In many Western countries, society has shifted further away from the idea that people should get married and have children as soon as possible. Other matters take priority. Perhaps you want to establish yourself in your chosen career. Or maybe you want to travel the world and put a few miles on your soul.
It is a far cry from previous generations. Surely everyone knows an older couple who married in their late teens or early twenties. Every now and again, local news outlets will run stories about a couple in the area who have hit an impressive anniversary. It’s quite heartening and can lead some to believe that previous generations had some relationship secret that has since been lost.
But surely the fact that these relationships are seen as newsworthy is a testament to how unusual it is for a couple to stay together for such a length of time? This is increasingly the case as life expectancy increases. Again and again, figures show that older people, or ‘silver splitters’, divorce at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Older people face the prospect of decades with the same spouse and this can lead some to think about a new start with a new love.
So what are we to make of all of these seemingly contradictory ideas? Is it better to marry young and settle down early? Or should you prioritise yourself first and worry about marriage and children later one?
Some researchers have set out to answer this very question. American Sociologist Nick Wolfinger was one of them. He analysed marriage and divorce data from the National Survey of Family Growth. This is a government-funded project which collects information on family life events throughout the US including marriages, divorces, pregnancies, infertility, contraception use and general health.
Wolfinger’s analysis suggested that the ideal age to marry is between 28 and 32. As the age people married approached this bracket, the number who eventually divorced dropped. From age 33 and above, the likelihood began to rise. In fact for every year after 45, the chances of divorce increased by five per cent.
While some may believe other factors may be in play with this finding, Wolfinger insists that it holds true regardless of “sex, race, family structure of origin, age at the time of the survey, education, religious tradition, religious attendance, and sexual history, as well as the size of the metropolitan area that they live in”.
Seems pretty cut and dry, doesn’t it? Not quite.
Back in 2015, Phillip Cohen of the University of Maryland sought an answer to the same question. Although his research was focused on women, he found that the best age to marry was between 45 and 49. Unlike Wolfinger, Cohen found that education did play a role in the likelihood of divorce. According to his data, the more highly educated the woman is the less likely she is to bring her marriage to an end.
So what can we take from these radically different answers? There are couples who marry young and stay together for the rest of their lives and there are those whose marriage crashes and burns. The same can be said of people who marry later in life.
It’s clear that human relationships are never straightforward. Attempts to quantify them are admirable but perhaps they are misguided. After all, is anyone really going to be put off walking down the aisle because they’re not at the ‘ideal’ age? I think not.