Young couple defies marriage trends

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Story, video and graphics by Emily Nohr, NewsNetNebraska

Couples who marry at a young age – like Matthew and Ashley Brittingham – buck marriage trends in Nebraska and nationally.

The two University of Nebraska-Lincoln students dated for more than a year before marriage talks grew serious.

After a lot of thought and input from friends and family, Matthew, a religious studies major, popped the question. Ashley, an English major, said yes.

Despite their age, financial situation and rigorous schedules filled with school, college activities and part-time jobs, the two were ready to start a life together.

“We thought, ‘Why wait?’” he said.

They wed in 2010. Matthew was 20; Ashley, 19.

But statistics indicate that they are an anomaly. Nebraska and national trends show that the marriage age has increased steadily through the last 20 years.

In 1979, brides were, on average, 20 years old, and grooms were 22. Now, Nebraska brides and grooms typically are ages 24 and 25, according to a 2009 Nebraska Vital Statistics report.

Some studies suggest the marriage age is dependent on economics and peoples’ opportunity to higher education.

But economics can’t explain inconsistencies seen in the marriage age during the past 100 years, said Cody Hollist, University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of child, youth and family.

“What you might not know is that the age at first marriage was 25 for women and 23 for men in 1900,” he said.

After that, Hollist said, the marriage age dipped until the 1950s. Then, it leveled off.

Through the 1960s, the marriage age climbed.

Marriage trends in Nebraska through the years by percent
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Source: Nebraska 2009 Vital Statistics Report

National statistics suggest that marrying young today is rare. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 6 percent of brides will marry by age 18, while 2 percent of grooms will marry by 18.

By age 25, 50 percent of women will be married and by age 27, 50 percent of men will be married, the center said.

But statistics tell only part of the story about marriage-age trends, Hollist said.

“No one really knows what combination of things drives the marriage age,” he said. “There are probably individual reasons (the couples) use in their decision to marry that makes sense for them.”

For Matthew and Ashley, now 22 and 21, their choice to marry came after seeing several of their own friends tie the knot. The couple observed that their friends’ struggles were familiar of many couples: Balancing time, other friends and finances.

“But they made it,” Ashley said. “We knew we could, too.”

Often times, Hollist said, people assume that a young marriage age is the cause of poor marriage quality and higher rate of divorces. In Nebraska, however, divorces have spiked even though couples are marrying at an older age.

Nebraska marriages and divorces (per 1,000 estimated population)
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Source: Nebraska 2009 Vital Statistics Report

Those findings prove that young brides and grooms aren’t necessarily less happy or more likely to divorce, Hollist said. And while a young marriage age may be confusing for some people to understand, he said, studies show that age plays a small role in a couples’ overall happiness.

“The research that looks at marital quality has found that age is far less important,” Hollist said.

Today, Matthew and Ashley have been married just less than a year and a half. They admit they’ve had their struggles. The first year was tough – tougher than they had both imagined.

They’ve learned while their personalities mesh well, their interests are very different.

He enjoys sports and reading. She likes knitting, cooking and practicing guitar.

“Sometimes, if we’re doing our hobbies in the same rooms, that’s enough,” Matthew said, laughing.

Still, the good days outweigh the bad, Ashley said.

“We’re each others’ best friends.”