True love waits but don’t get crazy

forty_year_old_virginThe August cover story for Christianity Today, a magazine I write a column for (here’s the latest) has been making a bit of a splash. Mark Regnerus’ “The Case for Early Marriage” discusses how the chastity advocates forgot to mention that waiting until you’re old to get married might not be the most effective strategy for abstaining from sex until you’re married.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I was engaged to be married when I was very young but that didn’t work out. I ended up not getting married — and not even really wanting to get married — until more than a decade later. Very few people in my family waited as long as I did to get married. My husband is a bit younger but we both wish we would have found each other and figured things out much earlier. I’ve actually wondered why no one in my life pressured me to marry younger. It might have helped. Don’t get me wrong — things have worked out great and I had a wonderful time in my twenties. But I’ve come to see the wisdom in getting married younger — if you find the right person, of course.

Anyway, the piece made a bit of a splash and the Associated Press‘ ace religion reporter Eric Gorski used it as a hook to discuss the issue.

When Margie and Stephen Zumbrun were battling the urge to have premarital sex, a pastor counseled them to control themselves. The couple signed a purity covenant.

Then, when the two got engaged and Margie went wedding dress shopping, a salesperson called her “the bride who looks like she’s 12.” Nonchurch friends said that, at 22, she was rushing things.

The agonizing message to a young Christian couple in love: Sex can wait, but so can marriage.

“It’s unreasonable to say, ‘Don’t do anything … and wait until you have degrees and you’re in your 30s to get married,’” said Margie Zumbrun, who did wait for sex, and married Stephen fresh out of Purdue University. “I think that’s just inviting people to have sex and feel like they’re bad people for doing it.”

I just hope another couple profiled in the story — Megan and Jay Mkrtschjan — are given some vowels on their wedding anniversary. I kid. Anyway, the article looks at the issue from many different angles. It never actually discusses why some Christians don’t want to have sex until they’re married. I’m sure there was a time when such a view needed no explanation but in our hypersexed culture, it might have been worth a few words. Another reader quibbled about this section:

The call for young marriage raises questions: How young is too young? What if marriage is viewed as a ticket to guilt-free sex? What about the fact that marrying young is the No. 1 predictor of divorce?

The man who wrote the Christianity Today article — Mark Regnerus — is the same guy who wrote an essay for the Washington Post in April headlined “Say Yes. What Are You Waiting For?”. In that article he had something to say about that statistic:

Of course, there’s at least one good statistical reason to urge people to wait on the wedding. Getting married at a young age remains the No. 1 predictor of divorce. So why on earth would I want to promote such a disastrous idea? For three good reasons:

First, what is considered “early marriage” by social scientists is commonly misunderstood by the public. The best evaluations of early marriage — conducted by researchers at the University of Texas and Penn State University — note that the age-divorce link is most prominent among teenagers (those who marry before age 20). Marriages that begin at age 20, 21 or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume.

Reason No. 2 deals with gender differences and reason No. 3 is that correlation is not causation. Marriage at a young age can be an indicator of an underlying immaturity and impatience with marital challenges but it need not be, he says.

One reader said there might be another problem with the statistic about young marriages — it doesn’t break out those people who marry young as virgins. What’s their contribution to the divorce rate?

Anyway, the story is really fun and interesting despite these questions. Gorski does his trademark Gorski — speaking with a wide variety of Christians who espouse waiting until marriage for sex. One thing I love is how he includes people who are genuine evangelicals or genuine voices for their confession of faith — but they’re not necessarily the people you find in every other religion reporter’s Rolodex.
The story doesn’t just nay-say the challenges of young marriage. It also discusses the issue of how marrying young can help couples grow together — something I have definitely witnessed among my friends and family. Here’s a bit of the gentle pro-marriage push from Regnerus:

“I’ll probably get framed as I want people to marry because I don’t want them to have premarital sex,” said Regnerus, author of “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.”

“I think marriage is just a fantastic institution for people who think rightly about it, have realistic ideas about it and put the requisite work into it.”

Which reminds me — I hope you got a chance to read Laura Munson’s provocative essay in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. It was about how she chose not to believe her husband when he told her he’d fallen out of love with her and what happened after that.

Gorski also speaks with people who have different views about early marriage. But all sides are treated with respect — those who think abstinence is realistic no matter the age of marriage, those who advocate younger marriage and those with neither view.

The Christianity Today cover package includes some essays responding to the Regnerus story as well as a great news piece by Sarah Pulliam on the theological implications of online dating.

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  • Dale


    Thanks for posting a link to that essay by Laura Munson– a worthy antidote to frivolous romantic stereotypes.

  • gfe

    I read the Christianity Today article at the library last night and found it quite interesting. Regnerus certainly did a good job of making his case, and he came up with good arguments I’ve never heard before. (I’m not saying I’m totally convinced, but to his credit he did get me thinking.)

    One thing I’d be interested in knowing is the statistics for Latter-day Saint marriages. The LDS church culture (and to some extent the theology) encourage almost exactly what Regnerus is suggesting that evangelicals encourage, and for many of the same reasons that he gives. Looking into how this particular group practices what Regnerus preaches, and what the quality of marriages is, might make an interesting follow-up.

  • Erich Heidenreich, DDS

    The link between early marriage and divorce is one that seems to be uncritically accepted in the press. I do not believe it is as certain a “fact” as it is presented. I have looked at the studies, and at least one even admits that there are other factors that might be more at work here. In other words, the fact that someone marries before age 20 won’t necessarily be a predictor of divorce if the couple does not have the other factors that are more directly at work in making some young marriages more precarious.

  • Tom Stanton

    I’ve read all the articles referenced now – and even though I got married later in life (I was just under 30 and my wife was 26). I really wish we had found each other sooner. I’m a far better married man than I ever was single.

    I do agree that churches have given mixed messages – you should get married, but you need to be sure you’re a ‘complete’ single person first. You shouldn’t want to get married too hard – because you need to be content in Christ as a single person. I think all of these have some smattering of truth in them and that’s what makes it so dicey. As a person who has traveled the Bible college and seminary circuit in the Assemblies of God – I’ve seen MANY 20-24 year-olds getting married and with good familial support (which is critical), my personal experience has not shown a lot of failures.

  • Kathleen

    Interesting that the first dozen or so (which is all I looked at) comments on the Laura Munson piece were positive and supportive, not to say admiring. Yet as a “paper” subscriber I noted that there were two letters published last Sunday, both condemning the story as “chilling” and evidence of abuse. Hmmm.

  • Jerry

    One thing to note in this discussion is the medical evidence that the brain is not fully mature until the early 20′s. And I recognize that ‘early’ marriage used to mean in the teens and not often means during the 20′s. But this brain research is worth noting when considering recommending marriage before the brain is fully mature.

    Although many teens have fairly advanced intellectual and reasoning ability, recent research has shown that human brain circuitry is not mature until the early 20s. Among the last connections to be fully established are the links between the prefrontal cortex — the seat of judgment and problem-solving — and the emotional centers of the brain. These links are crucial to emotional learning and high-level self-regulation, explains the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

    Another circuit still under construction in adolescence links the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain reward system, where addictive drugs and romantic love exert their powers.

  • Jay

    This discussion of “early” marriage seems so ahistoric. In the 1950s and 1960s, a very common date for a woman to get married was within 90 days of her college graduation — could also be her fiance’s graduation but often he was a little older. The idea was that once both parties were done with college they were ready to be self-supporting and begin their grown-up lives.

    So why is marrying at 22 considered “young” if it was the norm for decades? There’s no evidence that those married at 22 in the 1950s or early 60s had a higher divorce rate than those married at 25 or 30 or 35. Surviving the temptations of no-fault divorce during this period seems to be highly idiosyncratic. (My college advisor got married on her graduation week and they’re still married 40+ years later).

    College is a right of passage, a chance to spread your wings, be on your own (except when you need home cooking or laundry done or an extra check). It’s also a chance to meet like-minded potential mates — in many cases, a better venue for this than any workplace or post-college social context.

    Marrying at college graduation seems to be coming back in style (admittedly in many cases by couples that already live together). Are they asking for trouble by getting married “young”?