When we were young, the trajectory of life sounded so simple: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage” — but modern relationships are much more complicated than that. People date more partners before settling down, cohabitate and procreate without getting married… and, on the whole, marry later in life these days. Currently, the median age in the U.S. for a man to marry is around 29; for a woman, it’s when she’s approximately 27 years old (that’s compared to the 1960s when people typically married in their early 20s, according to the Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends blog). Marriage itself is at an all-time low right now in America — only 51% of Americans are currently married, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau reports, compared to 72% in 1960.
But for people who do see marriage in their future, the debate rages on: What is the ideal age for women to tie the knot? When it comes to education, economics, personal development and childbearing goals, below are some pros and cons of getting hitched at every age:
Marrying at age 22-25
You’ve probably finished college or are on your way to getting your career off the ground by now. At this age, you’re likely tying the knot with your college or high-school sweetheart — or even the guy you met on the first day of Kindergarten or became friends with after growing up together in the same neighborhood.
Pros: You and your groom are both young, so you can grow, change and move in the same direction as you grow together as a couple. You’ll be young parents if you choose to have children, and you’ll also be able to have a large family. Plus, when the kids get packed off to college, you’ll still only be in your 40s — which is young enough to embark on new adventures and rediscover yourselves as a couple, not just as other people’s parents.
Cons: When you’re under 25, you might not know yourself very well — especially when it comes to what you want to do with your life and what you really believe in, both as an individual and as a couple. People’s values also change quite a bit after their idealistic, naïve early 20s. The 50% divorce rate that’s so often cited in America specifically applies to people who marry when they’re less than 20 years old; for those in the 20-23 age range, it jumps to 34% — and that divorce rate also declines again as you age. And if you choose to be a stay-at-home mom, you might find yourself lost from an identity standpoint when the kids eventually leave home. “I don’t know what to do with myself now,” says Stacy Abrams, 42, of New Jersey, who got married at 22 and subsequently devoted her life to raising her five children. “My kids have to teach me how to use the computer now,” she admits.
Marrying at age 25-30
These are the fabulous, fun days of discovery where you’re finding out who you really are as a woman, what you ultimately want to do with your life, and what becomes meaningful to you personally. Dating men in their 20s and 30s will make you feel like the belle of the ball.
Pros: You’re more likely to end up with someone who shares similar values as your own now that you’re more self-aware. You also have had enough time to party it up with your other single friends, travel and endure long hours at work before you “settle down” like an “old married couple” with an established social circle and career.
Cons: Economically, a woman’s earning power is at its highest if she marries at age 30 or later, according to the “Knot Yet: the Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” study published online at nationalmarriageproject.org. Marrying after your 30th birthday also adds an extra $18,000 to a woman’s earning power. One risk to consider: If you take a break to focus on child-rearing now, it could take a serious toll on your career.
Marrying at age 30-35
If it’s true that 30 really is the new 20, then you’re a woman with many opportunities ahead of her. You’re secure with both your career and personal finances, and you’ve probably stopped thinking of your dates as “boys” — at this age, you’re definitely dating “men” (at least, that’s how you’re referring to and thinking about them, anyway).
Pros: Not only do you know who you are and what you want out of life, you also have a good sense of what you need in a romantic partner. You’re likely to pick someone who’ll be a good life partner for you over the long-term and have a solid career in place to boot. A woman over 30 is only 8% likely to get divorced, according to marriage site The Knot — pretty good odds compared to 20% for those who marry at age 27-29!
Cons: Contrary to popular wisdom, a woman’s fertility only begins to dip slightly when she’s 28, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Between ages 30-34, a woman’s infertility issues are almost doubled from 8-15%, according to Management of the Infertile Woman by Helen A. Carcio and The Fertility Sourcebook by M. Sara Rosenthal — but the good news is, you still have some time to deal with it if you find yourself struggling to conceive. A woman’s chance of getting pregnant only decreases from 63-52%, so if you’re still under 35, it might take you a little bit longer to start a family — but it will still probably happen, given enough time. “I was so scared that I would have trouble conceiving that I starting trying the very minute I got engaged,” says Dana White, who got married in San Francisco on her 35th birthday — while she was five months pregnant.
Marrying at age 35-40
Some of us ladies are what I like to call “late bloomers.” It takes women like us a couple of jobs to discover what we really enjoy doing to earn a living, visiting a few countries to figure out where we want to live, and dating enough men to learn what we don’t want in a romantic partner.
Pros: At this age, a first marriage will also probably be your only marriage for life. And get this: When you’ve waited so long to walk down the aisle already, you can have pretty much any kind of wedding you want, anywhere you want — your parents will be so happy that you finally found The One, they probably won’t even care how much it costs… or who’s on the guest list.
Cons: Trouble conceiving can be a serious issue by now, as the likelihood of infertility rises from 15-32%; at this age, you’ve only got a 33% chance of getting pregnant (as opposed to 50% when you’re under 35 years old).
Marrying at 40+
At midlife, you’re definitely an independent woman who likely boasts of having enjoyed a stellar career and a strong circle of friends to provide you with emotional support. Your dating pool has opened up to include divorced/widowed guys and single dads, and you feel like the belle of the ball all over again.
Pros: Your dating options may seem slimmer after 40, but you’ve almost certainly gotten any love for chasing after bad boys out of your system by now. Not only that, you’ve also likely had your fill of partying, dating, traveling, clawing your way up the career ladder and made peace with your parents and siblings — so when you do finally settle down, you will have absolutely no regrets or thoughts about missing out on some unexplored part of your life. That’s right: none!
Cons: If you still want to have children, you’re probably going to need professional help — but you’re financially and emotionally secure enough to handle the challenges that come with being a later-in-life parent, you’ll be just fine.
Amy Klein writes the weekly “Fertility Diary” column for The New York Times’ Motherlode blog. Her website iskleinslines.com.