If you thought navigating the 20-something dating and marriage scene wasn't complicated enough, former President Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson just put his oar in.
In an argument similar to Mark Regnerus's cover story in the August issue of Christianity Today, Gerson says that "it doesn't seem realistic to expect most men and women to delay sex until marriage at 26 or 28."
He believes that kind of self-control is possible but not likely, even among churchgoers. Besides, marrying late in one's 20s can result in unhappier marriages, while early-20s marriages have the happiest results.
Where does Gerson get those numbers, you might ask? Slate's XX Factor did some digging and found this 2004 study from the National Fatherhood Initiative. (Especially check out the graphs on page 19.) XX Factor also notes that some key information, like statistical significance, is missing from the graphs, so it's hard to tell how seriously we should take the information.
Statistical reliability aside, Gerson's argument—marry young, because people cannot handle not waiting to have sex until their late 20s—is weak on many levels. Is marriage really an excuse for sex? Should a lack of self-control be rewarded with early gratification? To say nothing of evangelical churches and families, it doesn't seem like that mindset will lead to a healthy society at large.
It's interesting, though, that two prominent men—Gerson here, and Regnerus in CT—have taken up the gauntlet for early marriage, while no women that I'm aware of have. If early marriage provides the social and religious benefits Gerson and Regnerus say it does—including providing the best context for childrearing, relational stability, and sexual fulfillment—why aren't women lauding it too?
Perhaps one reason, at least in Christian circles, is that young women just aren't encountering mature, marriageable Christian men. "There just aren't as many serious Christian young men as there are women," Regnerus pointed out.
Point taken. But now what?
Evangelical churches and families typically promote a traditional courtship setup wherein men take the initiative in new dating relationships; it's frowned upon for a woman to ask men out or take the lead. But if a woman waits for a Christian man to take the lead, she might be waiting a long time. Many young Christian men are hesitant to pursue, in marked contrast to secular culture, where drink requests and compliments are readily available. The alternative—for the woman to initiate—isn't too palatable in today's evangelical culture.
Churches also teach that men should be the spiritual leaders of their families, but many Christian men in their early 20s don't seem nearly mature enough for that responsibility.
What is a reasonable response to the early marriage conundrum? Is it wise for Christian women who want to marry to shelve the qualities of responsibility and maturity that Christian women are taught to look for in men? Settle for a less mature husband and hope maturity comes with age? Or is a later age of marriage a necessary byproduct of a society where men (and women) stay teen-aged until their 30s?