I Got Married Young — & People Won't Stop Marriage-Shaming Me

Photographed by Winnie Au.
I got married when I was just 22. Contrary to what cynical New Yorkers might think, there are still some small towns in Kentucky where crazy kids in love do that. So far, it’s worked out for me (we just celebrated seven years of marriage), but I know it doesn't for many young couples. The reason I know that is because when you’re engaged at age 20, everyone from your best friends to the customers you wait on during your Tuesday night server gig will tell you: “You’re too young,” “You’re missing out,” “You’re making a mistake,” or “It won’t work out.”

I’m not kidding — those are all real things people have said to me since I got engaged nine years ago. One man, whom I’d just met and with whom I was on an informational interview, told me, “You’ll probably get divorced.” Another time, I was interviewing a woman over the phone for a column I was researching, and I received a half-hour lecture on why I'd regret adding my partner's last name to my own, "especially since it might not work out."

To be clear, I wasn’t going around telling these people, “Look! I’m engaged! I’m married!” Rather, the dismissive feedback usually came from a person who’d noticed my ring, or my two last names, and then felt entitled to let me know what they thought about them. Throughout our two-year engagement, and for years after we were married, I was embarrassed to reveal my relationship status for fear of being shamed. I avoided the words “fiancé” and "husband" like the plague. Sometimes, I went so far as to remove my ring or turn it around so as to not draw unwanted attention. It’s not that I didn’t love my partner — I did, and still do. But I already had complicated views on marriage before I got hitched (we’ll get to that), and I just wasn't up to defending a choice I knew I was being judged for. A choice I'd have judged anyone else for making.

I avoided the words 'fiancé' and 'husband' like the plague. Sometimes I went so far as to remove my ring or turn it around so as to not draw unwanted attention.

It’s really not surprising that we look at young marriage with such disdain — most of the things we hear about it are negative. For example, Olivia Wilde has said that marrying her Italian Prince ex when she was just 19 “stunted” her growth. Reese Witherspoon, who married Ryan Phillippe when she was 23 — a year older than I was when I got married — blames their divorce, at least in part, to their being “ridiculously young.” I’m not trying to discount what these women are saying; I’m merely pointing out that we tend to only hear about the young marriages that don’t work out, and it creates a bias. Young marrieds are basically working with two narratives: the crazy-in-love/impulsive kidults who eventually learn the error of their ways and divorce (see above/the whole “starter marriage” phenom), or the super-religious couples who are just naïve and really, really want to have sex (see FYI Network’s show Teenage Newlyweds). And even though I don’t identify with either of those stereotypes, people have long since judged me based on those constructs.

Of course, there are some compelling statistics against marrying young. Like everyone else in the English-speaking world, I’m aware of the popular belief that approximately half of marriages end in divorce (though recent data suggests that the more accurate estimate is closer to one third). So I understand why some people would think it’s helpful to discourage young couples from rushing into a legally binding contract. But the thing is, the age at which you marry isn't that big of a deal when compared to other factors, like how much you make or whether you graduated from college, both of which play more significant roles in how likely your marriage is to last, according to a 2012 report from the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project.

And since decent human beings would never say, “Oh, you make under $50,000? You don't have a bachelor's degree? You're too poor and uneducated to get married,” why do people think it’s okay to shame me for marrying young? Plus, having a baby before saying "I do" presents the exact same divorce risk as getting hitched early, yet because the former is more common — the average woman is 27 when she marries for the first time, but is 26 when she gives birth for the first time — people seem to feel better about hating on baby-faced newlyweds than couples who put the baby carriage first. In a perfect world, partners in both scenarios would receive the love and support they need to be successful, rather than criticism that will pile onto any disadvantages they may already be facing.

I’ll be honest. Until I got engaged, I was like you: secretly judging the couples I knew or had heard about who were marrying early. I was especially hard on the women, whom I wrote off as being unambitious, dependent types (did I mention that I’m the worst?), so I guess I can thank karma for what I went through once I got engaged. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my husband didn’t experience any of the same negativity that I did. Part of that is his upbringing; he’s from an evangelical Christian family, so he grew up attending the weddings of individuals who were too young to legally rent a car. To him, getting engaged when you’re 20 and 23 is normal and something to be celebrated, not defended. Even his friends — frat bros who couldn’t imagine getting married themselves — were psyched for us. Meanwhile, I had people asking me, “Are you sure?” with the kind of concerned expression you’d give a drunk person who’s insisting that yes, she really does need a tiny feather tattoo. Like right now. And she knows a place that accepts walk-ins.

I’ll be honest. Until I got engaged, I was like you: secretly judging the couples I knew or had heard about who were marrying early.

I knew at least a few people expected we wouldn’t go through with it; my own father, just a month shy of the wedding, asked whether “this thing was for real” before he paid the final deposit on the reception venue. What he said was harsh, yes, but by that point, I’d already endured two years of rude questions and backhanded compliments, and nothing could shock me. I was numb. (Plus, I was grateful that my father was generous enough to help pay for our wedding, since my fiancé and I definitely couldn't foot the bill all on our own.)

One time, I was at a party and found myself chatting with two guys. Though the conversation couldn’t have lasted more than a few moments, I overheard someone behind us whispering loudly about whether “an engaged person should be acting like that.” To this day, I’m not sure why this person cared what I was doing (I didn’t know her), but her comment embarrassed me so much that I excused myself and went home. I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong — obviously, we can all talk to whomever we want, married or otherwise. But at the time, there was a part of me that felt like I deserved all the ridicule, because I was doing something that pretty much everyone mocks.

To combat all the confusion and pent-up anger I was feeling at the time, I went comically and cruelly out of my way to prove my independence. At this point in our relationship, my fiancé and I were doing long-distance while he attended pharmacy school two hours away. Most couples hate long-distance; I loved it, because I didn’t have to try so hard to prove that we each did our own thing. When he offered to make the drive so we could spend Valentine’s Day together, I told him I already had plans with my friend Emma. If he called while I was out with friends, I’d let it go to voicemail and just text him goodnight instead. Before you start questioning my maturity here, let me point out that when your relationship is on the receiving end of that many bad vibes, it’s bound to mess with your head. As you can probably guess, my actions caused some problems between us. But my groom-to-be and I worked through them because we’ve learned to give one another the benefit of the doubt, we’re willing to make changes if it’s for the good of our relationship, and, among other things, we really, really love each other.

People often suggest that we “missed out” on certain things by getting married so young, which I have never understood. I’m generally a curious and adventurous person who’s up for trying new things; so is my now-husband, which is part of the reason I married him. The idea that either of us wouldn’t do something we wanted to do — travel, take a major career leap, move to a new city — because of our marriage is ridiculous and, frankly, insulting.

It’s also been said that getting married in your early 20s is a bad idea because you’re still “finding yourself,” which I’ll admit is half true. You are still finding yourself, but that could be said about any age because, as humans, we never stop evolving. The concern here needn’t be whether you or your partner will change from the person you were on your wedding day — that will happen no matter what, regardless of how old you are when you say “I do.” The real challenge, in any marriage, is committing to nurturing your relationship as both people grow and progress. That requires some work, yes, but I think marrying young actually makes it easier, because we haven’t yet become set in our ways. Maybe this sounds naïve (another perk of marrying young!), but I’ve found that when two people want the best for each other, you figure out a way to do the things that make you both happy.

I turned 29 a couple months ago, and while there are a few things about the end of my 20s that I’m currently mourning, finally reaching an age at which I no longer have to deal with people commenting on my marital status isn’t one of them. Now I can mention my husband or the fact that I’m married without any of the anxiety I once felt; my only regret is that it should have always been this way. Because there is no timeline that dictates “sow your oats here,” “discover yourself here,” “reach this salary here,” “get married here” — those sorts of deadlines are all arbitrary and, anyway, love doesn’t care about your plans. Sometimes the Real Deal comes along a little sooner than expected. And if that happens, we should all be open to it.

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