Marrying Too Early: Considerations for Raising the Legal Marriage Age

marriage, marry, marrying, child marriage, teen marriage, divorce, consent

Though it is hard to argue against the vitality and passion of young love, demographic analysis of teen marriages in America indicate that there may indeed be such a thing as marrying too early. In fact, some experts will argue that the legal minimum age at which a person can give consent to marry ought to be raised to sometime in the early twenties.

In nearly all of the United States, the legally acceptable minimum age at which a person can give their independent consent to marry is 18. There are only two exceptions to this rule: the state of Nebraska in which love-birds as young as 17 may give their consent, and Mississippi where prospective grooms must be 17 years old but brides can be as young as 15.

In the case that parents and/or judicial representatives are willingly consent, the legal minimum age for marrying drops even further. While most states will not dip below the 16 year mark, there are a number that will make exceptions. With their parent’s consent, “women” from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, can get married at 13 and 12 respectively, though in both states their prospective husbands must wait until they reach 14 years of age. In addition, states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida will make exceptions to their normal marrying rules if a pregnancy has already occurred. Other states such as California and Delaware have no age limits so long as parents from both the prospective spouses consent.

However there is a sizable body of evidence to suggest that marrying at such a tender age is ill-advised. To begin, significant evidence from developmental psychology indicates that teenagers are simply not cognitively mature enough to make such important decisions. The teenage brain experiences growth in different regions at different times. In particular the amygdala, a region responsible for instinctual reactions like fear and aggression ,develops early. Only later does the frontal cortex, or the center for rational thinking and reasoning, develop. This imbalance leads teenagers to be impulsive, take risks, react emotionally and/or violently, and misread social cues.

In addition, most teenagers also experience a period of identity exploration. Such exploration is a normal part of development, but may is often characterized by mood swings, rebelliousness, physical complaints, and fluctuations in self-esteem and ego. Though many will argue this is a necessary part of discovering oneself and developing self -awareness, such behaviors would likely contribute to stormy marital relationships.

Another argument against teen marriage is that the overwhelming majority end in divorce. Current understanding of marriage trends in the United States indicate that one of the greatest predictors of whether or not a marriage will last depends upon the age at which the wife and husband marry. The most successful marriages are those that happen between people that are 25 years old or older. Less than 30 percent of these marriages end in divorce. By contrast, 70-80 percent of marriages entered before age 18 will end in a divorce.

Even if the marriage lasts, spouses from teenage marriages are more likely to lead lives characterized by poverty, poor health, and low education. In particular women are more likely to feel the burdens of these problems. Women that marry before age 19 are 50 percent more likely than their unmarried peers to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate college. This in turn leads to lower-paying jobs and financial stress. Furthermore, poverty and low education levels also contribute to reduced physical and psychological health, as also experienced by spouses of teen marriages.

Given the evidence, some experts such as Dr. Hamilton of William and Mary Law School argue that the minimum legal age of marriage ought to be raised to 21 years old. For these reasons and others, nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Algeria have moved to increase their minimum age of nuptial consent to 19-21 years old. Though in the USA such views remain a minority opinion, the starry-eyed Romeos and Juliets of the world might still do well to pause and consider the consequences that may result from potentially tying the knot prematurely.

By Sarah Takushi

Sources

Adolescence

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology

EqualityNow.org

Global Justice Initiative Inc

Jakarta Globe

William and Mary Law School Scholarship Repository 

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