After Kathryn Linton graduated from Virginia Tech, she was sure of two things: she wanted to pursue the social work career she’d worked hard to be qualified for, and she wanted to marry her boyfriend of six years.
“We couldn’t really imagine going on with the next phase of our life and the other person not being there,” Linton said, explaining why she and her boyfriend got married at what is now considered young — 22 years old.
Linton is part of a small group of millennial women who are distinctly religious and choosing to get married in their early 20s. According to “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” a report released by the National Marriage Project, only 33 percent of 25-year-old women are or have been married. The average marriage age is 29 for men and 27 for women, which is the oldest average ever in the United States.
“Career people have put off marriage for the simple reason that they’re very career focused. And they’re career-focused not because they’re selfish careerists but because the economy demands a certain amount of attention,” said Kay S. Hymowitz, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and a main contributor to the “Knot Yet” report.
Despite research showing economic and social advantages of waiting to get married, women like Linton, a nondenominational Christian, say they are choosing to get married young because they see no advantage in waiting when they have a stable relationship with a person they love as they begin making their way in the world.
"Trevor and I had been dating for two years, and I just didn’t feel like I’d ever find someone else I could be as close with," said Brandy Roberts, a millennial who got married at age 19. "He’s my best friend, and it didn’t look like that would change any time soon."
Advantages of waiting
The change in marriage age and the decrease in marriage rates reflect a shift in American culture. According to a report by Pew Research Center, millennials "are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry."
The result is a generation of women focused more on individual goals than on marriage. In fact, according to the "Knot Yet" study, the number of millennial women with children is greater than the number of millennial women who are married, meaning that marriage is less of a priority than having a child, at least for lower-income women.
“It used to be that if you wanted to have a reliable sex life, you had to be married. That’s not true anymore. It used to be that if you wanted to live with a woman or a man, you had to be married. It used to be that if you wanted to have a child, you had to be married. That’s not true anymore,” she explained.
But the data also show that those who put off marriage consider the institution important.
The National Marriage Project also found that “about 80 percent of young-adult men and women continued to rate marriage as an 'important' part of their life plans; almost half of them described it as 'very important.'” Thirty percent of 25-year-old single women want to be married.
“The vast majority of people when you ask them will say, 'yes, they want to get married some day.' They see family as something they want, a top priority,” Hymowitz said.
And research shows that marriage at any age offers distinct advantages. A study from the National Institute of Health found that married couples are likely to live longer, recover from illnesses faster and have better mental health.
Conversely, the National Marriage Project found that "20-somethings who are unmarried, especially singles, are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married 20-somethings.”
According to the "Knot Yet" report, men are less likely to put off marriage, given the choice. Men who get married in their 20s are more likely to have better financial success; early marriage has the opposite effect on women.
"These results are consistent with research that the responsibility ethic associated with marriage makes men, including 20-something men, harder, smarter, and better-paid workers," the report says.
They are religious
So, what distinguishes the minority of female millennials who want to marry at the same age their parents did?
Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and one of the main authors of the Knot Yet report, has found that, while the national marriage age is increasing and the national marriage rate is decreasing, religious communities are continuing to support young, traditional marriage.
Women who married younger usually “are more religious and have a more domestic and child-centered orientation to their lives than their peers who are getting married later and have a different approach to family life and marriage,” he said.
Religious young women are also more likely to have children young and be stay-at-home moms, Wilcox said, because they are more likely to have been raised with traditional ideas of family.
Nashida Alam Chowdhury was a 20-year-old student at Northwestern University when she met her future husband. She wasn't looking to get married, but when he proposed soon after they started dating she knew it was the right thing to do.
"There is a custom in Islam that if Mohammed, the great prophet, says to do something, you do it," she said. "Well, he said, 'If a good suitor comes by, don't pass him up unless something is really wrong.' I felt comfortable saying yes, so I did."
Chowdhury's religious beliefs influenced her decision, but her instincts helped her know it was the right decision.
"I remember being so sure," she said. "And life has gotten a lot better. We have really grown together. I think if we'd gotten married when we were older, it would have been harder to align our goals."
One of the biggest factors driving later marriage, data show, is the economic advantage of waiting, especially for women.
“Women who wait to get married until their late 20s or early 30s tend to do better professionally than their peers who get married younger,” Wilcox said.
For example, college-educated women who waited to get married until age 30 or later made around $18,000 more annually by their mid-30s than those who got married before the age of 20, according to the report.
Extensive debts incurred by obtaining a college education also factor into the delay of marriage, according to a study in Demographic Research, particularly for women.
"Our analysis shows that an increase of $1,000 in student loan debt is associated with a reduction in the odds of first marriage by 1 percent among college graduates," the report states.
But for Anna Ruch, a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho who married at age 20, and her husband, the financial burden of marrying young wasn't an insurmountable obstacle.
“We knew that, being married, our financial situation would be very different and we’d have to adjust and work things out together, but in our minds it was never a viable reason to not be together,” she said.
Although the data show that delaying marriage allows women to make more money over time, marriage provides economic benefits as well, according to an article on Yahoo Finance.
Some of the direct benefits are a sharing of expenses, lower home and auto insurance, and security if one of the spouses becomes unemployed.
Ruch sees marriage as a chance to work together with a partner to overcome financial challenges and a way to build a strong emotional support system with someone you trust.
“I think that if you find the person you want to be with for the rest of your life, it’ll make you happier in the long run to have them with you throughout that journey to support you and help you,” Ruch said of her own experience with marriage.
A personal decision
In addition to financial challenges, some data show that divorce rates are higher for those who get married in their early 20s, according to Hymowitz. A Pew study found that the states with the youngest median age for first marriage also had the highest divorce rates. However, Hymowitz doesn’t believe such data should affect people’s decisions if they believe getting married is right for them.
For the millennial women who married young and were interviewed for this story, the benefits of a stable relationship outweighed the financial hardships and other risks.
“I have an amazing relationship with my husband. I have such a true joy in my life. Having someone that always supports, encourages, and loves me is what keeps me going every day,” said Mary Wilden, who got married at 18. "If I let (financial) stability stop me from being married I would probably still be single."
Indeed, the choices of marrying young or marrying older each have costs and benefits.
Women who delay marriage or don't get married at all are often more successful professionally and financially. Meanwhile, those women who choose to marry are more likely to maintain constant levels of happiness during times when happiness would usually fall, according to a study from Michigan State University.
“There is no cookie cutter answer for when a person should get married. Life is all about balance,” Wilden said.
Several of Wilden's acquaintances warned her that young marriages are doomed to fail, and Linton was the only one in her friend group that chose an early marriage, so they know they are in the minority. However, they believe they made the right choice for them, even if it isn't the right choice for everyone.
“I am very strong in the idea that if you wait until you’re 30 or 40 to get married, or until you’re 25 to get married, that’s great," Linton said. “People constantly compare us to other people who might’ve gotten married too young, and my perspective is that regardless of what age you are, whether you’re younger or older, everyone has that kind of right time to get married, and I kind of feel like only you and your significant other know when that time is right.”