The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Later Marriage No Key to Marital Bliss

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

As the age at first marriage has risen since 1980, conventional wisdom has emerged that waiting until their late 20s or early 30s to tie the knot increases the odds of marital success. Even the National Center for Health Statistics makes this claim. While the continued high incidences of divorce over the same period suggest that such a conclusion may be unwarranted, a study under the direction of noted sociologist Norval Glenn of the University of Texas quantifies that, all things being equal, marriages consummated between the ages of 22 and 25 actually show the greatest promise of reporting the highest quality and of remaining intact while unions entered into at later ages “fare very well in terms of survival but rather poorly in quality.”

Glenn and his research team conducted parallel analysis as well as meta-analyses using five U.S. datasets, including the General Social Survey, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative Baseline Survey, the Texas Healthy Marriage Baseline Survey, and two sets collected by the National Fatherhood Initiative. Their meta-analyses measured the correlations between various ages of first marriage (beginning with marriages under the age of 20) and graded responses to two questions, one measuring marital success based on marital survival (“intact first marriage of any quality”) and the other measuring marital success based upon marital happiness (“intact very happy marriage versus others”). While the results revealed a “strong positive monotonic relationship” between age at first marriage and the marital survival scale (but not the marital happiness scale), the effects on the survival measure at ages 26–29, as well as 30 and older, did not rise to the level of statistical significance. More important, the researchers found greater support for the existence of an “up-down” pattern, in which marital success as revealed in the answers to both questions, when adjusted for estimated effects of various control variables, increased among respondents that married up to ages 22–25 and declined among those marrying after age 25.

The researchers claim their findings are not skewed by the inclusion in the sample of older respondents that married prior to 1980, before the median age at first marriage started to rise, as the “up-down pattern” of marital happiness was more pronounced for younger respondents who married after 1980. As they quantify the pattern: “Although the mean coefficient for ages at marriage of 22–25 in the case of intact very happy marriages is only significant at the 0.10 level for all respondents, it is significant at the 0.01 level for respondents who married in 1980 or later.” Rather than indicating any upward shift in the peak age-of-marriage for marital success in recent years, the data suggest that the up-down pattern not only strengthened in recent decades but also may be a consequence of the rising age of first marriage.

The pattern was confirmed by the finding that the lowest-quality marriages in these datasets were substantially more frequent for those who married later relative to those who married earlier. Nor did the pattern differ much by educational attainment or between men and women. The researchers speculate that declining levels of marital success among those who marry later is related, in part, to their tendency to experience longer periods of premarital cohabitation than those who marry younger.

While cautious to conclude that their findings reveal or determine an optimal age for marriage, the Glenn team nonetheless claims that for most young people, “little or nothing in the way of marital success is likely to be gained by deliberating delaying marriage beyond the mid-twenties.” Indeed, their study confirms that none of the marriage and mating trends of the past thirty years offer any guide for young Americans looking to find love and happiness in a disordered age.

(Norval D. Glenn, Jeremy E. Uecker, and Robert W. B. Love Jr., “Later First Marriage and Marital Success,” Social Science Research 39.6 [November 2010]: 787–800.)