Don't Diss. But Do Discern.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every Valentine’s Day must be in want of a slew of Christian articles published on the topics of marriage, singleness, love and sex. This year, one caught my particular attention. ‘Don’t’ Diss the Early-Marrieds’ is authored by Alan J. Hawkins, Brad Wilcox and Jason S. Carroll and published by Christianity today.
Now, if you are reading a review or commentary on any given resource, it’s always best practice to have actually read the resource yourself. So, I’ll wait right here while you click the link above and do just that.
<Insert irritating wait music here>
Great. You’re back and now you know that the article’s bottom line is that
our broader culture and even the church could stand to be more supportive
’ of early-married couples (i.e., those who marry between the ages of 20-24 years). I have no intention of trying to persuade you to jettison that conclusion. I mean, it would take a pretty embittered individual to discourage support of any married couple let alone a young married couple, right? Marriage is to be honoured by all (Heb 3:14) and nobody’s marriage ought to be dissed.
But I do want to suggest that this article provides us with an opportunity to practice some discerning reading skills.
The Discerning Reader
Living in a world which constantly bombards us with information, articles, arguments, posts, commentary, debates, reviews, reflections and critiques, means it is way too easy for us to let everything just wash over us. It’s way too easy for us to allow reading to become a passive rather than an active process. It’s way too easy for us to react to an argument according to gut instinct, intellectual tribalism or celebrity cult mentality.
What is much more difficult, but also much more rewarding, is to practice the art of being discerning as readers. To be ready to ask questions of an author; to look underneath their words and uncover any unstated or unrecognised assumptions; to interrogate their argument in order to determine how steady it really is; to examine their logic for consistencies or contradictions.
I’m not saying that our posture as readers should be cynical. But it should be critical. As readers we should give authors the respect of approaching their argument as something worthy of our time, energy, mind and attention. And likewise authors should respect their readers by presenting an argument that pre-emptively honours and presumes upon efforts.
I found this article to be a good test case for practicing discerning reading. And so I thought I’d share with you what that looked like for me.
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”
OK. So that subheading is both a bit click-baity and an overreach. But still, it is useful shorthand to signal the way that statistics can too easily be used to bolster what may in fact not be a particularly strong analytical argument.
To their credit, the authors of this article aren’t suggesting that there is large statistical data to suggest that early-marriage (20-24 years of age) is an infinitely better option than later-marriage (25 years +). In fact the word they consistently use is ‘
slight’. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a narrative running through their use of the stats. For example, consider these two consecutive paragraphs:
To be sure, we found weak (mostly nonsignificant) evidence that capstone marriages are more stable than cornerstone marriages. In other words, waiting to marry was linked to slightly more marital stability. […]
But when it comes to marital quality, the story is more positive for cornerstone marriages, especially for men. We saw evidence that, on average, early-marrieds enjoy slightly higher marital quality than later-marrieds, as measured by such outcomes as relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction.
Did you notice the way that
’ statistical difference is presented in two different ways in those paragraphs? In the first, it is
’. In the second it is
’ of a
’ story. There is a narrative being crafted here and it is important for us to recognise and then interrogate that narrative to make sure it is fully justified.
When you look at the graphs in the article you see that it is reasonable to note a slightly heightened statistical difference between sexual and relationship satisfaction for husbands, and sexual satisfaction for wives in early-marriages compared to those in later-marriages. That’s worth noting and does seem to bolster their conclusion that those in early marriages report slightly higher satisfaction in those particular areas.
Nevertheless it is still important to observe the way that what they call
‘slight’ statistical differences are weighted differently in those two paragraphs above. For later-marriages they are mostly nonsignificant and easily dismissed. For early-marriages they hold more significance and tell a positive story.
Note also that slightly heightened sexual and relationship satisfaction are presented as direct evidence of
‘higher marriage quality
’ in early-marriages. Meanwhile, slightly heightened conflict resolution and marital stability (as per later-marriages) aren’t presented as factors which also contribute to same concept of
’. That is, the narrative being crafted seems to suggest that while sexual and relationship satisfaction determine the quality of marriage, conflict resolution and relational stability are irrelevant to a marriage’s quality but speak to something else entirely. What exactly that is, I’m not sure.
Finally, it is important to observe that the article doesn’t seem to provide the age and length of marriage at which these heightened responses were reported. Why would this be important? Well consider that different ages and stages of life bring different expectations and ways to measure sexual and relational satisfaction. For example, a 22 year old who has been married for 2 years and is still enjoying the “honeymoon” period is likely to evaluate his/her level of sexual and relational satisfaction somewhat differently than he or she might after 10, 20, 30 years of marriage, children, changing circumstances, life crises/tragedies, marital complexities and so on.
The Upshot: Do any of these reflections contradict the authors’ ultimate conclusion that statistics suggest that early-marriages is not of lower quality and stability than later-marriages? No they don’t. That seems to be a fair reading from the data. But a discerning reader will observe that the authors take the reported data further than it actually allows by concluding that “those marrying in their early 20s appear a little more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than those marrying later.” More definition, data, analysis and interpretation is needed to make that call.
Invisible Cultural Scripts
The authors posit that religious faith doesn’t seem to play a significant role in the positive experiences of early-marriage. While I haven’t delved deeply into the actual dataset themselves, I do note that one of the three studies they draw upon consisted of respondents who were 45% Protestants, 17% Catholics and only 17% no religion. This would seem to indicate that the respondent’s faith background is not entirely insignificant in the analysis. But in any case, the authors conclude:
It was not faith per se but something else that seemed to account for these differences […] Certain types of couples are more likely to select into younger marriages, and their distinctive values, relationship experiences, and traits likely figure into these patterns. This is especially true today, since those who marry in their early 20s do so because they want to, not because they have
to or because a strong cultural script pushes them in that direction.
They may be unusually dedicated to marriage—or to one another
The assertion that those who marry today in their early 20s do so without the influence of any strong cultural script seems entirely bizarre to me. I certainly can’t speak with any great insight into some cultural contexts in which early marriage might be somewhat prevalent (eg. specific racial, ethnic or other religious contexts).
However, I do have insight into one particular cultural context—evangelical Christianity—and let me assure you that there are most definitely strong evangelical scripts which push young Christians in that direction. If you need any evidence of that then take a look at the related/recommended link which appeared on my screen immediately following the assertion that there are no cultural scripts at work urging people towards early-marriage.
Now, please hear me. I’m not saying that early-marriage is wrong, unhelpful, bad, ungodly, unwise or anything like that. I’m not even saying that there isn’t a place for faithful bible-believing Christians to encourage their young counterparts to consider marrying in their early 20s (though I certainly think there is wisdom in us having a full, frank and faithful discussion about this). But for Christian authors to write to a Christian audience in a Christian publication and assert that those who marry young probably do so because they have some mysterious
‘unusual dedication to marriage’ rather than because they are influenced by any sort of strong cultural script seems at best naive and at worst disingenuous.
I mean, come on guys. For at least the last 60 years, evangelical Christianity has by and large insisted that marriage and parenting are the normative and aspirational goals of the faithful Christian life. Part and parcel of this has been a consistent, persistent and insistent script that Christians ought to think seriously about marrying young. Don’t believe me? Well look here and here and here and here and here and here. And those are just the first results on the first page of my Google search on the topic.
Yes, the times they are a’changing. Yes, like the rest of the western world, evangelicals are beginning to marry less and later. Yes, there is now some critique and commentary on the ‘Christian Ought to Marry Young’ script. But to suggest that the script is no longer operative or influential or a consideration is simply untruthful. Not only that but the non-existent cultural script is actually an invisible cultural script undergirding the very agenda of this article itself! Again, I’m not arguing that agenda is necessarily wrong or evil or harmful. But it should at least be visible.
The Upshot: A discerning reader will question assumptions in an argument, look for evidence of unsubstantiated and even false assertions within an argument and ponder the significance of those things for the sake of the argument.
Ahhh. That Good Old Trope.
I will admit that this final reflection was one that particularly irritated me. Why? Well because it is an annoying, unsubstantiated and tired old trope that I am dead set sick of.
So. Yeah. Brace yourselves.
Immediately after the authors suggested that perhaps some people marry young because
they may be unusually dedicated to marriage—or to one another
’, they continue on with this:
And later-marrying couples may have some significant challenges to surmount, such as the difficulty of forging a “we” identity after living for “me” for much of their early adulthood,
Ah. There it is.
Married Christians = selfless, other person centred individuals and “unusually dedicated to one another”
Unmarried Christians = selfish, me-centered individuals who pretty much live for themselves.
The trope is evidentially lazy, theologically flawed, and pastorally unkind. Because you know what makes us selfish? Hint: the answer sounds like singleness, but isn’t.
Sinfulness. That’s what makes us selfish.
You know something else? Married people are just as sinful as single people. There is no-one righteous. Not even one.
Now at this point I could spend a lot of time arguing this point by drawing upon a vast array of theological, pastoral and sociological research. But instead of using external data to show you why this trope has no place in the authors’ argument, let me instead use their own data to make my point.
We saw earlier that the two factors which the authors interpret to mean that people
marrying in their early 20s appear a little more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than those marrying later
’ is both sexual and relationship satisfaction. Now think about it for a moment. What do those two things have in common? They are the respondent’s perception of how satisfied THEY are in their marriage.
While the other two factors (conflict resolution and marriage stability) speak more to the “we” of marriage, sexual and relationship satisfaction (which score higher amongst early-marrieds) speak more to the “me” in marriage.
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? A little bit ironic, and yet I really do think…
But, no. Unlike the authors of this article I’m not going to argue that one group of people (and particularly Christians) live for themselves more than another group. But can you see how the very same data they rely on to bolster a case for why early-marriage is (slightly) better than later-marriage actively undermines their caricaturing of early-married people doing better at being a “we” than a “me”?
The Upshot: A discerning reader will look for the unspoken agendas and the (inadvertently?) smuggled in presumptions. They’ll note how and why they are being used and consider whether they are genuinely consistent with and substantially supportive of the argument being made or whether they are just tired old tropes which are long overdue for the dumpster.
In summary friends, read this article (especially if you didn’t read when I first asked you to. Naughty.).
Don’t diss it (or early-marriage). But do discern.
Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.