Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Relationships (Part 1) - The Myth of 25: Divorce, Age of First Marriage and the Importance of Inflection Points

Note: Tonight we start a three part series on relationships at CollegeLife, the campus ministry our family is involved with. The topics will be friendship, family, and romance. I drew the short straw and will be doing the romance talk two weeks from today. We structured the series this way because my thesis is that romance is the mechanism to turn a friendship into a family (which is the smallest unit of missional community). Unsurprisingly, I have a number of thoughts that emerge from my study and reflection on this over the last couple months that won’t even make it into the manuscript I cut. So I’m putting them here.

I have heard and read several times in my preparation for this relationship talk that “the probability of divorce is significantly higher for couples that get married before 25 than those that get married after.” This is true. Unfortunately, it also fails to convey the important information. You see, it is also true that there is a lower divorce rate for those who get married before 75 than for those who marry after…but this statement also fails to not convey the useful information. The question is not ‘how do the statistics line up on either side of an arbitrary boundary that I chose for polemical purposes?’ but ‘what is the inflection point of this monotonic function?’

Here are the actual statistics that everyone is quoting. [1][2]

The “under 25” stats are dragged down by the 15-20 stats. The meaningful inflection point is at 20. [3] Which means that for the question most college students are asking: “is it wise to peruse a relationship that might turn into marriage right after college” (say at age 22). [4] The answer is ‘sure’. Who you are [5] is more important than when you marry after the important inflection point of 20. [6]

Now for the speculative part. Why is there no significant difference between the early 20’s and late 20’s when so much social and human development happens in that decade? Well, you will be shocked to learn that I have a theory. Those who get married older presumably have more maturity [7] (e.g. self skepticism, experience with communication, the ability to budget, etc…) which will certainly help a marriage. But maturity is a trade off with another marriage asset…flexibility. [8]

I think getting married at 28 is fine and has a number of non-trivial advantages. But the same can be said of getting married at 22 (which is what Amanda and I did). I am not the person she married. But she was there for the process of becoming (and had the opportunity to influence it and be influenced by it) giving us a shared story and convergent behaviors. Our adult lives have been lived together before we formed divergent habits.

So, the answer to the question, ‘is there a higher divorce rate for those who marry before 25?’ is, yes. But it doesn’t answer the real question college students are asking.

The more important question to most college students: “Is there a statistically significant higher divorce rate for 22 year olds than 28 year olds?” returns the null hypothesis.

This post was written while listening to the Charlie Darwin [9] station on Pandora
[1] Bramlett MD and Mosher WD. Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(22). 2002.
[2]The study also showed that the probability of a ‘cohabitation disruption’ drops from 67% to 53% from the 20-24 to the 25 and over age classes. But this is a fundamentally different phenomenon as the study also showed that couples that cohabitate before marriage have a higher divorce rate (cohabitation – 51% divorced after 15 years compared to non-cohabitators 39%). Bramlett MD and Mosher WD. Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(22). 2002. Which led to this:
[3] And, I would argue, that the selection of 25 as an arbitrary threshold is often intentionally deceptive. The cultural narrative that marriage unnecessarily restricts freedom has worked its way into the public consciousness in a way that is not fundamentally questioned.
[4] Note, this is a non-linear function, so if the inflection point is at 20, we can probably expect that 20-22 behaves more like the previous time series than 22-25, making 22 statistically identical to 28. But given the sample size, it is safe to say that 22 is not ‘significantly’ different than 28, in a statistical sense.
[5] And, as the study suggests, the baggage you bring to the marriage from your family and community…and also your income (which is a whole other post).
[6]Note: this is for “all races” but Bramlett and Mosher thought one of their most interesting findings was how the Latino community diverged from this result. There was no real trend. The 20-24 cohort had the lowest divorce rage followed by the <18 cohort, but all were within a few percentage points of each other.
[7] If they embrace the process of actively converting experience into wisdom. Age is correlated with wisdom, but not predictive. Age is not an automatic vehicle of wisdom. We have to actively harvest wisdom from the fields of our joy and pain.
[8] It is interesting that the numbers are identical after 15 years but don’t take the same path to get there. 5 years out, marriages between older partners take the lead (i.e. fewer ‘disruptions’). Which means that the statistics show that if an early marriage survives the first 5 years, it has a higher chance of making it than an older marriage that survives the first five years. I might argue that a lack of maturity will blow up on the front end…but if you survive it, the flexibility gains are substantial.
[9] By Low Anthem.


Matthew Pearson said...

that reminded me of this op-ed piece on early marriage from a few years ago: http://wapo.st/hW6OL

Matthew Pearson said...

and this piece from a few days ago: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/relationship/features/27749-you-never-marry-the-right-person

You with us said...

Can't wait to listen to your talk. I never responded to your call out to everyone for input because I feel like I have very little to share. The growing distance from my own experience in dating, etc and the approaching nearness of my children entering that arena makes me a ball of confusion.

stanford said...

Byranie, Seriously. I feel like I have so little to offer on this topic. But someone has to offer something or we will have a generation whose theology of love and marraiage is formed by Disney and sit coms.

Matthew, Those are great. A couple particularly interesting lines:

"In my research on young adults' romantic relationships, many women report feeling peer pressure to avoid giving serious thought to marriage until they're at least in their late 20s."


"Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you're fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life."

You with us said...

Thanks to Matthew. Those are both great pieces. I have been thinking about them ever since I read them.

Stan -- used some of this info when talking with a friend tonight. Thanks.