Most single American adults aspire to be married. But for many now, marriage is supposed to be a capstone achievement rather than a cornerstone of young adult life. The “capstone model” says you are supposed to have all your ducks in a row—education, some professional success, and a clear adult identity—before you marry.
The median age at first marriage has increased over the past 50 years in the United States—from 23 in 1970 to about 30 in 2021 for men, and from 21 in 1970 to 28 in 2021 for women—with no sign of this upward trend leveling off.
Indeed, a recent national survey of millennials (ages 18–33) found the vast majority of respondents agree that marrying later means both people will be more mature, more likely to have achieved important personal goals, and more likely to have personal finances in order. Moreover, these young adults believe that later marriages will be more stable and of higher quality. That is the widely accepted cultural narrative.
Do later unions consistently provide better prospects for marital success than earlier ones? We often hear about the advantages of capstone marriage, but there has been little empirical investigation of those supposed benefits.
In a new State of Our Unions: 2022 report published by the National Marriage Project, the Wheatley Institution, and the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, Alan Hawkins’s team of researchers reports on an empirical investigation of potential differences and similarities between two groups: early-marrieds (ages 20–24), who are more aligned with a “cornerstone marriage” model, and later-marrieds (25-plus), who are more aligned with a capstone marriage model. The study analyzes a wide range of marital outcomes.
(It’s important to note that our operational definition of cornerstone marriage is for those who tied the knot in their early 20s, not in their teens, when relationships are still at higher risk.)
To do so, we employed three recent data sets with large, nationally representative US samples and a rich set of marital outcomes. Overall, our analyses found few reasons to favor capstone marriage over cornerstone marriage. For most comparisons, we saw no statistically significant differences between early-marrieds and later-marrieds. When contrasts surfaced, they were almost always small in magnitude—and they tended to favor early-marrieds.
To be sure, we found weak (mostly nonsignificant) evidence that capstone marriages are more stable than cornerstone marriages. In other words, waiting to marry was linked to slightly more marital stability. However, there is new research that complicates that story. Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox found that marriages formed around age 30 are the most stable for those who cohabit first, whereas marriages formed between 22 and 30 are the most stable for those who do not live together prior to marrying.
But when it comes to marital quality, the story is more positive for cornerstone marriages, especially for men. We saw evidence that, on average, early-marrieds enjoy slightly higher marital quality than later-marrieds, as measured by such outcomes as relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. (These findings controlled for religiosity, education, and length of marriage.) This is especially the case for husbands, as the figure above indicates.
We found only two large differences: Not surprisingly, early-marrieds felt like adults (at age 21 versus 23) and felt ready to marry (at age 21 versus 25) at significantly younger ages than later marrieds. Other research also indicates that religious young adults are more likely to tie the knot in their 20s than their more secular peers.
These findings run counter to the cultural narrative that early-marrieds will struggle in their relationships. At least today, those marrying in their early 20s appear a little more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than those marrying later.
Moreover, religious differences don’t explain away these findings. It was not faith per se but something else that seemed to account for these differences.
One of those explanations comes from what scholars call “selectivity” factors. Certain types of couples are more likely to select into younger marriages, and their distinctive values, relationship experiences, and traits likely figure into these patterns. This is especially true today, since those who marry in their early 20s do so because they want to, not because they have to or because a strong cultural script pushes them in that direction.
They may be unusually dedicated to marriage—or to one another. And later-marrying couples may have some significant challenges to surmount, such as the difficulty of forging a “we” identity after living for “me” for much of their early adulthood, or the fact that capstone marriages can seem unobtainable to less-advantaged couples these days.
Early-marrieds swim against a social current that too often questions the wisdom of their choices. But getting hitched doesn’t have to be a crowning capstone that signals successful young adult achievement—a status that too many will find difficult to attain. Instead, marriage can be the solid foundation on which to frame together the walls, windows, and rooms of a meaningful family life.
For that reason, our broader culture and even the church could stand to be more supportive of 21st-century cornerstone couples.
Alan Hawkins is a professor of family life at Brigham Young University. Brad Wilcox is nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Jason Carroll is associate director of the Wheatley Institution and a professor of family life at Brigham Young University.