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WETZSTEIN: Married teenagers need aid

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Can you handle just a little more conversation about the wedding plans of parents-to-be Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin?

I recently had one of the nation's best-known experts on marriage - University of Minnesota professor William J. Doherty - on the phone.

Referring to news of Miss Palin's pregnancy and pending nuptials, which consumed the media in the days after her mother, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was added to the Republican presidential ticket, I asked Mr. Doherty, "Teen marriage - isn't that a red flag for divorce?"

Red flag? he said. It's "the highest risk factor. The highest. Nothing higher."

So, I asked, is marrying young like the kiss of death for couples?

"No, no, no," he replied just as passionately. "It just means they need a tremendous amount of support."

Teen marriage is such a hot potato of a topic.

When I graduated high school in the early 1970s, there were at least a dozen couples who were going to marry that summer. High school reunions show that more than a few of them have lasted.

I currently know more than a few couples, now in their 20s, who married as teens and are going about their lives quite happily, thank you very much.

But studies I have seen, in fact, affirm Mr. Doherty's strong reaction about the riskiness of teen marriage.

Entering a lifelong partnership when one or both partners are on the cusp of adulthood - when one's brain is still fine-tuning judgment skills and emotions, when independence is so fresh an experience, when there is so much practical experience in life to be learned - seems premature and even foolhardy.

Some studies indicate that if couples just wait a few years - into the 22-to-25 age zone - their chances for successful, long-term marriage rise to the highest levels. Having a college degree and pregnancy-free courtship elevate the chances for success even more.

And yet marrying as a teen was exactly the right choice, some couples say.

"If you're going to get serious and fall in love, do it right," Pastor Mark Gungor, who regularly wows audiences with his "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage" presentations, told me a few years ago.

Mr. Gungor and his redheaded wife, Debbie, married as teens and today are proud grandparents. Marrying young was the norm for his family, he told me with a laugh.

"In fact, if you weren't married by age 23, we wondered what was wrong with you," he said.

Mr. Gungor's position is that "the real disaster" is young people thinking they are supposed to have sex with a lot of partners, accumulate a bunch of baggage from failed relationships and avoid marriage until "later" - or until "the one" shows up.

"We've heard this mantra over and over again ... if you do it young, it's a disaster, it's a disaster. But I think it's baloney," he told me.

Perhaps family support is a part of the reason for Mr. Gungor's successful marriage.

"When you talk about premarital pregnancy, and marrying at age 17, the risks are really high," Mr. Doherty told me. "This means they need a lot more support from friends and family, and from their church, if they're religious."

And premarital counseling? "Crucial," Mr. Doherty said. "Absolutely crucial."

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family column runs Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.