Imogen and Ben got married when they were 19 and 20. Can modern teenage love turn into happy ever after?
Lucy is 24. Is it sensible to tie the knot so young? In this episode, she meets couples who have taken the plunge even younger and investigates what it takes to make a marriage work when you're so young.
Note: If you thought that racism played a part in people's reactions to both Imogen and Daniel's desire to marry, yeah - me too. We'll look at that in a future episode. If you would like to talk about the intersections of race and marriage, please get in contact with the show!
*Corrections to this episode: The divorce rate is 37% not 42% (hopeful!) and Imogen and Ben met at 14 and 15, not 15 and 16.
Thank you to this episode's guests!
Ben, Imogen and Daniel
Sources used in this episode:
Music used in this episode:
Study and Relax
Into Your Arms
Full Episode Description:
In this episode, Lucy introduces Knot Ready and asks if she is too young to get married.
She starts by explaining why she wanted to make the show:
Every year, almost half a million people tie the knot in the UK and next year I will be one of them! But although I am excited, I feel like my decision to get married is somewhat uninformed. Apparently there are rational reasons to tie the knot, but I haven’t thought about them or factored them in! This decision was based primarily on Say Yes to the Dress, Don’t Tell the Bride and the modern day equivalent to the Disney movie: the YouTube proposal video.
Ok, it runs deeper than that - getting married is really important to me, but when I think about it, I can’t tell you why. Marriage used to be something that everyone did, and that you had to do - especially if you wanted any power or financial security as a woman. Now it feels almost anachronistic. Marriage is patriarchal, it trades women between men like cattle. Until recently it was almost universally homophobic. Today same-sex couples are still excluded from marriage by many states and religious institutions. Also, that whole marriage is forever thing? Henry VIII abolished that fairytale in 1533.
Plus deciding to get married isn’t an open and shut case. I now have all these decisions to make - should I change my surname? Should I wear white? Is my engagement ring a sign of my ownership by a man? How do I make sure I’m not being a bridezilla while managing a huge occasion wrought with familial expectations? Honestly it’s enough to make you elope.
So here we are. This podcast is my vessel for trying to get some answers. I don’t want to just turn up to my marriage - I want to know what I’m signing up to and investigate this choice that I and others have made. What does marriage mean in the 21st century, and what choices do we have when we enter into it? Each episode will dive into a different topic surrounding marriage and investigate its political and personal implications today. Along the way I’ll be talking to a host of wonderful different people to find out their experiences of marriage and the choices they have made in their own lives. And maybe I’ll work out why I want to get married too.
She then begins her investigation into the topic of whether she is too young to get married.
Ok, here is a list of things that I feel too young to do: ...get a dog. It pains me but I’m just not ready.
She starts by looking at the statistics on marriage, and learns that the mean age for marriage is in your late 30s, but that this figure has risen significantly over time.
In 1976, over a quarter of all women were married by the age of 20 with the stragglers most likely married off by 30. Only 9% of women dared to enter their 30's without a ring on their finger. The average age of marriage was just under 23 for women and just over 25 for men.
She discovers that in the last few decades, this statistic has flipped. Now those who get married before 30 are in the minority. Lucy will be 25 when she gets married. She falls in the one third of women who get married between 25 and 29.
Lucy then looks at what it means to get married young. She starts by looking at 'starter' marriages, a term coined in 1994 to describe a trend of marriages between people in their twenties, who got married then divorced fairly quickly. Despite changing social norms, which mean a period of cohabitation before marriage is now societally acceptable, this trend of early divorces has continued. Lucy explores why this might be.
There are lots of reasons why marriages come to an end, but it feels very unsurprising that marriages entered into by very young people fall apart. Your 20's are a time of discovery and change; studying, embarking on careers, living independently, travelling the world and exploring new ideas. Values and ideals, hobbies and interests, aspirations and hopes - it’s all up for grabs. Neurologically speaking, your brain is still developing, and according to a BBC article a young person’s “emotional maturity, self-image and judgement will be affected until the prefrontal cortex of the brain has fully developed” at age 25. Not to mention that anyone getting married young is potentially in for a much longer haul than people who marry later. Diamond wedding anyone?
Lucy asks why people are still marrying young and what it's like for people who do.
To find out, I had to find a young couple. And I’m not talking twenties young, I’m talking young. Teenager young.
She interviews Imogen and Ben who got married at 19 and 20 respectively. They met at a Church youth club and got chatting. When they realised they liked each other, they had to pretend to be just friends as Imogen's parents didn't want her dating too young. After a year, they started going out officially and talking about marriage.
Ben: We very much had a conversation that went what is the purpose of this relationship for us. Is it just two people hanging around and existing together as two teenagers falling in love or is it something you want to be part of your life forever. And I had always seen the purpose of a relationship to be to find your partner. I intend to marry someone at some point. I had always assumed that that would be something that happened. If this relationship is that then this is earlier than I expected.
When Ben eventually proposed, they had already decided together that it was going to happen and discussed it at length. They had also told their parents.
Ben: We brought up to them the first time and they were like no way, now is not a good time.
Imogen: They wanted to wait until you’d finished uni to see if we could do the long distance thing.
Ben: Around Christmas time we were like, we’re not going to wait that long and we think we’ll probably get engaged some time soon.
They got engaged just before Christmas. They were 18 and 19. When they announced their engagement, they got a lot of shocked and curious reactions. The responses were different for Ben (who is white) and Imogen (who is mixed race).
Imogen: I think we got very different responses, if I said or Ben said or we were apart.
Ben: If I brought it up, I got, oh you’re very young, why? Why are you making this decision? How do you know?
Imogen: The problem is because I’m mixed race people view me very differently. I'd say and they'd be like is it arranged? Is it cultural? Is it because you’re religious? And I would be like, no it’s because I love this person.
Lucy reflects that from her point of view, knowing Ben as a vicar's son, she had assumed that they had married for religious reasons. Ben and Imogen point out that their faiths are important to them, as Christians, but that religion wasn't the driving force behind getting married. They had some other reasons. For example:
Imogen: I’m very much a pros and cons person so I was tables and statistics for everything.
Ben: Which was rather lovely because I am scientifically minded is how one of my family put it. Statistical info will definitely impact how I feel about something.
Imogen: University was an opportunity to live together. We read studies on cohabiting and statistically it didn’t produce as good outcomes. We just fancied getting married over that.
Ben: I mean, why not? Getting married young has bad outcomes but when you look at the statistics with more nuance, getting married young is then no different to getting married older.
Lucy looks at the research on young marriage and cohabitation before marriage on the likelihood of divorce. She finds that marrying young is associated with increased relationship breakdown but that those who get married are more likely to stay together than those who don't. She also finds that marrying young is correlated with other divorce risk factors, like recklessness, financial insecurity and a lack of higher education, which a young couple could mediate. Ben and Imogen had the risk factor of marrying young, but not many of the others.
Ben: I never found an argument why not to. I love you we have similarly aligned long term goals: kids, careers,
Imogen: We both want to live here in Wales.
Ben: Yeah, live in a similar fashion. So it made sense.
Ben and Imogen then talk about telling Imogen's parents of their plan to get married.
Ben: We had a discussion in which we were intending to get married. This wasn’t me asking for their permission! It wasn’t ignoring their opinion, but I didn’t want it to come from a place of a man asking for a woman’s hand in marriage. That felt a bit odd; that’s not what we are. So it wasn’t me asking, it was us saying this is what we’ve decided we hope you’re ok with this.
Ben and Imogen's youth meant that they had to assert themselves to their parents and they couldn't always control the interactions they had in making this decision. Lucy wonders if they were parented through this transition. They definitely received a lot of parental advice.
Ben: Your first responsibility is always to your partner. That was something my family pushed for me to understand. I’m the oldest sibling and oldest cousin. I’ve always felt responsible for everyone but Mum said no, your responsibility is now to Imogen.
They also got advice from other sources, people who were invested in the decision of this young couple and wanted to check they were making the right decision.
Ben: I got to talk to a lot of people. Some said marrying young was the best thing they ever did, some had very different experiences. We have a massive advantage in that that wealth of knowledge and experience, I got to talk to a lot of people about it which helped.
Ben and Imogen, whether because of this advice or because of their own natures, have taken an incredibly mature approach to marriage.
Ben: Don’t do it if you can’t talk to that person. Don’t do it if you can’t talk to that person when you are highly emotional because you’re going to spend a hell of a lot of time together. There will be terrible days when terrible days are dropped on you and if you can’t communicate what you need to it’s going to get difficult very very quickly. Where relationships haven’t worked is where they’ve allowed silence to fill their relationship.
Imogen: Because if you keep talking, you're going to grow together. It's only if you stop communicating that things will fall apart.
Lucy reflects that she was humbled talking to Ben and Imogen, as they clearly put a lot of work into their relationship.
While most people spend their late teens and early twenties becoming responsible for themselves, they have had twice the work: becoming responsible for themselves and to each other.
She then decides to talk to someone whose relationship didn't work out.
Daniel*: I got married when I was 19 but I have been separated for a year.
Daniel is Venezuelan and he met his American-Canadian ex-wife on Instagram. After talking for a year or so online, Daniel took a flight from Argentina, where he was living, to America to meet her.
Daniel: We met in an airport. She actually spotted me pretty quickly. I was in rural New York so everyone was white except me. I remember we had this massive hug, showing off. That's still one of my favourite memories, seeing her for the first time.
They realised pretty quickly it wasn't going to be a normal teenage relationship. They would need visas to live together in either America or Argentina, and to get visas they were going to need to get married. They decided to live in America because Daniel's ex-wife couldn't speak Spanish, and at first loved living together.
Daniel: Well the relationship was good at first. You know how some young people want to party and sleep with lots of people? That had never appealed to me, so it was nice to have a best friend to do things with.
But despite their connection, there were some problems from the start of their marriage. Daniel's ex-wife's family did not support them.
Daniel: We had a really small wedding. My family are all in different countries, so only my dad and little sister came. Her family did not attend. Her whole family was in the states and Canada but they just didn’t come.
She was going to study medicine in Canada but she decided instead to be with me and become a nurse in the US, and her family didn't like that choice. But they also had a problem with me being from Venezuela. I remember one of her family members saying. “Why couldn’t you just find yourself someone from the United States or Canada?”
Nationality was a huge issue, with some of his wife’s family accusing Daniel of only marrying to get a green card, something he vehemently denies. This lack of support drove a wedge between Daniel and his wife’s family. If someone held a family gathering, she would have to go without him, and the rest of the time, they were cut off. She would have to go long periods without seeing her family.
The issues with family and between the two of them escalated over time.
Daniel: She would get really sad about not being a doctor, and I'd feel bad because that was due to me. She can't be a doctor because of me! I couldn’t give her what her rich family could give her. We both had good jobs but you can't compare that to a whole family. I also couldn’t go to uni because immigration takes a long time and I was getting kind of frustrated because I wanted to start my career.
It came to a head when Daniel expressed a doubt in their marriage.
Daniel: We had some huge fights. One day I said maybe it’s a bad idea and it spiralled out of control.
After a final blazing row, his wife left on New Year's Eve and returned home to her family. Their marriage was over.
Daniel: I remember I didn’t eat for four days.
It also wasn’t as simple for Daniel. When his marriage fell apart, so did his visa application. He no longer had a right to be in America. He couldn’t go home to Venezuela - the situation there was too dangerous, so he spent the next few months trying to find somewhere to live. He eventually managed to seek asylum in Argentina.
It took a long time for Daniel to rebuild his life in Argentina. Now a year separated, he reflects on whether marriage was the right choice.
Daniel: If we had been from the same country we would have been boyfriend and girlfriend for longer. We both cried when we got married it was very genuine. It was quicker but it was still heartfelt and beautiful. I don’t believe us getting married. It did something to the relationship because her family were not on board. But it cemented our love and trust for each other.
But ultimately, for Daniel it was the right choice, it came down to this:
Daniel: It wouldn’t have worked out without getting married.
Daniel’s relationship with his ex-wife wouldn’t have got as far as it did without marriage, and he doesn’t regret pursuing it.
Back in Argentina, Daniel pursued therapy to help him move on from his divorce.
The therapist explained to Daniel that he had a condition called emotional dysregulation disorder and taught him tools to cope with this condition, to exert more control over his emotions and express himself in healthy ways.
Daniel cites therapy for helping him feel better and recommends it to anyone considering marriage.
Daniel: Obviously we all make mistakes and the only good thing that came out of divorce was I have grown a lot and I started therapy and got diagnosed. Therapy has done wonders to give me the tools to cope with my disorder. I have the tools and experience of a long term relationship. I'm understanding tolerant less deal breakers. If someone is going to get married, do therapy by yourself and know yourself first.
Ben and Imogen have also spent some time on emotional development as part of their marriage. It's important to them to keep channels of healthy communication open when they are upset or frustrated.
Imogen: It’s tough at first. When you're a kid you go away and have a little think, but eventually it becomes second nature.
Ben: Don’t expect it to come all at once. Most people don’t understand why they haven’t developed beyond a toddler. I didn’t develop until Imogen pointed out my emotions weren’t healthy. And I was like I know that but I didn't know how to improve, and actually working through the toddler system. It was like taking some breaths - I could actually do that, that's something I could do! I worked on it.
Imogen: Me too!
Ben: That's true. We've come a long way. We’ve both developed in our capacity to use our words.
If you’re going to marry young, you’re up against your own immaturity, your own inability to communicate as well as you’d like or to express your emotions. You’re going to have to work on that.
Daniel is now doing a lot better.
He’s working on a sci-fi novel and has plans to move to Australia in the next few years!
Lucy reflects on whether Daniel and his wife would have stayed together had they been older.
We saw earlier how issues like jealousy, which clearly caused problems in their relationship, are associated with marrying young. I would also argue that something like family disapproval is probably easier to withstand as you get older, or at least older people will have the maturity to decide whether it is something they can cope with before taking the plunge. And maybe Daniel's ex-wife would have been better able to weigh up the decision she was making, between her career and him, if she'd been older. Mental illnesses, like Daniel’s emotional dysregulation disorder, are associated with higher rates of divorce in all age brackets, but when he got married Daniel didn’t even know he had a mental health problem, let alone how to manage it in the context of a marriage.
Maybe a few more years of self knowledge and maturity would have helped this young couple to stay together. But then divorce still happens when people marry older. Ultimately, we’ll never know. They got married young, and they got divorced.
Lucy reflects that sometimes young divorce is seen as no big deal, but points out that this is anything but the case.
These are serious relationships and their ending is dragged out by legalities. To quote that 1994 article on starter marriages: "People think these are disposable marriages, that you just waltz out. Oh my God, who waltzes out of a marriage?"
Daniel reflects on what it feels like to be divorced.
Daniel: If you are going through a divorce and you’re young, my heart goes to you I know how tough it is. From myself, I feel like a complete failure. I just feel sad. I just can’t believe I’m divorced. I thought we were going to have kids and grow old. But no, that's not the case!
I don’t think I could get married again. I took my vows seriously. I can remember looking into her eyes and saying you know, I do, and I can’t imagine doing that again.
When you’re together, enjoy yourselves. I get kind of sad because. I got complacent towards the end. We weren’t unhappy by any means but I got complacent. For example, she always wanted to go-- she had never been to the beach because she grew up in the mountains. I never took her to the beach and that haunts me.
Lucy finishes by considering her question.
In a 2014 YouGov poll, more than 1 in 4 married people surveyed described their spouse as their first love and the findings are good for these relationships. People in these first love marriages are more likely to describe themselves as definitely still in love with their partner, to have never thought about leaving and to see themselves as being together until death.
Couples who marry young have a higher divorce rate than couples who marry later, but that doesn’t mean disaster is inevitable. Talking to Ben and Imogen can sound like listening to a relationship textbook at times and of course it’s easier to mention good advice than to put it into practice, but if you ask me? It’s a pretty good start. The work they have put into their communication and emotional development is huge, but it seems proportionate to the mammoth commitment they have taken on. Best case scenario, they have 50, 60, maybe even 70 years ahead of them! If you’re mature enough to take on that work, marriage might be right for you. If not? Ah, give it a few years.
So my question: Am I too young to marry? Statistically no - I’m getting married in that sweet spot just after 25. Plus Sam and I both have our degrees, thank you very much. But after talking to Ben, Imogen and Daniel, I’m not taking this lightly. Many marriages between young people don’t work out, and that separation comes with the hefty weight of being divorced. I don’t want to be complacent about my marriage, I want it to work, so I’m going to take their advice and work on myself - on using my words and my inside voice.
Are young people who get married doomed to divorce? No. It’s more likely than at other ages but when they work these marriages can be strong, lifelong bonds. All we can do is try our best.
*Some names have been changed.