The Sweet Spot for Tying The Knot

April 9, 2013

Susan Patton’s recent warning to Princeton women proved controversial among political types and journalists, but I couldn’t find a single young woman who felt strongly either way. They certainly aren’t going to take advice from a woman in her mid-50s (bwahaha!) about how to date in college.

As someone who is pro-relationship, I would never advise someone to end a good relationship or avoid emotional intimacy in order to preserve “career development” time. That’s nuts. If  you meet the man of your dreams when you’re 18, and he feels the same way, I think  you should do whatever you can to make it work.  However, it’s not easy; many obstacles loom that make it hard to take a college relationship all the way to the altar. It’s not surprising that only 14% of marriages are between college sweethearts.

  • Separation at graduation if  you’re not in the same class.
  • Geographical separation during summers, semesters abroad, internships, etc.
  • Long-term geographical separation at graduation as students move for job offers or return to their home turf.
  • The frustration of long-distance relationships – studies show they stand the best chance of working when the separation is not open-ended.
  • The geographic disruption of graduate school.
  • The interest of both sexes in marrying later, once they’ve gotten “their ducks in a row.” 

It’s this last one that sticks in the craw of social conservatives. They see early marriage as a return to family values, in part because it lessens the amount of premarital sex in society. It requires one person subordinating their own plans in favor of the other – unless one person is willing to follow the other, eliminating physical separation, relationships rarely survive. My own mother dropped out of college after her junior year when my father graduated and went into the Marine Corps. (Something she regretted all her life, though I’m in no position to second guess that decision.) Of course, the discussion is academic – we will not return to that era because neither women nor men want it. 

There’s a lot of research on the best time to marry. The National Marriage Project’s recent report Knot Yet looks at the rising marriage age:


Delayed marriage has helped to bring down the divorce rate in the U.S. since the early 1980s because couples who marry in their early twenties and especially their teens are more likely to divorce than couples who marry later.

The median age at first marriage for college education women was just over 27 in 2010. The median age for first childbirth was about 30. 12% of those births are to unmarried women. The divorce rate among college graduates is just 17%.

In contrast, women with a high school education or some college marry at 26, but have their first child at 24. 60% of births in this group are to unmarried women.

There are several factors that decrease the risk of divorce:

Factors% Decrease in Risk of Divorce

Making over $50,000 annually
(vs. under $25,000)


Having graduated college
(vs. not completed high school)


Having a baby seven months or more
after marriage (vs. before marriage)

Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18)24%

Coming from an intact family of origin
(vs. divorced parents)

Religious affiliation (vs. none)14%



Women enjoy an annual income premium if they wait until 30 or later to marry. For college-educated women in their midthirties, this premium amounts to $18,152.

A woman married under 20 has a mean annual income of 32K, while women married over 30 make 50K. However, college educated women earn almost as much when they marry in their mid-20s:


In fact, there is little advantage to delaying marriage to age 30. In an era where men are increasingly using female earning potential as a selection criterion for marriage, a woman who brings income to that table reduces the burden on the male and helps provide for future offspring at a time when men are experiencing economic decline. It’s hardly romantic, but the trend is real. Men are marrying women who earn more.

The Effect on Divorce

Marriage delayed carries another big social and personal benefit: it’s cut down the divorce rate. Studies have consistently shown that couples who marry before age twenty-five are more likely to find themselves in divorce court. Our own research based on data from the National Fatherhood Initiative Marriage Survey supports this conclusion: women who marry in their early twenties and especially in their teens are significantly more likely to end up divorced than those who marry in their midtwenties or later.

Some people conclude that this finding implies that the older a couple is when they marry, the less likely it is that they will split up. This is true, but only up to a point. As divorce insurance, marriage after the midtwenties has diminishing returns; a twenty-five-year-old bride is at not much greater risk of splitting up one day than is a thirty-five-year-old bride.

In general, couples who wait till their midtwenties or later enjoy more maturity and financial security, both factors that make it easier to sustain a lifelong marriage.


In my post The Grim Beeper, I highlighted women’s costly ignorance around the facts of their own fertility:

A recent survey found that women dramatically underestimate how much fertility declines with age. They estimated that a 30 year-old had an 80% chance of getting pregnant in one try. The real likelihood is 30%. They also thought a 40 year-old woman would have a 40% success rate, while those odds are less than 10%. 

Of course, we’re not limited to one try, but the first drop in fertility occurs at around age 27:


It’s more a question of when, not if.

Young people remain very interested in marriage. From the Knot Yet report:

Some might see marriage delayed as proof that young people, being especially open to change, think marriage is obsolete, or that being naturally rebellious, they don’t believe in the institution anymore. Not at all. The large majority of young adults say they hope to marry someday.

True, in the final quarter of the twentieth century, the number of high-school seniors who believed they’d wait five or more years after high school to get married grew significantly. But 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.” In fact, in 2001–2002, 30 percent of twenty-five-year-old women wished they were already married, on top of the 33 percent who were. For men, it was comparable—19 percent wished they were married; another 29 percent were.

It’s not surprising. Married people are much more likely to report feeling very satisfied with their lives: 

Thirty-five percent of single men and cohabiting men report they are“highly satisfied” with their life, compared to 52 percent of married men. Likewise, 33 percent of single women and 29 percent of cohabiting women are “highly satisfied,” compared to 47 percent of married women.

Relationship Culture

The biggest hurdle to healthy relationships is the culture, which is what I choose to address here at HUS.

Today’s twentysomething men and women get little in the way of constructive guidance on the topic of marriage. To the extent marriage is a topic at all, it’s often framed as something best left for a young adult’s late twenties or thirties, often after a string of failed relationships. Media images have largely steered clear of addressing the central role that parenthood continues to play in the lives of most twentysomethings.

Equally important, today’s relationship culture offers virtually no signposts for young adults seeking to navigate romance, sex, and relationships in ways that will be fruitful for their current lives and their future families. All this is unfortunate, because as Meg Jay argues inThe Defining Decade, when it comes to relationships, twentysomethings should not “settle” for “spending their twenties on no-criteria or low-criteria relationships that likely have little hope or intention of succeeding”—especially when those relationships might lead to parenthood.

Meg Jay’s TED talk hits the high points of her message. From the TED blog:

“The 20s are not a throwaway decade — they’re a developmental sweet spot as it is when the seeds of marriage, family and career are planted.

There are 50 million 20-somethings in the US — that’s 15% of population. And Jay wants them to consider themselves adults, and know that this period is as important for their development as the first five years of life. Because the first 10 years of a career have an exponential impact on how much money a person is going to earn. Love is the same way: Half of Americans are with their future partner by the age of 30.”

Claiming your 20s is one of simplest things you can do for work, happiness, love, maybe even for the world. We know your brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood. Which means whatever you want to change, now is the time to change it.

None of these statistics or observations predict your personal success or failure in marriage. Nonetheless, based on a thorough cost/benefit analysis, it’s clear that at least for the college educated, the marriage sweet spot for women is right around 25-27. In my view, that means seeking a life partner like it’s your job the minute you graduate, if you haven’t already found him.