“23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23”, And Other Myths

So, I’ve seen this article on “23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23” get posted a bit lately. I read it. I get the appeal. I did want to offer a few quick thoughts from a dude who got engaged at well, 24, but was apparently so dumb he knew whom he was going to marry at 20.

Before I do that, though, a couple of quick caveats: I just watched two of my best friends get married last year right at about 30. Many of my other friends will. This is not a judgment on them, and there is certainly nothing inherently immoral or wrong about it. I am not saying that if you’re 23 and single, there’s something wrong with you. In fact, as a Christian, I think you can live a whole, healthy life without ever getting married. Singleness (and celibacy) were first elevated to an honorable lifestyle in Western culture through the spread of Christianity.

What I want to do is just push back on a few mistakes I’m seeing here that are easy to make:

1. Not everybody that gets engaged or married at a young age is doing it because they’re vulnerable, desperate, scared, or pathetically lonely. It’s condescending and arrogant of this young woman to suggest that. It’s turning the contingencies of her own situation into the virtue that we should all aspire to. In other words, “I’m young, single, lonely but not ready for a marriage so I’m going to tell myself that you must not be either, and you’re pretty much dumb for getting married young, which makes me super wise and self-knowing.” Honestly, I get that a lot of people our age feel the unfair pressure of people imposing the values of another age and time, the example of our parents, and so forth, on their shoulders. The problem is, this article is essentially making the same mistake in reverse.

2. “The divorce rate among young couples is high.” Yes, that’s true. But if you look at the sociology on it, this is not mostly talking about a couple of kids out of college who’ve decided to start a life together. A lot of that rate is affected by low-income, low-education couples, with unplanned pregnancies, marrying out of pressure. Actually, according to some of the latest sociological research, 22-27 is actually about the perfect age for getting engaged and married in terms of happiness and marital longevity. I would just say, beware of misleading sociology, or quickly assigning explanations to complex phenomena.

3. “I need to find out who I am before I can build a life with someone.” Yes, and no. One of the reasons that young couples divorce is due to the misleading, romantic, idealistic expectations they have about marriage. I would also point out there are similarly misleading myths about singleness and identity held by these very same people. See, there is this romantic myth that at some point in the future we reach this stable self, this pinnacle of self-knowledge and self-awareness that might be expanded on, but will essentially stay the same for the foreseeable future. The reality is that you will change, grow, and develop over the whole of your life. While the person you are at 23 is not the person you will be at 27, what’s also true is that the person you will be at 27 is not the person you will be at 35, and so forth. You will always be changing and growing. As theologian Lewis Smedes has said, “My wife has been married to 4 different men in her life–and they’ve all been me.”

Yes, many 23-year olds are immature and in transition. Yes, a number of them need to develop a bit before covenanting themselves in the bond of marriage. I shudder at the thought of some 23-year olds I know getting married in a rush. At the same time, I just performed a marriage for a couple of 22-year olds this summer that I am absolutely ecstatic for. They are sane, solid, stable, and have embarked on a wonderful adventure: they get to find out who they are together. They can still do the vast majority of the 23 things on that list, and, honestly, the rest of them aren’t worth engaging.

Let me put it this way: I didn’t marry my wife because I knew exactly who I was, or entirely knew who she was. I married my wife because I knew enough about her that I wanted to see the woman she is going to become, and want to be there for it. What’s more, I want her to be there as I grow and develop. I know that I’m a better man because I have been “finding myself” alongside of her for the last few years instead of apart from her. Now, the catch is, in our case one of the reasons I wanted to be with McKenna is because I knew she wouldn’t want me to find myself in her, but would always point me to Jesus. Still, my marriage hasn’t gotten in the way, but it has helped me keep on the way.

Actually, to follow up, one of the big issues that can plague later marriages between two people who have been single during this crucial developmental period is that you get so settled in your ways, so calcified in “being yourself” apart from the person you’re looking to marry that you don’t have the emotional elasticity it takes to make a marriage work. When I married my wife, I didn’t have 30 years of single guy habits build up around the way I did things, or thought of myself that I had to kill in order for a marriage to a sane woman to put up with me (although, McKenna is still a saint for putting up with me.)

Thing is you never marry someone who is a “perfect fit.” You’re always going to have to make compromises, sacrifices, and grow in order to make this thing work. I am not saying that you can’t develop the character traits you need to make this work if you’re single in your twenties. What I am saying is that it’s not at all obvious that you ought to stay single longer in order to be ready for marriage. For some people it might be a good idea. For some of us, getting married is what has to happen.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I wrote this in a bit of a rush, but here are two resources to check out:

1. The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller – This is my go-to book for understanding the purpose and practice of marriage. It’s simply beautiful.

2. Premarital Sex In America by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker – This study published by Oxford University press is where I’m getting my sociology. It’s exhaustive and well-sourced.

32 thoughts on ““23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23”, And Other Myths

  1. I also want to say thank you for writing this! I have a hard time expressing my opinion, especially when posts like 23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23 get me all flustered. I like your version much better!

  2. You’re more mature than I was at your age. I wanted to marry all of my long-term girlfriends starting at about age 20. The problem is I also got into relationships with women that I thought needed me to be their messiah and women who were “exotic” but didn’t share my values. Thankfully, God intervened sometimes dramatically. My aunt actually pulled one of my girlfriends aside and said you’re not the one for him. I didn’t speak to her for two years. But then I met the one He had saved me for. But it’s absolutely true that this whole “Figure out who you are before you get married” thing is nonsense.

    • HA! Sounds like I’d like your aunt. But seriously, it’s a range. People are at different spots. the thing that chafed me about the article was, well, all the stuff I wrote about, as well as the clearly mean tone towards all her peers that had gotten married early. Struck me as Nietzchean ressentiment.

  3. Pingback: My Response to “23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23″ | Cheeky Reality
  4. Thanks for speaking truth Derek. As a single 24-year-old I can sometimes fall into this trap of pessimism toward young married couples because it seems like if I have to wait they should too! Haha. But I was thinking about this topic this weekend (before reading this) and came to the conclusion that I will never “be ready” or “be as spiritually mature as I want to be” before getting married because we are all constantly in process and growing. It helped release some of the pressure and pessimism I was feeling toward dating and marriage. I appreciate you sharing your perspective and insight!

    • Katrina,

      Great to hear from you. I’m glad this was an encouragement. It can be tough out there, and Lord knows I’ve had my cynical moments too. But God is faithful and gracious. I’m glad this post helped.

      D

    • Enjoyed your response. Thank you very much for this.

      And Mr. Rishmawy, thank you for your writing as well. 🙂 Both of you made my day!

  5. Good information. I would only add this to all the wisdom and sound thought you bring to the decision of “when,” and “whom” to marry: While your situation is “ideal,” having chosen a woman who brings out the best in you, and vice versa, God can be glorified and spouses can grow tremendously in situations that we might be tempted to think (were we not to view God as sovereign) as “mistakes.” God shows up in our weakness and desperation in the difficult circumstances of our lives…sometimes difficult marriages being one of those situations. I am NOT thinking of abuse here, want that to be clear, but too often, marriages that took place in the naïveté of youth are written off (sometimes even among Christians) as errors that God would surely understand us extracting ourselves from. How little credit we give God. When Isaac blessed Jacob, even though it was a “mistake” because of Jacob and Rebecca’s trickery, the blessing, the vow, the covenant still held. How often we minimize God’s dealing with the covenental bond that is marriage, and how we minimize His ability to be glorified in our weakness, even of it’s just one spouse alone who is committed to seeking His guidance to navigate a difficult marriage.

  6. I haven’t read the original article but it sounds like it would only make me mad. My husband was 24 and I was 22 when we got married, and we just celebrated our second anniversary. Derek, I particularly like your point about how we are constantly growing and changing, and that we won’t be the same person in 3 or 5 years whether we’re married or not. I could never have dreamed of the ways that my husband and I would change in only two years as we have been sanctified through our marriage. I also wouldn’t trade these past two years for any of the more “exciting” things that American culture likes to say that 20-somethings should do before getting married.

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  8. As a 29 year old having just gotten engaged to a 20 year old this article resonates with me, especially as we have had some negative reaction for the reasons you address above.

    1) I do not love her for the woman I hope she will be 5 years from now, I love her for the mature and Godly woman that she is now, while being fully aware that both of us will grow and mature as we grow older together.

    2) Some have tried to dissuade her from “throwing her youth away”, though she thinks of it as spending her youth with the man she loves.

    3) Many people who married young and divorced, automatically project their experience onto other people. While it would be unwise to completely ignore their experiences and concerns it is not fair to assume that their experience will my own.

    This article put to words many of my thoughts and feelings of the last week. Thank you!

  9. What a great article! You’ve highlighted a lot of thoughts I had about the article. I just wrote a post about it myself but more on the side of how marriage and engagement does not mean the end to life experiences or growing as a person. I’m going to link this post at the end of it so people can refer to it 🙂

  10. Pingback: Younger than 23 and Engaged…Whoops | Wise Woman in Training
    • Christie,

      Thanks for the kind words as well as for pointing me to your blog. You have an excellent alternative list that I hope more people pay attention to. Thanks for stopping by.

      D

  11. Great post. My wife and I got married at 22 and 19, respectively, and now it’s coming up on thirteen years later (with our fourth kiddo due next week) and we’ve never been happier. I hadn’t read the “23 things” article before, but my wife and I have had conversations about those ideas a lot lately–it seems like, especially among middle and upper-middle class educated young people, there’s an assumption that your twenties are a time when you get to be selfish. Where did that idea come from?

    I see my peers who think they are owed a “me decade” finally getting married and it’s so often a complete disaster–a decade of self-centeredness does the opposite of preparing you for marriage. Not to mention the problems with just beginning to have kids in your thirties or forties.

    I’m certainly not saying that you should never marry late–many people wait for perfectly good reasons. But marrying late because you believe you are owed a decade of self-centeredness and “finding yourself” is incredibly destructive for so many reasons.

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