Marrying Young

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: I am a Christian mother with teenage girls. We talk a lot about abstaining from sex and waiting to get married until they finish college and find just the right husbands. It is my impression that at this time my girls and I embrace the same values concerning maintaining their virginity until they marry. Recently, I read that 90% of Americans experience sexual intercourse before marriage and near 80% of conservative Christians experience first intercourse prior to marriage. Reading this frightened me. What happened to the message of abstaining until marriage?

Parents, churches, and in some cases, even the government have done a great job teaching young people to abstain from sex, but have failed to teach them how to marry. Instead, we have prolonged adolescence to nearly 30 years of age. During the American Revolution, 16-year-old men were guarding the Boston harbor. Today, 16-year-olds are considered immature, and need at least 6 more years of life skills training before being anywhere near an adult.

In 1970, the median age for marriage was 21 for women and 23 for men. Today, the median age for women is 26 and for men 28. Demographers refer to this flight from marriage as the “second demographic transition.” It has been found that in societies such as ours, which have experienced lengthy economic prosperity, men and women lose motivation to marry and bear children.

Americans, like the other industrialized nations of the world, want it all. Parents want their children to get a good education and a good job. They hope they will eventually marry, but only after they are secure in their careers and can provide a living that allows them to travel, go on vacations, and own a large home. Those who follow this course and marry usually want children. However, they may find that they are not able to conceive on schedule, and may even end up childless. There are many reasons for not being able to conceive, but one of them is that the most fertile period for a woman is between the ages of 20 and 25.

Approximately six years ago, Read Mercer Schuchardt, Professor of Media Ecology at Wheaton College addressed this very subject. “Born into this vast technopoly, today’s child understands her world primarily through mass media. Thanks to media’s total-disclosure nature, she will be a world-weary 72-year-old by the time she reaches 12, but won’t have the maturity of a medieval 12-year-old until about age 36. Ages 12 to 22 will be spent in mandatory survival training called higher education. Regardless of her primary course of study, her secondary course, undertaken when she is biologically fittest and physically strongest to raise children, will be the ironic but ironclad dogma that she must never consider having a child until she is economically, psychologically, and spiritually a fully realized autonomous self. If, after a decade of ingesting this dogma, she still has the desire to become a mother, she can only have at most two children.

If life’s most meaningful work for couples is raising children, then it’s a cynical system that requires the false choice between having children young, when a large family is physically possible but financially hard, or waiting until they can afford a large family, when fertility has dropped. Technology, it turns out, is a harsher taskmaster than biology, offering a world where the best form of birth control is economics, the best predictor of income is education, and the best deterrent to having children is guilt over failing to give them the very best a consumer society offers.

Meanwhile, the ocean of sorrow continues to fill with the tears of those who are childless or heartbroken by the lie that tells a woman she is free to be anything she wants, so long as she’s a man about it” (Christianity Today, August 2009, p. 30).

Much has been written about the increased likelihood of divorce among those who marry young. However, the “young” often referred to in the professional literature are teenagers, not those in their early 20s. It’s middle-class culture that has extended adolescence and promoted waiting to marry until later in life, or not marry at all.

In the past, the church has been the flagship of cultural values, but in the past half century or more, the church seems to have bought into the values of the middle class and has done very little to create a counter culture that not only teaches abstinence until marriage, but sanctions marriage among the young.

I, for one, am supportive of young marriages. However, we need to prepare our children and teens for marriage by talking with them about getting married as seriously as we do about abstaining from sex until marriage. We need to work to eradicate adolescence, or at least return it to its original meaning. Remember adolescence didn’t exist prior to 1904. That’s when G. Stanley Hall coined the term.

Also, if you study the history of education in America, you find that need for more years of secondary education was directly related to the rise of labor unions and their need to keep teenagers out of the workforce. This had an impact on how adults viewed teenagers and teenagers viewed themselves.

If we are to promote young marriages, our teenagers need to be instructed concerning love. They need to understand that love is commitment, not goose bumps running up and down the spine. They will probably figure out how to make love, but need instruction in how to make a living and provide for a household.

As adults, we need to make certain that our finances are in order and talk with our children and teenagers about finances. This is an area that has the greatest potential for shipwreck for a young couple. They should be assured that it is not a terrible thing to go without many material things until they can afford them. There is great virtue in delayed gratification. 

In response to the question that prompted this lengthy discourse, I believe the abstinence message is being promoted stronger than ever. However, marriage is being delayed at a time in life when the biological drive for sex is the strongest. In no way am I condoning premarital sex or changing my personal convictions, but I am confronted with a harsh reality. The longer you delay marriage, the greater potential for your children, who are now teenagers, to fail to maintain what are now strong values shared by you and the Christian community.

I know that promoting marriage at a young age is a very controversial topic, but I speak as one who was a 19-year-old bridegroom and married an 18-year-old bride. This summer we will celebrate our 48th anniversary.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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