Late marriage

IDEALLY my wife and I would have been childhood or at least mid-teen sweethearts, we’d have spent every night until our wedding night in our respective parents’ home, we’d have been married within months of me getting my first job and she’d have worn white. Instead we met in a seedy corner of a nightclub when we were 25 – I like to tell her I was the last star on her horizon – and we were shacked up an unseemly short time later, and not with a view to marriage. At least not on my part. I’m still not certain as to the processes that led to my walking down the aisle in a church I’d never set foot in and in which I haven’t set foot since to be greeted by a minister who was only a few minutes removed from a stranger.

And my wife wore cream, I think, and whatever it was it seemed to me to be a thoughtful compromise. I mean, we had been shacked up energetically.

The ideal was not mine but it was in 1979 still widely held, and I was the last of my school friends to marry. I was often asked why I wasn’t married, when I was going to get married, why I was mucking around with mere girlfriends.

Today, we’d be regarded as fools rushing into marriage. I see from the Australian Bureau of Statistics social trends report issued this week that if we’d married now with the same above-average age margin we had in 1979, I’d be 32 and my wife would be 33. Just as well we’re not, because I cling to the fact that I’m two months older and wiser. In 1979 the average age of marriage for men was 24.1 years and for women 21.7 years, and the most recent statistics quoted by the bureau have the 2010 averages at 29.6 years for men and 27.9 years for women.

Reasons for the delay in marrying include the fact that it’s taking parents longer to boot their adult children out, that a university degree and other tertiary study is now the norm, that therefore the getting of a proper job is delayed, and, I say as significant as any of the other reasons, that increasingly women are pursuing a career rather than merely a job.

And, of course, more people are shacking up together. According to the bureau, the proportion of people living in sin has doubled in less than two decades. In 1992 one in 10 people aged 20 to 29 years was in a de facto relationship and in 2010 it was one in five. I can’t find any measure in bureau reports of the incidence of this abuse of the sacrament of marriage at the time my wife and I were so wantonly abusing it, in the late 1970s, and perhaps then the term de facto had not arrived to denigrate the relationship.

Is later marriage a good thing? Certainly shacking up is a good thing, if only because it becomes increasingly difficult at such close quarters for creeps to disguise that inclination, and I hope that my children put their relationship to the test and, if necessary, to the sword before marriage.

The old advice was for young people seeing each other, which was all they were supposed to do, to wait until they had ‘‘something behind you’’, and by that was meant money in the bank. I’ve never understood what money has to do with the timing of marriage. Financial stress threatens a marriage, the pundits say, and financial security strengthens a marriage, and that doesn’t seem to say much for either marriage. I would say that the arrival of children is a greater threat to the union, married or otherwise, than a paucity of money, which may make later marriage and later children an advantage.

But young people have never listened to the turgid pontifications of their parents, and they’re not about to start now. Still, if my children ask me, and you, me and they know they will not, I will say they should get married if and when they want to. But not until they’ve got the money to waste on a wedding.

Is marriage better earlier or later? And should shacking up be a compulsory precursor to marriage?

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