Kate Z. works in childcare and as a part-time barista in my local coffee shop. She’s the oldest of 10 children, with seven brothers and two sisters. Home-educated during elementary school, Kate then entered Padre Pio Academy here in Front Royal, Virginia, a hybrid school which combines homeschooling with three days a week in the classroom. She graduated in 2021 and currently lives in an apartment.
Jesse R. is adopted and the youngest of three siblings. For the most part, he was homeschooled before entering Padre Pio. He also graduated in 2021 and works as a chef de partie in the restaurant of a retirement community. He shares a house with a friend.
Jesse is 20 years old. Kate is 21.
And on September 10, 2023, Jesse asked Kate to become his wife, a proposal which she accepted.
Intrigued by this young couple, I asked them to join me for supper one evening to find out more.
‘You’re Too Young!’
Whenever I’ve mentioned Kate and Jesse to friends or relatives living outside of Front Royal, a moment of silence usually follows. Hovering inside that silence is a question: “Who the heck gets married so young? Are they nuts?”
These are valid questions. It’s commonly accepted today that first marriages have a greater success rate when delayed. Spend your 20s exploring the world, building a career, having fun, and dating, goes the prevailing wisdom, and your chances for lifelong matrimony are much improved. Marry early, and your marriage is more liable to dissolution.
Statistics undergird this trend toward postponed marriage, as shown in this report based on U.S. Census Bureau data:
Both men and women are marrying later in life. In 1973, the median age of first marriage was 22.1 (23.2 for men and 21 for women). In 2021, the national median age of first marriage was about 29.2 years old (30.2 for men and 28.1 for women). This is a 32% increase in the last 48 years.
If we dig a bit deeper, however, we find this conventional wisdom regarding delayed marriage has its flaws. Certain factors are at play in the success of all marriages. Let’s take a look at three of them.
A solid marriage between Mom and Dad serves as a positive example for their children. In “What Kids Learn from Your Marriage,” Jenna McCarthy writes that “there is copious research to suggest that modeling—a fancy word for behaving in a way you want others to replicate—is a key but often overlooked component in a child’s development.” Both Kate and Jesse come from homes where their parents modeled a strong and loving union. When I asked who had served as their example for marriage, Kate named her mother, and Jesse his father. “My dad is very strong,” said Jesse, whose parents have been married for 45 years. “He instilled hard work into us, and pride, and being there for the family.”
Maturity and Commonalities
Although we often link maturity with age, the many exceptions to this equation hardly qualify it as a rule. A man of 30 may be less a grownup than the 20-year-old down the street.
Both Kate and Jesse show a maturity beyond their years. In high school, they gradually developed a deep friendship. Kate mentions that she could talk to Jesse about anything, about “life and friends.” They were careful to maintain that best friends bond when they began dating. Moreover, both of them worked while in high school, and in terms of the near future, they’ve discussed such matters as whether to rent an apartment or buy a house. Jesse also showed an appreciation for tradition and a maturity beyond his years by approaching Kate’s father to ask permission to marry his daughter.
More importantly, they want to make a family together. “I just love kids,” Kate says, “and I’ve always wanted to be a mom.” Jesse nods in agreement, while Kate points out the affection he showers on her siblings and the children they see at church.
Faith & Community
Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies reports that shared religious values and attending worship services together can protect and enhance a marriage. Among the positives he lists are an increased appreciation of fidelity, drawing closer to each other through prayer, and friendships with likeminded others in the faith who then serve as good role models.
“Couples who attend church together,” Wilcox writes, “enjoy significantly happier relationships, in large part because they socialize with friends who share their faith and especially because they pray with one another. In other words, those couples who pray together are happiest together.” Research, he adds, has found “that regular church attendance is associated with a reduction in divorce of more than 30 percent.”
Kate and Jesse are practicing Catholics, as are many of their friends and relatives. Moreover, they live in Front Royal, renowned among Catholics nationwide for its vibrant faith, large families, and multitude of Catholic schools, all in a county with a population of around 40,000.
In this faith community Kate and Jesse will find marriage encouraged and revered.
It’s the Covenant That Counts
While living these last six years in Front Royal, I’ve seen other couples who marry while in their early to mid-20s. One of Kate’s friends just went to the altar, my closest friends in town are a young couple who married right out of college and now have four children ages 7 and under, and my four children, all of whom graduated from the college here, were in their early 20s when they married. The oldest, my daughter, will soon celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary.
Here I’ve also met two women under the age of 20 who have shared with me their most ardent ambition: to become wives and mothers. The first time I heard that countercultural declaration, I almost fell over.
In The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, Charles Murray writes of the advantages gained both by delaying marriage and by marrying young. Of the latter, he says, “you will have memories of your life together when it was all still up in the air … you and your spouse will have made your way together.”
My point here, however, is not to advocate for younger marriages. Instead, I agree with the conclusion of Jim Dalrymple in “I’m Glad I Got Married Young”:
In other words, it’s worth keeping in mind that prevailing cultural attitudes notwithstanding, getting married in your 20s is not necessarily a recipe for disaster, professional failure, or misery. It is not, or at least it shouldn’t be, thought of as problematic. The best age for marriage will vary from person to person.
Whatever the ages of the bride and groom, the formula for a successful marriage can perhaps best be found in this old, timeworn vow: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”
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