Capstone Marriages and Cornerstone Marriages

My wife and I belong to that peculiar, sometimes-applauded, often-scorned, steadily-shrinking club of “Christian kids who married young”. We’d both turned 21 within a few weeks of the wedding. So naturally I’ve taken a passing interest in the recent controversy over youthful marriages (sparked, I think, by the “Knot Yet” report and Karen Swallow Prior’s article in The Atlantic).

In her article, “The Case for Getting Married Young”, Prior points out that the average age for marriage has reached historic highs (29 and 27 for men and women, respectively). She cites some interesting statistics (“unmarried twenty-somethings are more likely to be depressed, drink excessively, and report lower levels of satisfaction than their married counterparts”), then explains how the prioritization of education and career objectives has led to a shift in society’s conception of marriage:

“The religious framework for marriage is also crumbling. Marriage has become, therefore, to use Thompson’s apt term, “hedonistic,” based on the exponential amount of pleasure—material, emotional, sexual, familial, you name it—that can be derived from the coupling of two individuals.”

Like myself, Prior rejects this modern view of marriage, in which young people are encouraged to spend the first decade of their adult lives “finding themselves”…attaining an education and career, clubbing and barhopping, traveling the world, experimenting with multiple romantic relationships, cohabitating, and eventually getting married once they “figure out who they are”. Instead, like myself, Prior views marriage as a “cornerstone” rather than a “capstone”.

“We invested the vigor of our youth not in things to bring into the marriage, but in each other and our marriage.”

Although I’m not arguing that everyone should marry young (or even that everyone should marry, period), I do think there’s something to be said for navigating the challenges of early adulthood with a teammate.

In another recent article on Slate, Julia Shaw illustrates this point:

“Marriage wasn’t something we did after we’d grown up—it was how we have grown up and grown together. We’ve endured the hardships of typical millennials: job searches, job losses, family deaths, family conflict, financial fears, and career concerns. The stability, companionship, and intimacy of marriage enabled us to overcome our challenges and develop as individuals and a couple.”

…as does Collin Garbarino over at First Things:

“I married relatively young and managed to get three graduate degrees while married. Marriage provided my wife and me an anchor that helped us focus on our goals while we were in our twenties.”

Again: I’m not saying that everyone should get married at 21 like myself. I think the real issue here, rather than “age”, is the attitude that one brings into marriage (the “cornerstone model” vs. the “capstone model”).

In light of my own experiences, I’m actually opposed to one-size-fits-all statements like “everyone should marry young” or, to quote one of the feminist responses that I read, “women, don’t marry young”. Given the advances women have made in education and career opportunities, I think most people are quick to recognize the injustice of telling a young woman “you need to give up (or postpone) your career in order to marry and raise a family”…but are less quick to recognize the injustice of telling a woman, “you need to give up (or postpone) marriage in order to first pursue your career.” Shouldn’t feminists be encouraging the prototypical young woman to decide for herself what’s important to her?

But I digress. I’ll close with an excerpt from a 2009 report from sociologist Mark Regnerus:

“[The] age at which a person marries never actually causes a divorce. Rather, a young age at marriage can be an indicator of an underlying immaturity and impatience with marital challenges — the kind that many of us eventually figure out how to avoid or to solve without parting. Unfortunately, well-educated people resist this, convinced that there actually is a recipe for guaranteed marital success that goes something like this: Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve. Presto: a marriage with math on its side.

Too bad real life isn’t like that. 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. “Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth,” added Tennyson to his lines about springtime and love.”


6 thoughts on “Capstone Marriages and Cornerstone Marriages

  1. I’m 25 and single now. I’ve wanted to get married since I was 20 so if it was up to me, I’d be married by now. I might possibly look back on this one day and say “Yeah, it’s good that I didn’t marry then.” Until then, frustration!

  2. Well said Matt. I was actually very frustrated with Prior’s article, because while I saw her points about the benefits of marrying young, she missed the point that many people who are older and single (like me, I’m 30) haven’t been avoiding marriage for selfish gain. There are other factors that come into play. I appreciate your emphasis that the main issue isn’t age, but attitude. And I’d take it one step further and say while it’s about one’s attitude towards marriage, its also about one’s understanding of who God is and their response to him.

  3. Very well said! I think most people would put me firmly in the “feminist” category, but like you said, that just means I make my own decisions. I’m not thinking of marriage any time soon so I was surprised how much the Prior article resonated with me. What I have come to is this: couples should decide to marry or not based on their decisions-I don’t worry abut YOUNG couples, I worry about couples who marry because their parents want them to or who DON’T marry because they think society will look down on them, or for any reason that wasn’t their own. I’m also not LDS but this statement from the church has always been beautiful to me: Thanks for, as always, provoking thought!

  4. “Shouldn’t feminists be encouraging the prototypical young woman to decide for herself what’s important to her?”

    Sure, and I suppose I’ll agree with that (and with your point about the sort of double standard or one-way street), but I would add that it’s reasonable to leave individuals (in this case, women) on their own to make their own decisions only if our society doesn’t also hide from them some of the information they need to make an informed decision. I think a lot of women want both some career and some children, and think they’re making rational decisions to achieve those goals, but end up unable to reach the second, largely because our culture has lied to them about how easy it is to attract a husband (women are naturally more attractive the younger they are) and how easy it is to have children (fertility declines significantly with age). As far as I can tell, that makes them very sad, and I think it’s very sad that our society didn’t give them better information—or even, perhaps, some guidance.

    See also “People Should Marry Earlier”

  5. Wonderful post! It reminds me of another quote I saw – I can’t remember where – but basically stating that “finding yourself” takes years, a lifetime even! You may not feel you’ve found yourself until you are in your 50’s or 60’s at least, it takes a life lived. To “find yourself” before your biological clock runs out, or before the pool of potential spouses has really shrunk, is a lot of pressure because it is unrealistic. It also makes the marriage seem to be about “who you are” – which can shift. Instead of marriage being a context within these shfits and changes happen, which even molds who you are, now marriages are tossed out once a partner shifts and feels they are a “different person” and need to therefore be with a different person. Just my humble opinion.

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