The Age You Marry Matters More Than You Think

July 16th 2015

It's well-known that people who marry young are more likely to get divorced than those who tie the knot a little later in life.

Putting a ring on it too late, however, might actually increase your chances of breaking up, according to an analysis conducted by University of Utah sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger. Studying the National Survey of Family Growth data, Wolfinger concluded divorce risk decreases for those who marry in their late 20s or early 30s. However, divorce risk goes up for people who marry in their late 30s.

Getting married past a certain age

"For years, it seemed like the longer you waited to marry, the better," Wolfinger wrote. "That’s because the relationship between age at marriage and divorce risk was almost linear: The older you were, the lower the chances of divorce. Although teens still face an elevated divorce risk relative to older adults, my analysis of more recent data shows that those who tie the knot after their early thirties are now more likely to divorce than those who marry in their late twenties."

Wolfinger added that this goes against previous research that suggested marrying later in life lowers the odds of divorce. According to his research, divorce risk goes up for those who marry after turning 32.

Divorce riskNicholas H. Wolfinger - family-studies.org

"[W]hat was true for decades no longer seems to be the case," he wrote. "My data analysis shows that prior to age 32 or so, each additional year of age at marriage reduces the odds of divorce by 11 percent. However, after that the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year."

Slate dubbed this "the Goldilocks theory of marriage: Getting married too early is risky, but so is getting married too late. Your late 20s and early 30s are just right."

Wolfinger doesn't have a clear answer on why divorce rates are higher for people who marry in their late thirties, but he suspects it could mean these folks never really wanted to get married in the first place.

"[M]y money is on a selection effect: the kinds of people who wait till their thirties to get married may be the kinds of people who aren’t predisposed toward doing well in their marriages," he wrote. "[S]ome people seem to be congenitally cantankerous. Such people naturally have trouble with interpersonal relationships. Consequently they delay marriage, often because they can’t find anyone willing to marry them. When they do tie the knot, their marriages are automatically at high risk for divorce. More generally, perhaps people who marry later face a pool of potential spouses that has been winnowed down to exclude the individuals most predisposed to succeed at matrimony."

Getting married young

What if you skew the other way and get married young? Kate Figes, who interviewed more than 100 couples for her book "Couples: The Truth," told The Guardian last year that the reason young couples decide to marry can determine whether the union will last.

“[If] they want an expensive party, to be center stage for a day, because they have romanticized notions of finding their ‘soulmate,’ or want the imagined extra security marriage might bring, they could be in for a nasty shock, and a speedy separation,” she said. “On the other hand there are people who marry, say, their childhood sweetheart, or the person they fell in love with at university. They grow up together.”

Other reasons why it might not last

Last year, two academics from Emory University conducted a survey called "'A Diamond is Forever' and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration" and found time spent dating before the proposal significantly lowers the chances of divorce. Dating for less than a year posed the highest risk of divorce:

Time spent dating before proposal in relation to divorce riskRandal Olson - randalolson.com

The research also found expensive rings are associated with higher divorce risk as well:

Ring cost and divorce riskRandal Olson - randalolson.com

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