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Poll unpacks marriage expectations

Results revealed gaps in the expected age of marriage across genders and sexual orientations

By the time Ananya Bhatia-Lin ’16 reaches age 30, she hopes to be married with children. Getting hitched, she figures, is a means to creating a stable, environment for starting a family, and doing so at a younger age will make her an active, energetic mother, she said.

And then there’s a simple biological fact.

“I’m very afraid that all my good eggs are drying out,” she said. “I’m not going to have the energy to be a mother if I’m like 45 and slightly menopausal.”

Bhatia-Lin’s view demonstrates the variety of factors weighing on undergraduates’ marriage expectations. These concerns figured prominently in student responses to the question “At what age do you expect to get married?” in an undergraduate poll conducted by The Herald Sept. 30-Oct. 1.

According to the results, about 48 percent of students expect to marry between the ages of 25 and 29, and about 28 percent of students expect to marry between the ages of 30 and 34.

Statistically significant differences in expected age of marriage were seen across gender and sexual orientation identities. These discrepancies may be tied to issues of child rearing, career viability and family history, according to both students and experts.

Planning for marriage quickly becomes a conversation about cultural values, social expectations and a shifting political environment.

Gender gaps

Fifty-nine percent of female undergraduates surveyed indicated they expect to be married before 29. Male undergraduates were less cohesive — 39 percent of males responded they expect to be married between the ages of 25 and 29 and 34 percent between the ages of 30 and 34.

This age gap in marriage expectations between men and women has historic roots, said Carrie Spearin, visiting assistant professor in sociology. Because men traditionally had more opportunities to attend college and pursue careers than women, males tend to get married later in life, she added.

“It doesn’t surprise me that much,” Spearin said. “The trend has been and continues to be that women get married at younger ages than men.”

Biological reproduction concerns for women could also explain this age gap, many students said.

“For me, I would expect to be married before 29 or else I wouldn’t be married,” said Enejda Senko ’15. “It’s the biological clock.”

“Thinking about evolutionary theory, men are going to want someone who is more fertile, so they are going to look for someone who’s younger,” Spearin said. “These are deeply ingrained in us. We don’t think about them, but they’re there.”

Other students said marriage signals the establishment of a family unit — with many citing 30 as the age at which they want to begin that process.

Mac Woodburn ’17 said he ideally hopes to marry by 30 because he would “be ready to start a family.”

Claire Walker ’16 plans to marry in her late 20s after completing medical school but before her residency program commences.

“I would probably say 27 or 28 or something before residency gets too hectic,” she said. “I think there’s a difference between getting married and having kids, too. … I want to get married a couple years before I have kids.”


Marriage markets

Americans of all gender identities are marrying at older ages, Spearin said. In 2010, the median age for marriage was 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women, according to a 2010 Time Magazine article. The median age of marriage for both genders has increased by approximately one year every decade since the 1960s, according to the article.

Spearin teaches SOC 0170: “The Family,” which examines how families function across cultures and the gender roles within them. Matrimony should be understood through the lense of a “marriage market,” which classifies marriage as an exchange of qualities and resources, she said.

“You see much more marital homogamy now,” Spearin said, referring to the tendency of those with similar cultural, educational and economic backgrounds to marry one another.

A couple’s earning potential has become “imperative” in the current state of the economy, she added. “So in the past you were seeing doctors marrying nurses, but now we see doctors marrying doctors. It’s not the way it was when you had that one person who could make that family income.”

Spearin said marriage is now a “capstone” event for modern, college-educated women — a milestone that comes after earning a degree and securing a well-paying job.

For Lindsey Hassinger ’16, tying the knot must be organized around her plans to attend nursing school, she said.

“My career is definitely important to me, so I’d like to have that solidified before settling down and getting married,” she added.

Spearin said peer expectations have a significant impact on the age a person chooses to marry. “You hit your late 20s and early 30s and you’ll go to a gazillion weddings in those years,” she said. “You kind of do what everybody else is doing. We’re very influenced by our connectedness.”


Queerly beloved 

Poll results also revealed an age gap in marriage expectations across sexual orientations. Respondents who identified as gay were more likely to answer with an older age than were heterosexual respondents.

Just over half of heterosexual respondents expected to marry between ages 25 and 29, while only 27 percent of gay students responded the same. Approximately 27 percent of heterosexual students responded between the ages 30 and 34, while 40.5 percent of gay students chose that age bracket.

The delay in marriage plans among gay respondents may be attributed to the fact that same-sex marriage is a relatively new legal option in American society, said John D’Emilio, a professor of history and women’s and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“(Same-sex marriage has) only really been dramatically and significantly in the public eye and American culture in the last five years or so,” D’Emilio said. “By contrast, the heterosexual students, as early as they can remember, have been aware of marriage as something a man and a woman (do).”

Tori James GS, who identifies as heterosexual, said she feels most straight women she knows hope to marry in their 20s. But the gay adults she knows do not necessarily plan on doing the same, she added.

“My brother is 31 and gay and still doesn’t want to get married for another five years,” James said.

Keil Oberlander ’15 identifies as gay and is from South Dakota, where same-sex marriage is not legal. He said he has only considered marriage as a serious option in light of the increase in the number of state legalizing same-sex marriage.

This age gap between heterosexual and gay respondents could also be explained by a largely heteronormative high school dating culture, D’Emilio said, adding that most heterosexual students “have lived around and participated in dating and going out for several years” by the time they are in college.

“(Gay students) have not had nearly the opportunity to socialize and date as heterosexual students have,” he said. “The raw material for marriage is more likely to come to them after they have become adults.”

D’Emilio said the biological restrictions many heterosexual couples face when planning a family are less concerning for same-sex couples, and because of this, gay couples can choose to marry at older ages.

“The so-called biological clock might lead to a somewhat earlier age for marriage for heterosexuals,” D’Emilio said.

For some queer students, marriage is part of a larger conversation about defecting from traditional narratives of the family, and tying the knot may not be the final, monogamous engagement in their romantic lives.

Adam Bennett ’16, who identifies as gay, said he wants to be married multiple times, adding that he hopes his last marriage will be the one that produces children, ideally before he is 35.


All in the family

Most survey respondents agreed that their parents’ experiences with marriage partly shaped their views on family planning.

A child’s household environment — particularly if it includes divorced parents — “will certainly affect whether or when you get married,” Spearin said.

Rachel Stern ’16 said she plans on dating her partner for “at least 10 years” before marrying to ensure her marriage will not end in divorce like her parents’ did.

“I’ve seen (marriage) not work out too many times,” Stern said. “I want to only get married once and have kids.”

Bennett agreed that his plan to marry multiple times is partially influenced by his divorced parents, who are both on their second marriage but “don’t regret their first.”

Ria Vaidya ’16, whose parents had an arranged marriage, is wary of the institution, she said.

“I just see it as very systematic and weird,” she said. “I think that I’m probably going to get married, have a child, get divorced and keep the kid and live my life like that. I think I would be a better parent by myself.”

Bhatia-Lin said her views on parenthood and marriage were shaped by her own active, involved parents, particularly her mother.

“She spent a lot of her time being my mother and a lot creative energy being my mother,” she said. “I think that’s definitely something that’s important to me — to create that space for my kids.”

Spearin said no single influence dominates the age at which a person marries. Rather, an “intersectionality” of “loading factors” determines marital decisions, she said.

“(It’s) this idea that race, class and gender are these three components that we really can’t tease out,” Spearin said. “In terms of marriage, we can look at men versus women, but these things are all kind of intertwined.”


Not interested

A minority of students did not express a desire to tie the knot — about 3 percent of respondents do not intend to marry at all.

“I don’t necessarily want to get married,” said Cellie Pardoe ’16. “I was never obsessed with planning my wedding and reading magazines when I was younger like I know some people were.”

“I do think the majority of people in general would get married as a romantic goal,” said Kwang Choi ’17. “But I’m not likely to get married.”

For other students, the decision remains up in the air at this point— nearly 15 percent said they were unsure at what age they expected to marry. Meeting that special someone, they figure, is not something that can be precisely coordinated.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to marriage,” Oberlander said. “It depends on if you find the right person.”


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