Early marriage in the United States : why some marry young, why many don’t, and what difference it makes
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American family life has undergone drastic changes over the last five decades. The median age at first marriage has risen sharply over that time, a trend that has attracted the attention of a number of family scholars. Less is known, however, about those who continue to marry early in a society where such a practice is increasingly rare and where the benefits to marriage during young adulthood are thought to be diminishing. In this dissertation, I ask specifically (a) what types of people continue to marry early in a context where delayed marriage is the norm, (b) how culture can impact marital timing, and (c) what effect marriage has on the mental health and well-being of young adults. To answer these questions, I analyze survey data primarily from the first and third waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a panel study of American adolescents that began in 1994-95 and tracked its respondents into young adulthood in 2001-02. The results suggest that a significant minority of young adults—25% of women and 16% of men—marry early, and early marriage occurs most frequently among young adults with low educational trajectories and who come from families with more limited resources. These young adults are typically found in rural communities and in the Southern United States, and they tend to identify with conservative religious traditions like conservative Protestantism and Mormonism. Culture, in the case of involvement in a religious community, can shape marriage timing by limiting the appeal of cohabitation, increasing marital desires and expectations, and by reducing perceived conflict between marriage and higher education. Moreover, a prevailing cultural schema that prescribes full time work as a prerequisite for marriage keeps even young adults who wish they were married from doing so. Finally, young adults who are married or engaged exhibit the best mental health in young adulthood. These findings suggest that demographic and cultural shifts in marriage have not spread evenly throughout the population, and despite its poor reputation early marriage may have some benefits for young adults.