Not Married at 23? Don’t Have an Existential Crisis Just Yet.

“Abandon hope all ye’ who have passed the age of 23 and not found a spouse.”

That, in a nutshell, is the argument that launched a thousand opinion pieces on early marriages.

Writing last month in “The Daily Princetonian,” alumni Susan Patton urged young co-eds to get busy finding a husband before their chance at marriage passed them by.

What’s followed, over the past four weeks, has been a chorus of “yeas” and “nays” in just about every major news daily and magazine in the country, some arguing for earlier marriages, others arguing against. (See here, here, and here for a sampling)

The arguments are well-intentioned. People want to stem the growing tide of single adults not committing to a primary vocation (43 percent of the U.S. population and rising), not to mention the disintegration of family life; and age is an attractive hook on which to hang one’s hat. It’s a simple, concrete solution to say that everything would be better if more people married at 23…or 43.

But it’s not the right solution.

Some people should, of course, get married at 23. Others should wait until 43. Or 83. There’s much to be said for both earlier marriages (having babies and adjusting to life with another person are easier) and later marriages (they tend to end more in death and less in divorce).

But just saying, “Marry early” or “Marry late” isn’t helpful. It doesn’t address the real reasons people aren’t marrying, and it does little to solve the larger problems marriage faces. Remember, it was our early-marrying parents and grandparents who invented the no-fault divorce culture.

So why aren’t people marrying? Why is there this new kind of vocations crisis? And how is that feeding the larger crisis in marriage itself?

1. People are busy chasing after false gods.

Most of us grew up hearing that what would make us happy was money or power, fame or “stuff,” not cuddling babies or dying to self for the good of another. We also were told to put our education and careers first, to pursue what the world thinks impressive. But we weren’t told to pursue what God thinks impressive. We weren’t encouraged to bring him into the career planning and life planning process or taught how to discern his will for our life.

The results? Men and women who spend their lives trying to measure up to everyone’s expectations, save for the one Person whose expectations actually matter. Men and women who don’t know who God made them to be or how he wants them to live. Men and women who are trapped in careers for which they’re not suited, relationships that have turned destructive, and lives that aren’t leading them to joy.

Some of those people probably should have married at 23. Others should have become priests. Or missionaries. Or missionaries who then married at 35. But because God was never allowed into the equation, they followed the wrong path. All it takes to do an about face is to let him back in. But many people aren’t doing that. They just keep walking…in the wrong direction.

2. People don’t understand what marriage is.

Over the last half-century or so, “happily ever after” became not an ending for fairy tales, but rather an expectation for marriage. Likewise, people decided looking for a spouse meant looking for a soul mate, the one person who could fulfill their every emotional and sexual desire.

And they’re still looking. They’re looking and looking and looking, but never finding the perfect fit.

Reason being? There is no perfect fit…save Jesus. In the end, he’s the only one who can completely fulfill us, who will never disappoint. Which is why the Church doesn’t teach that marriage will fulfill us. It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to help us make the journey to the One who will fulfill us. It’s a holy calling whose ultimate purpose is to make us holy. And that doesn’t happen through long walks on the beach. It happens through feeding a crying baby at 3 a.m. or mowing the lawn when we’d rather watch the game, through forgiving when we’d rather fight and staying when we’d rather leave.

It’s those daily deaths to self—some ordinary, some extraordinary—that make both for a successful marriage and a successful journey to God. When you know that, you look for a spouse differently. You also approach marriage differently. When you don’t know that—when all you know is what Hollywood tells you—well, you just keep shopping. Or you buy but demand a refund when your purchase inevitably disappoints.

 3. People are wounded.

Chasing after false gods and looking for a spouse in all the wrong ways quickly takes its toll. Mistakes are made and wounds incurred, wounds that can make the bearers all but incapable of (or wary of) marriage.

That means we’ve now got almost an entire population of men and women from 18 to 80, who are in no shape to enter into a healthy, loving, life-giving relationship. Some don’t see that. Others do see but have no interest in changing their situation. It seems easier, safer, to just pretend the wounds aren’t there.

Obviously, that’s silly. God’s grace is rich, and his mercy is abundant. The payoff for working through our woundedness and entering into a loving marital relationship (or the priesthood or consecrated life) is a thousand times more rewarding than the comforts of just hanging out by ourselves, licking our wounds.

But if the devil is great at anything, he’s great at deceiving. And he’s deceiving a whole lot of people on that point right now.


That’s why people aren’t marrying and staying married like they used to. Or, at least, it’s a good part of the reason. And addressing those problems—not just advocating for legions of child brides or graying brides—is what has to happen if we want to see this new vocations crisis reversed.

The truth is, men and women who are marriage material are in short supply right now. Telling people (especially faithful Catholics) to get married at 23 is almost like telling people to win the lottery. It might be a good thing for them. Or it might not. Regardless, so much is out of our control. That’s just life in a thoroughly messed up post-Christian culture.

But that life doesn’t have to be a miserable life.

When you live your single years as God intends you to live them—faithfully, obediently, chastely, seeking truth, and making a gift of yourself to all those around you—there is wholeness. There is peace. There is joy.

At least, that’s been my experience.

Single at 38 certainly wasn’t my plan. My plan was married at 23. It hasn’t worked out that way. But you know what? I don’t have any regrets. My single years haven’t been easy. But the alternative—knowingly stepping out of God’s will—would have been much harder.

Besides, the years haven’t been wasted. They’ve been beautiful, blessed years, and if I ever do marry, every one of them will contribute to making me a better wife and mother.

So, if you’re not married at 23 or 33 or 43, don’t panic. Look to God’s will. Deepen your understanding of marriage. Don’t hurt yourself, and deal with the hurts you’ve got.

If you do all that, there’s no guarantee of a spouse. But there is a guarantee that you will be doing something real to fix the marriage crisis in our culture. Even more fundamentally, there’s the guarantee of grace. There’s the guarantee of walking side by side with Christ. And that’s the best guarantee of all.



Categories:Culture Marriage

6 thoughts on “Not Married at 23? Don’t Have an Existential Crisis Just Yet.

  1. Episteme says:

    The best part of this discussion is the notion that, indeed, many of us are wounded. Even those of us who — living the way God intends — are supposed to be in joy rather than the pain that we still feel. As one of those Single Catholic Men that everyone wonders about, I think that I can hopefully offer some thoughts on the other side. Being wounded doesn’t mean that we don’t understand marriage or one’s responsibility in it, it’s a matter of questioning one’s place in it. Courtney’s comments on the economy are a big piece in this: Catholic women write extensively about the very conservative place that they want men to hold in a marriage, then men see where the economy and educational system puts them (and it’s not just the “men being lazy” argument — we do have to constantly monitor thought and action in school and work due to “sexual harassment” codes strict enough to trip up even the most chivalric, as well as negotiate changes in the white-collar economy and academia that are often emphasizing the righting of past generations’ wrongs at our cost). Nevertheless, the question of male morality versus female morality — especially in Catholic singledom — is overblown.

    A major element that comes into play is that younger men (I speak as a 34-year old) today are loners, especially those isolated in more conservative subcultures like ours. We don’t have tight circles of friends (men in general usually only have one or two close friends by mature adulthood — hence the importance of a wife and children to his social inclusion), so we neither have those to commiserate with over the tensions of lacking marriage nor people to meet someone through — especially since men and women alike lack any real church community infrastructure (being introduced to the family members of married parishioners and such) in this age of “let the Internet handle it.” Historically, the ‘courting’ that modern ‘Catholic dating’ praxis is pattern on was tailored on having the participation and support of the community and family; many men (like many women) aren’t even coming from stable families any longer and are doing chastity completely on their own.

    From my own perspective, I’ve often wondered the complete opposite question: where are all the Single Catholic Women at? I know a number of young Single Catholic Men (ranging from roughly 25-45) in my parish, between friends and Knights of Columbus, but all the single women have long ago left devout practice for the secular world (to return like the Prodigal Son, to a fattened lamb at the parish come time for their pre-cana once they’ve settled down). Evidence suggests that they have to be out there — just as my own evidence says that we men are out there; I simply think that we’re in different parishes in different types of places. I also honestly think that “nice” men (versus “nice men” to use Internet terms) today aren’t sure how to approach women who they don’t know, given all the changing rules of dating and the confusion we face in school and the working world over male-female interaction and gender issues (especially when we read about conservative courting rules versus modern dating rules). This is why I think that parishes and dioceses need to do more non-meat market and non-Young Adult-style Singles Ministry events — things with more spiritual heft — for those who understand that we’re not going to be able to compete in the world of Internet Dating against the non-devout ‘Professionals’ who we left the world of secular dating when our virginity couldn’t compete against.

    (Myself, I had to move back to my hometown to take care of my elderly widower father, so I’m in a place with no jobs in my field and am left working other work while finishing up graduate school in a different sort of program than planned. Between that and chronic health issues, I’ve realized that I won’t be the “provider” that Catholic women want, so I’m willing to generally wander this websites and comment about the mail side of things as honestly as possible in between parish work — I consider it an odd part of my Lay Dominican preaching gig, I suppose…) 😉

  2. JackB says:

    I’m not sure this threads well, but I have two good friend who were 75 and they wanted to marry. They had lost both of their first spouses. They were High School friends eons ago. He was Protestant and she was Catholic. His Presbyterian faith was put on the back burner and she decided that they would be married in the Catholic Church.

    When they met with the Priest he demanded that they attend pre-Cana classes, perhaps since Harry was non-Catholic. After giving it some thought Marion decided it was asking too much from two 75 year olds. They decided to marry with a Justice of the Peace. They lived happily ever after. What was that Priest thinking?

  3. Jenise Potter says:

    Thanks for writing this piece. I encourage people to marry a person if they are fortunate to find someone when they are young or older…assuming they have the correct view of marriage. Again, you put my thoughts into words. :)

  4. Courtney says:

    4. They can’t find someone they want to marry.

    So many articles making the same arguments as 1-3. But the truth is this: love doesn’t wait, it isn’t materialist, it doesn’t seek goals, it doesn’t have an age. So WHY are less people falling in love?

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Courtney, I think the whole point is that people are not “falling in love” at the same rate *because* of 1, 2, and 3. People can tend to have a distorted notion of what it means to “fall in love.”

      Have you seen “Fiddler On the Roof”? If not, I highly, highly recommend it. The beautiful scene around the song, “Do you love me?” is so moving.

      1. Courtney says:

        I saw it years ago, never again, though. I’m not a musical person.

        My idea of marriage is being with someone who wants the same things I do and who I cannot imagine my life without. Crazy? I don’t think so. If marriage is until death then it shouldn’t be mediocre.

        Emily states: “The truth is, men and women who are marriage material are in short supply right now.”

        YES! They are! WHY?

        A WSJ article asked the same question as Emily did here: Why are people getting married at an older age? (article is titled Where Have the Good Men Gone?) But answered it much differently, citing that the reason women were pursuing careers instead of family was because they didn’t have a family. All of it was reversed. Women struggle finding marriageable men, men who are locked into an immature mentality. Why? Feminism and the redefining of gender roles, a vicious cycle to say the least. That may also be behind the rise in pornography.

        The subject of marriage and love is a touchy one, I’ll grant you. I’m 29 and single. I’ve accomplished a lot (which I wouldn’t have been able to do married with children), and I wouldn’t trade my single time. That means I fit into the general subject of such articles posing the question of why people are getting married later or not at all. I am who these articles describe. I’m not putting off marriage for a career, or for more stuff, to impress others. I’m not wounded and I have a good understanding of what a marriage is. I’ve simply not found a man who I want to spend the rest of my life with, because they are in a short supply.

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