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March 25, 2013 7:31 AM Marriage as a Cornerstone Rather than a Capstone

By Keith Humphreys

Karen Swallow Prior makes the case for getting married young and thereby having the relationship be the cornerstone of adult life rather than its capstone. Her own experience:

Looking back over a marriage of nearly three decades, I am thankful that I married before going down that road. Now as a college-educated, doctorate-holding woman, I can attest that marrying young (at age 19) was most beneficial: to me, to my husband, and to the longevity of our marriage. Our achievements have come, I am convinced, not despite our young marriage, but because of it.

I don’t doubt that she is correct about her own life. If it works out, an early-in-life marriage makes you far more likely to have lasting financial, mental and physical health.

The critical words though are “if it works out”. Divorce is typically a severe economic hit and good grief can it be nasty (Pryce and Huhne are the current leading candidates for the “most horrific marital crackup of the year” award, but don’t doubt that stiff competition will arrive soon). And of course you are more likely to endure the costs of divorce if you get married young. People face the decision about whether to “cornerstone” ex ante; post hoc everything looks simpler than it is.

Those who favor the capstone approach also have an ex ante/post hoc challenge. Someone at 22 can say “I will do this for a few years, then take a graduate degree in that, acquire this, spend a decade establishing a career in that, experience this and then get married at age 38″, all of which sounds logical, simple and appealing up front. But it can be incredibly hard to find what you consider a suitable mate once your life is fully constructed, something I have termed the “Grandma’s lamp” problem.

Capstoners are gambling just like cornerstoners, hoping that their choice will look as wise post hoc as it seems ex ante. We can all cite individuals who went down one path or the other and had a good outcome. We can do the same for individuals who made the identical choice and had a bad outcome.

Given how idiosyncratic it all is and that each of us votes not for a universal public policy on this issue but only for ourselves, it may be best to have no standing position on cornerstoning versus capstoning in the absence of personally relevant information about yourself and the person you may or may not decide to marry.

Which is another way of saying that your mother and I would like it if you went out on dates more often.

[Originally posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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