The (Flawed) Case for Marrying Young

In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior argues in defense of young marriage. Prior, whose religious bias is evident throughout the piece, cites research from wedding website Knot Yet to bolster her argument; of especial interest to her are statistics that portray unmarried twenty-somethings as more likely to drink and suffer from depression. Unlike Prior, I intend to state my bias upfront: I am an unmarried twenty-five year old woman, I drink in moderation, and I have depression, though not, as Prior implies, due to my unmarried status, unless I’ve been suffering from a lack of husband for the past thirteen years. Her argument, tinged as it is by her adherence to conservative Evangelicalism, is deeply flawed and contributes little real insight into the statistics on marriage in the Western world.

As a feminist, obviously I consider the topic of marriage to be deeply relevant to gender equality. It is my belief that later marriage encourages, rather than hinders gender equality, I believe it also contributes to healthier, more sustainable relationships. I am ambivalent on the institution of marriage itself as I don’t think that marriage is necessarily an indication of a stable relationship. But for the purposes of countering Prior’s argument, I’m going to stick solely to available research on marriage trends. And those trends directly counter Prior’s assertions. According to longitudinal research produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the length of a marriage directly correlated to the age: 81% college graduates aged 26 and older stayed married for 20 years, in contrast to 65% of a younger, but comparably educated, cohort. Research produced in the UK reveals similar trends. Young marrieds were by far the likeliest to end their relationships in divorce. Age, then, actually correlates to more successful marriages,  which is presumably the outcome Prior most desires to see.

In her piece, Prior also cites the work of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist whose work on sexuality has been largely discredited by peers in his field. His now-infamous study on gay parenting became the subject of an internal audit by Social Science Research after colleagues revealed flaws in his work. If Prior is aware of these flaws, it isn’t evident in her piece, and her credibility as an academic is seriously damaged by her reference to Regnerus’ work on this topic. When her previous publications are considered (Prior is also against the use of hormonal birth control), we see the religious right’s utopia in miniature: a totally heterosexual world in which women are married young, and pregnant. Not particularly conducive to the higher education of women, or to the broader cause of gender equality.

There are additional flaws in Prior’s argument; it remains unclear if Knot Yet controlled for factors like addiction and mental illness in its survey. Given that it is not a peer-reviewed resource, I find it unlikely that they considered this in their work. We’re left, then, with a series of assertions that are directly contradicted by available academic work on the subject. As the religious right continues its campaign to control women’s lives, the publication of such a piece by the Atlantic isn’t just ill-conceived, it’s dangerous.


11 thoughts on “The (Flawed) Case for Marrying Young

  1. FYI you have flaws in this piece, as well. Regnerus (and his research methodology) passed the audit. Whether or not we like his results, the methods were fully vetted–by his critics, no less. Check your facts. Thanks.

  2. Agree about the Liberty prof’s op-ed. However, Knot Yet is a research project that is more legit than you are giving it credit for ( We may not like all of the authors’ institutional affiliations, but as they’ve made the rounds in the wake of their study’s release, they’ve been pretty even-handed.

    It seems strange to me that Professor Prior does not mention the obvious reason why people of her ilk prefer young marriage: to legitimize the sex that almost all twenty-somethings (including evangelicals) engage in as they wait until their late 20s (or later) to get married.

    • That’s interesting about Knot Yet, though it’s true that some of the authors’ affiliations do automatically make me suspicious. Hilariously enough, they themselves report that early marriages tend to end in divorce. She either didn’t read the entire report, or simply picked the stats she liked. Really, really shoddy work. However, I was right: the authors didn’t control for factors like addiction and mental illness.

  3. Did you read the first line? The article concedes a “compelling case” for delaying marriage. The thesis seems to be merely that a case can also be made for younger marriage. I read it as an alternative perspective that presents its supporting evidence.

    • What supporting evidence? The author picked a few stray facts from a study, while ignoring a plethora of evidence from the same study that directly contradicts her argument. Her case fell apart almost immediately after close examination of the facts she attempted to present.

  4. I don’t really think that an “unmarried twenty-five year old woman with depression” should be weighing in and giving opinions on marriage. I’d say your pessimism permeates this article more than your bias.

    • Young women are the primary targets of articles like these, so I’d say my perspective is actually remarkably relevant. Unless, of course, you’d like to argue that unmarried people don’t possess valid perspectives on the institution of marriage. And the fact that I have depression is totally separate from my unmarried status, which is why I even mentioned it. It’s to illustrate that Prior implied that rates of depression are somehow linked to single status. Correlation isn’t causation, despite what she appears to think.

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