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Marry Early, And You May Not Have To Marry Often

By Jeff Smith

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  MY FAVORITE newspaper reporter, H.L. Mencken, was inclined toward cynical-sounding aphorisms. Mencken said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Pretty funny.

I don't think he was the guy who said, "Second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience," but that one's pretty funny too. Actually, though, it's first marriages I'd like to discuss, and the timing thereof. Last weekend I attended the wedding of Linda's daughter to her boyfriend.

Not Linda's, the daughter's. Bride and groom both are 19. They attended high school together, graduated together last year, started college together in Santa Barbara, quit college together, and have pretty much hung out together since. Whether they've got their shit together remains to be seen.

They don't have much by way of experience, but they've got a lot of hope.

My initial reaction when Linda called to tell me to watch my mailbox for an envelope full of envelopes was, "Lordy, aren't they awfully young?"

Which is true: They are quite young. Barely three years past the ideal age for marriage.

Think about it: How old were your parents when they got hitched? And how long did the marriage last? Admittedly, our parents' generation can't match the connubial endurance of matches made during our grandparents' era, but they've got us Baby Boomers beat all to hell. My own mother was 19 when she married my 21-year-old dad, and their marriage lasted 42 years, terminated only when Dad up and died. Among earlier generations, marriage among 15-year-olds, even pre-teeners, was not uncommon. But divorce was.

Why?

Because the time to get married--for the first time--is when you're young and dumb. I think 16 is about right. At least one member of the couple ought to have a driver's license.

You may have noted my observation that last weekend's newlyweds are short on experience and long on hope, and you may have thought this sounded corollary to the recipe for second marriages: Good call.

Successful unions share many things, regardless of age or other status. If it takes a triumph of hope over experience to give a second marriage a first chance, imagine how much better the chances of a first marriage, at a stage in life where bitter experience has not yet intruded to give either party second thoughts.

Plus you get to grow up together. This helps avoid a lot of misunderstandings down the shared road of life. A common history binds people together. It tends to create similar value systems. Consider for a moment the immortal line from Simon and Garfunkle concerning ways to leave your lover: "I like to sleep with the window open and you keep the window closed, so goodbye, goodbye, goodbye." It helps to begin sharing a bedroom window while you're still of pliant mind.

Is it mere coincidence that America's lowest divorce rates are found among the hills and hollows of Appalachia, where they marry young, and sometimes within the family? I think not.

When I was a boy growing into manhood, I had a bedroom window all to myself and no female siblings. Despite the fact that my folks both had come from large families and had married young (though they were not kin), my avowed intention was not to take my wedding vows until I was 36 years of age. My adolescence was a triumph of the superego over the id.

It wasn't until the full flower of my adulthood that hormones rendered me totally incapacitated.

Luckily, during my 20th summer I met a girl who made me stupid. Love took over and my fondest hope was to win her hand. What scant experience I had of affairs of the heart and loins had taught me nothing, thankfully. We were married when I was 22 and she 20, and we stayed that way for 23 years. We'd probably still be wedlocked were it not for the unfortunate fact that I live backward in time--growing more immature and hormonally driven with the years--while she grows wise with experience. And therefore skeptical.

But in the meantime we did the right thing:

We married before our biological clocks were into their second trip around, young and healthy and energetic enough to chase crawling children out of the household cleaning supplies. Young enough to have two good kids and get them grown and gone in time to have our own second childhoods.

There is method in this madness of putting boys and girls through puberty before they're old enough to drive, drink, vote or hire a lawyer.

Mother Nature doesn't care if we know enough to manage a household budget, open an IRA, or maintain the pH balance of a backyard pool before we couple: She only designs us to bear the strongest, most likely survivors for the species.

So by all means remember the words of Mencken, the wise old cynic from Chicago, who said vote early and vote often. But don't take them literally.

Marry early and you may not have to marry but the once.


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