Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.01.13

You Should Get Married as Early as Possible, but No Earlier

Susan Patton may have said it inelegantly, but she’s basically right: Princeton students should think about finding a mate.

I would like to start this post by thanking my parents for not writing incredibly embarrassing letters to the editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian when I was in college. No matter how urgent she felt her message to be, it would only have been decent for Susan Patton to have waited for her son to graduate before offering the student newspaper her opinion that Princeton girls should get engaged while they’re still in school. I hope that Princeton has top-notch counseling facilities, as well as a friendly local bar where the son can drown his sorrows. 

That said, while I wouldn’t have said it exactly the way she chose, I think Susan Patton is basically right: people should be looking to get married as early as possible.

I say this as someone who married late, and since I wouldn't want to have married anyone except my husband, I'm glad I waited. But as a general rule, you should err on the side of marrying early. By which I mean not that you should marry whoever happens to be around when you turn 22, but that you should be willing to recognize, at the age of 22, that you've found someone you want to marry. Right now, most Princeton students don't think that way. They think there's something weird about committing at 22. And if they try to commit, their friends and parents will warn them off.  

This seems like a mistake. The age at which the right person comes along depends on luck, not some kind of calendar. You can’t plan for it to happen between 26 and 28, so that you can get married by 30 and have your first kid by 32. If you don’t meet them right then, all that pressure to marry whoever happens to be around, which you so neatly avoided at 22, pops up again--around 30 for women, around 35 for men, judging from my experience. At 22, you're less likely to have to settle: the dating pool is larger, and it’s easier to say, “Well, I’ll wait a few years until the right one comes along.”  

Obviously, you can choose not to settle. I did. But I’ll be honest: that decision is a lot scarier at 33 than it would have been a decade earlier.

It’s hard enough to find the right person. Demanding that you find the right person in the exact five-year window that has been socially prescribed for marrying is putting too much pressure on yourself. It risks pushing you into a window where you won’t be able to have kids (if you want them) or where you’ll be too tired to cope. Which is fine if you’ve accumulated full-time-nanny money by the age of 40, but I regret to inform you youngsters that most of you won’t.

The older you get, the more your dating pool shrinks. You also run into the Problem of Grandma's Lamp: the more settled you get, the harder it is to adjust to a potentially excellent mate who doesn’t quite fit into the life you’ve made. Obviously, these barriers are not insurmountable, since lots of people get married in their late 30s. But it’s easier if you’ve got an open mind: if you’re ready to get married whenever the right person presents himself or herself.  

College has its drawbacks as a place to find a mate—college students will care about cleanliness and work ethic in the future, but they probably don’t now. On the other hand, never again will you be surrounded by so many people who share your interests, who have lots of free time to form a relationship, and who aren’t married. It’s worth at least considering.