Skip to main content

No need to marry young

By Kathleen Gerson, Special to CNN
April 8, 2013 -- Updated 0239 GMT (1039 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Susan Patton, a Princeton alumna, advised women to find a husband before they graduate
  • Kathleen Gerson: Research consistently show that delaying marriage is better for women
  • She says women who marry later are less likely to divorce and attain important life goals
  • Gerson: The decision one makes about when and whom to marry is deeply personal

Editor's note: Kathleen Gerson, author of "The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family," is collegiate professor of sociology at New York University and a founding board member of the Work-Family Researchers Network.

(CNN) -- When Susan Patton, a Princeton alumna, advised in an open letter that Princeton coeds find a husband before they graduate, she provoked an avalanche of responses that span the spectrum from "good idea" to "no way."

So, what should young women make of her advice?

It turns out that we actually know a lot about the consequences of choosing a mate at an early age. Most of it shows that, on average, delaying marriage confers a number of advantages to women -- and to men as well.

Kathleen Gerson
Kathleen Gerson

Research over the last several decades has repeatedly demonstrated that women who postpone marriage are less likely to divorce, more likely to attain economic stability for themselves and their children, and more likely to express satisfaction with their family and work commitments.

Even "Knot Yet," a recent report co-written by the National Marriage Project and concerned with the possible costs of postponing marriage, clearly shows that delayed marriage improves the socioeconomic prospects of women and their families (especially among more privileged groups), reduces the chance of divorce and allows women to attain important life goals.

Opinion: If only I'd snagged a Princeton man

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It's no mystery why this is the case. Amid our post-industrial, hi-tech economy, it takes longer to gain the personal insights and occupational skills needed to make a successful transition to adulthood. It takes time not just to develop the practical knowledge needed to negotiate a rapidly changing world but also to gain a clear sense of purpose about one's own life and about the kind of person one wishes to have as a life partner.

In my own research, young women from diverse backgrounds consistently agreed, in the words of one of my respondents, that "you need to find out who you are first" before you are ready to choose a lifelong partner. This woman was the first member of her family to graduate from college.

But whether they were graduates of an elite university or making their way through a community college while holding a full-time job, these young women were keenly aware of the challenges facing today's relationships. They overwhelmingly hope to create a lasting marriage -- or "marriage-like relationship" -- in the long run.

Princeton mom: Students find a husband

But they also believe the best chance of making a marriage work is to first establish their own identity and independence. As another young woman put it, as she discussed her plans to finish college and find a good job before settling down, "I want to be stable for myself, so I'm not getting married prematurely."

These are just some of the reasons the average age at first marriage has been rising for several decades and now hovers around 27 for women and 29 for men. Younger generations have concluded, accurately, that their options do not contract after schooling, that they can take time to develop their own identities and make important life commitments, and that it may make sense to wait.

If the evidence supporting the option of delayed marriage is so strong, why has a letter urging women to choose a partner early garnered so much attention?

Perhaps because, despite the crumbling barriers that have allowed women to enter the halls of once all-male enclaves such as Princeton, so much remains unchanged.

Susan Patton never questions the norm that women should "marry up" -- and by extension, men should marry "down" -- on a variety of dimensions, including education, accomplishment and age. (Nor does she question the assumption that mate choice is universally heterosexual, but that is a topic for another debate.) Yet a thorough gender revolution means questioning such assumptions about how women (and men) select a life partner.

Genuine equality means jettisoning assumptions that all women should choose a partner who is older, more professionally accomplished or even more intelligent. The young women I have interviewed are far more likely to stress the importance of such criteria as mutual support, respect and love in a marital partnership.

Most of all, decisions about when and whom to marry are deeply personal, and advice that presumes "one size fits all" is more likely to trigger unnecessary anxiety than to offer useful help.

Instead of telling new generations what choices to make, we should turn our attention to creating the social supports and economic opportunities that will help them forge the more egalitarian relationships, satisfying work careers and work-family balance they desire, regardless of when -- and whether -- they marry.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen Gerson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT