temporized. “Her complexion seems really sallow.” Needless to say, no walk down the aisle.

This is what comes of people shopping, perhaps – the destructive habit of making comparative checklists about human beings. No one does it consciously, of course; but still the pernicious voice of experience assesses the goods. He gained thirty pounds, and my other boyfriends never would have, it tells some people, or she looks great for her age, but not as great as my secretary who’s ten years younger, and if only I had married X, Y, or Z instead, we wouldn’t be having all these financial/medical/romantic problems.

Of course there are good reasons to wait for marriage, chiefly that it is the single most important earthly decision that many of us will make, and that the world we live in does indeed make it easier than ever for things to fall apart. That said, from the point of view of trying to bring more, rather than fewer, thriving families into that same world, Regnerus is right: there’s much to be said for bucking the prevailing cultural aversion and marrying young.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, a contributing writer to
First Things, and author most recently of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism, forthcoming from Ignatius Press in 2010. She writes a monthly column for The Catholic Thing.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All right reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (10)Add Comment
Vanishing Family
written by Willie, September 18, 2009
Interesting! On the other hand I wonder why so many are not getting married, but just cohabitating and propagating. No doubt there are some pragmatic and economic reasons for this as well. It is also interesting that such appellations as "bastard" and "unwed mother" are just not politically correct, but border on being hate speech. We must be sure we say "single mother" as if some form of extra adulation is in order. Oh! Well! Commitment and fidelity are too much for our era of relativism.
written by debby, September 18, 2009
i submit to you, paragraph #6 is KEY to the holy-Catholic-beautiful-mature-smart young woman's pain! once a marriage vocation has in fact been discerned, while remaining open to God possibly calling one to the single life, the lack of mature young men who want to live manhood as God designed is worse than disheartening. it can cause serious cynicism. As Brad Miner has noted, he has been maligned on Catholic campuses while offering his advice on what it means to be a man. Where are real MEN?
The Courage to Marry
written by Chris in Maryland, September 18, 2009
The "I'm waiting to marry" pop culture adage is inherently un-Christian, based on self-satisfaction, for both sexes. College fuels prolonged adolescence, & then graduates 'commence' their 'careers' at the expense of pursuing their vocation (for most: marriage & children) ably reinforced by the consumer culture. We "shop" for a mate & "count the cost" of children. To imitate Jesus in marriage, forsaking all others, even our selves, we would fall to the ground & die & be fruitful (not satisfied).
great observation
written by susy, September 18, 2009
This should be taught to all pastors and religious educators. Our parents should be helping children prepare for their discernment of marriage early in life. I heard that last one of Catholic radio, I don't remember who said it, but he basically said that fathers should encourage their son's to think of their future as how best to provide for a wife and kids, if they feel marriage might be their vocation in life. And mothers should be preparing their daughters as well.
Wonderful Article
written by Lisa, September 19, 2009
Thank you for this article! My husband and I were 25 and 22, respectively, when we married. Every one of our friends, even the staunchest Catholics, told us we were too young, but we knew it was the right thing to do. It saddens me that even those who are sure that they have a vocation to marry and that they have found the right person sometimes decide to wait because of the pressure from their families and friends.
disaster zone
written by john, September 19, 2009
What about single men who do want to get married? The Catholic Church is a disaster zone. Nothing works! You can't get dates. You can't meet anyone. Faithful single Catholic men can't get married either. I am a Catholic man in my 40s and I too have to deal with the prospect of no children ever. No wife. No family. It is surely much worse for women but is a problem for men too. Not every man will chase 22-year-olds. Please pray for single people!
Student Loans
written by Tom in NC, September 19, 2009
I hold firmly to the notion that the next great bubble to burst is the cost of college. (Consider the news link the other day about the woman who needed to pay off $94k to be able to join a convent.)
We're looking now at a 4-yr professional grad school for my daughter; we'll help with the $200k cost but she will have loans that will have to be paid when she's done (the avg is $120K). That makes stopping (dropping out) to have children a very difficult choice until say 30-something.
written by Chuck, September 20, 2009
Debby: I know a couple. He is 55, she is 33. Two kids, very happy family. I cautiously asked her why she married E. (my friend of over 30 yrs). Not missing a beat she said "I was tired of the 30-something teenagers. I wanted my children to have a man for a father and not some 'older brother.'" I think that is why we see so many couples like that lately. Better to have a good man for 20 yrs than to be changing some guy's diapers until he has a crisis and flies off with a young bimbo.
Empty Cradle
written by JP, September 20, 2009
It seems that almost anyone willing to sit through pre-Cana (normally while co-habiting up to their wedding day) can have a "traditional" Church wedding, while Catholics who respect and honor Church teachings on marriage and family face almost insuperable odds. Many cradle Catholics must choose between marrying outside the church, not marrying ever, or correctly refusing to "settle" on a non-Catholic even if that means waiting until child-bearing days are over. No more cradle Catholics soon.
marriage only for wealthy
written by Ken G, September 21, 2009
Who can get married when they're young? According to marriage prep classes given in Catholic churches, only those with good paying jobs are properly prepared for marriage. That's the problem with church advisors so in tune with the culture that money and position means as much to us as it does to the secular society. There are some well off young professionals, etc. But there are many more who work for low wages, and told they aren't good enough for marriage - by society and by church advisors

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters