One of the most interesting family findings to appear recently is that women who marry in their mid-twenties are happier than teen brides or older brides. In “With This Ring,” the marriage survey of the National Fatherhood Initiative that I wrote about a few days ago , the ubiquitous and excellent Norval Glenn reported that women who married in their mid-twenties reported the highest rates of marital success. Success was measured by a combination of stability and happiness. Teen brides, as is well known, are not likely to have stable marriages. The new finding is that women who marry for the first time after 27 report stable marriages, but they are notably less happy than those of women who marry between 23 and 27. The key finding is that of the older brides who had never divorced, “more than 45 percent were in marriages they reported to be less than ‘very happy,’ a much larger percentage than was the case for respondents who married younger.”
Let me say before I go on that if you were a teen bride, an older bride, or past 27 and not yet married, you are not doomed. Many teen marriages endure; most post-27 brides have happy marriages.
It is not so surprising that teen marriages tend to be stormier and break up at high rates. Teenagers are more likely to marry impetuously (and pregnant), and the odds are not good that a teen couple will mature in complementary ways as they work their way out of adolescence. The cure for teen-age impulsiveness is marriage when you are more mature. 25-year-old brides make more mature marriages than 15 year olds do. So why doesn’t the same principle apply at later ages, as well? The intriguing question is, why would older brides be less happy?
I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. I feel free, therefore, to offer two speculative possibilities.
One possible reason is that after a point a man and a woman become too set in their ways to fully grow together, to shape one another as the marriage matures. Two mature people may find one another lovable and suitable partners, but some of the plasticity of young adults is already gone. This can make for an effective partnership. As I noted earlier, happiness is not the only purpose of marriage, or even the main point.
Another possibility is that the ticking biological clock makes women more impetuous in their marital choices. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in Creating a Life, reports fairly recent research that the quality of a woman’s eggs start to fall off sharply after about 27 years. Though many young women consciously think that they have all of their 30s, even their 40s, to find a husband and start having children, their bodies may be giving them subconscious clues starting in their late 20s that it may be time to stop waiting for Mr. Right, and take Mr. OK.
In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton reports a brutal proverb of a century ago, that a woman is like a Christmas cake: no one wants her after the 25th. It is a very good thing that women today have many more options than the desperate marital search Wharton ably chronicled then. It is also a good thing that men and women can make a happy marriage, including having children, well past their 25th birthdays. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the average age of first marriage for women is now about 25. This represents a significant rise from the Baby Boom-producing years. The fact that most brides are in their mid-twenties may be more than a current statistical artifact. Perhaps American marriages are, in this one respect, at least, at an ideal benchmark.