Young Oklahomans Speak: How Do You Decide The Appropriate Age For Marriage?

 Most of the time, you’ll find first person commentary on the Red Dirt Chronicles.  Today, however, I’m going to share with you a “third person” report in full because it explores a specific question directly related to a cause for higher divorce:  That is, marrying at younger ages than the general national average.

In Oklahoma, our average age at first marriage has measured steadily for the last 10-15 years around 18 months to 2 years younger than the national average.  And, research shows that those who marry in the 18-22 (approx) age bracket tend to get divorced more, and more quickly, than those who marry a little later (25-26ish).  Professor Emeritus Robert Spector of the University of Oklahoma once said in his family law lecture, “There is one solution to immediately affect the divorce rate in a downward trend.  Simply raise the legal age of marriage in the State of Oklahoma to 21.”  And although this statement was provided in a way where those in the classroom understood it was not a change likely to happen, the truth still remains: By and large, young Oklahomans make decisions to enter marriages earlier than their national peers and our divorce rate is generally one of the top three in the nation.

Of course many factors are in play related to this situation.  Some cite religious factors related to the struggle between being encouraged to abstain from sexual intercourse versus the physical strife to do so in speeding up the decision to marry.  Others cite more traditional views and modeling of parents who also married young and see no problem, many times rightfully so, in marrying at younger ages.  And finally, many anecdotal conversations with youth under thirty cite varying degrees of pressure (and many cite extreme degrees) from their families of origin – encouraging them to “make the next step” toward their life narrative of finishing school, getting married and having children. And there is always the factor of teenage pregnancy sometimes leading to marriage.

Two years ago I was contacted by a Family and Consumer Sciences Extension educator in Dewey county.  She was concerned because anecdotal observations in her particular area led her to believe that students may be marrying even younger than they were a decade ago.  She asked me to consider setting up a study to investigate this question.  I hired an undergraduate research assistant to pull a clean copy of marriage and divorce records for the state so we could see if there were shifts toward a downward age trend.  I’d like to note that this study was funded by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative and we are very grateful for their contribution to our efforts.

While our findings showed that there were no shifts toward marrying younger, we did decide to look into the general questions of “why.”  We felt if we understood factors related to decision making about marriage, we could then consider what was, and was not within, the control of any intervention to make change.  So, Dan Hubler, my graduate research assistant and Kate Kirk, my undergraduate assistant and I went on road trips.  Three to be exact.

We drove to Guymon and conducted a focus group with 18 year old students in an alternative school.  We then drove to Tishomingo and conducted two interviews with leadership students from the SE Oklahoma area.  And finally, we conducted a focus group with students from a higher socio-economic suburban area in Edmond.

What did we find?  Quite a bit.  The short story is…the decision to marry at a certain age is highly dependent upon the contextual niche wherein the young Oklahomans reside and how they were raised.  The long story is, there is a great deal that goes into those decisions.  So, I’ve included the entire report in this post.  If you wish you may read the whole thing…skim for content…or simply read the results section at the end.

But whatever you do, please know that none of the students we interviewed took this topic lightly.  In fact, the opposite was true.  They were deeply thoughtful and at many times highly idealistic about how they wanted to try to improve their own lives above the lives they had seen.  And some were grateful and very loyal to carry on to their own children the lives they were given by their families.

Thanks, [kelly]

Preliminary Report –

Attitudes of Age at First Marriage in Oklahoma

By Kelly Roberts, Dan Hubler and Kate Kirk



Introduction to the Problem


In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that revealed Oklahoma had the second highest divorce rate in the U.S.  Since that time, efforts on the part of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative as well as combined efforts of research groups and applied professionals have been directed toward the common goal of strengthening marriages both in the state and across the nation.


One sustaining finding determined by researchers to be key in reducing unnecessary divorces (and if corrected, key in giving newlyweds a “demographic fighting chance”) is understanding and changing the early age of first marriage.  A main finding in the 2002 OK Baseline Survey on Marriage reads: Oklahomans marry an average of 2.5 years younger than the national median age at first marriage. [And], those marrying under the age of 20 are the most likely to have gotten a divorce.


Further, in a 2009 news released published by the Pew Research Center, focus specifically on age at first marriage was highlighted in two ways:


In Arkansas and Oklahoma, men and women marry young — half of first-time brides in these states were age 24 or younger on their wedding day. These states also have above-average shares of women who divorced in 2007-2008.

[and], There was a strong correlation, however, between young age at first marriage for women and a high divorce rate for women within the previous 12 months.


Social or culture-changing interventions cannot be completely refined until aspects of specific problems such as attitudes about age at first marriage within Oklahoma are studied.




Last year, Oklahoma State University clinical faculty member Kelly Roberts was contacted by an OSU Extension educator who verbalized concerns about ongoing and pervasive early marrying ages in rural Oklahoma.  Over the course of this past year, and in conjunction with discussions including Ron Cox, the OSU Extension Family Science Specialist and Kendy Cox with Public Strategies, an opportunity to explore this social problem was developed.


As a result of this background work three focus groups were conducted in different areas of the state by Kelly Roberts, Daniel Hubler (PhD Student at OSU), and Kate Kirk (Undergraduate Student at OSU).  The three groups ranged in age from 14-17 and from 18-24, involving youth who were not yet married in Guymon, Tishomingo, and Edmond, Oklahoma.  The three areas were selected in order to compare and contrast demographic differences between and within the location samples (e.g., Guymon’s rural location and higher ratio of Latino families, Tishomingo’s rural location and poverty rates, and Edmond’s suburban location and lower poverty rates).


Demographic data was also collected with a brief survey identifying the gender, ethnicity, age, relationship status, and year in school.  In addition to the brief surveys, structured interviews were conducted with the groups that lasted approximately 1 to 1.5 hours.  The structured interviews consisted of 6 open-ended questions, coupled with follow-up questions, aimed at gathering information about the students’ attitudes towards age at first marriage (e.g., “What do you feel is the ideal age of first marriage?” and “What does the term marriage mean to you?”).  Throughout the data collection process, confidentiality of each subject was assured by asking each participant to create a “nickname” that was used for the duration of the interviews and surveys.


Each structured interview was audio recorded, transcribed, and then coded for common qualitative themes and patterns, regarding attitudes towards age at first marriage, across groups as well as different themes and patterns between and within groups based on various factors such as gender, location, age, and/or family structure.


Sample Description


The following city data and geographic descriptions of the sample areas were all retrieved from the U.S. Census website (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). The initial focus group was conducted in Guymon, located in the panhandle of Oklahoma, in northeast Texas County.  The second and third focus groups were conducted in Tishomingo, located in the southeast quadrant of the state.  Our last focus group was conducted in Edmond, located centrally in Oklahoma and known to be a suburban community of Oklahoma City.


Guymon is the county seat for Texas County with an approximate population of 11,000. It is the largest city in what is known as “the panhandle of the state.” Guymon has a large Hispanic population (38%) compared to the rest of the state (9%). Our focus group was conducted at the Guymon alternative school. The group was comprised of all 18 year olds with two females and four males. Three participants were of Hispanic descent, making this our largest group of non-Caucasian participants. Six of the seven participants stated that their future plans for life were to attend college of some sort.


Tishomingo is the county seat for Johnston County. It is substantially smaller than Guymon and Edmond with a little over 3,000 people. Twelve participants were Caucasian, one was Native American and one reported “other.” The age make up of this group was lower than the Guymon participants. The average age of respondents in Tishomingo was 15. 2 years. Tishomingo is mainly a rural and agricultural city. The majority of participants were female.  Like Guymon, all respondents with the exception of one plan to attend a higher learning institution.


Edmond is a suburb of Oklahoma City with 80,000 individuals living within its boundaries. Most of Edmond’s residents are Caucasian (78%). The Edmond focus group was entirely Caucasian with two female and two male participants. This group was slightly older than the Tishomingo respondents, averaging 15.75 years of age.  Differing from the other two sites, Edmond is a largely professional city with a median annual household income of over $65,000. Tishomingo, in contrast, has a median annual household income of just over $19,000 and Guymon’s is just over $43,000. Similar to the other two groups, all but one respondent planned on attending a higher learning institution.  However, Edmond’s respondents were the only ones that cited they wanted to not only receive an undergraduate degree but graduate or professional degrees as well.


Preliminary Findings


The following summary organizes the identified themes found from our focus group questions in the order they were asked.


Question 1: What does the term “marriage” mean to you?


Commitment and perseverance appear to be common themes across the four groups about what a marriage means to them. For example, a respondent in Guymon stated:


“…It’s just the fact that you are going to argue occasionally but that you need to sit down and work it out with each other if you really love each other.”


Another stated: “I’ve seen my grandparents and they’ve stuck together…”


There were differences between groups when it came to specific themes such as the group in Guymon focusing on specific daily acts (getting a job, being responsible, being there for each other) while other groups such as Edmond and Tishomingo focused on more abstract themes such happiness, loyalty, and trust.  The following is a sample “abstract theme” quote from Edmond:


“…you can’t really lie in marriage, you’ve got to be able to trust your partner so that you know they are doing the right thing.”


Question 2: Tell me a little bit about your experiences with marriage.


There is a distinct difference between groups regarding themes such as the Guymon group mentioning their reliance on Grandparents and criticizing their own parents, while the other groups saw their parents as examples of stability and trust. For example, a Guymon respondent said the following:


“I think it’s just our parent’s generation that messed up.”


In contrast, a Tishomingo respondent stated: “My mom’s wedding song was “Bridge over troubled Water” and it’s about being there for someone not just when times are good but being able to sacrifice yourself for the other person.”



General themes such as criticizing their parents because of a divorce (Guymon), or noting stable marriages (Tishomingo [Tish] and Edmond) were pervasive.  Other issues such as gender roles (Tish and Guymon) the “long term view” of marriage (Edmond), and citing the years their parents had been married were raised (Edmond).



Question 3: What do feel is the ideal age of first marriage?


There were differences between the groups when it came to their perception of ideal age range.  Specifically, Guymon and Tishomingo were more focused on a younger ideal age range of 18-22, with an emphasis on achieving the arbitrary goal of being mature and ready. On the other hand, the Edmond group mentioned the range of 25-30 years (3 of the 4 said 25-30, and the 4th mentioned late 20s), and they were more focused on specific visions of the age range including graduating from college.


Further, there was a good deal of dialogue about the “Maturity vs. Age” issue:


            Guymon: “I don’t think it’s a number; it’s more of when you’re stable in your life. What position you are.”


In summary, it appears that people in rural areas see the ideal age at marriage being younger than those in the suburban area.


Question 3a:  Do you think that age plays a role in marital success?


Based upon researcher discussion following the first focus group, we added a question about the relationship between age and the role it plays in marital success. In particular, we found this quote intriguing.  We had mentioned the average age of marriage in Oklahoma being 23 years of age to which a female respondent said the following: “Well, yeah. That might be a good age because I don’t want to be that old either when I get married.”


Therefore, a few respondents in Edmond and Tish summarized the following:


    “…They aren’t fully aged or mature at age 19”


 “…the maturity part plays a big part in it, because you’re 19 and your brain isn’t fully developed until your mid to late 20s.”



Question 4: What are your plans for your life?


In general, the respondents in Guymon spoke about their career goals in abstract terms without a clear vision of what those goals will actually be. Two or three mentioned going to school but did not mention the area in which they were going to focus their studies. For instance one participant stated:


“…that’ll give me time at school to finish my degree and start my career.”


In contrast, the Edmond respondents were more specific about career goals, as well as the steps to get their goals accomplished.  For instance:


“I’m majoring in anthropology and I hope to become an archaeologist some day.”

  “I hope to get my undergraduate degree and my master’s degree before I get married.”


Question 5: How much do you feel the attitudes of your parents plat into what you just told me?  How about your friends? What parts are “just you” or do you feel “more independent” about?


Guymon and Tish both talked about how you should treat female partners (gender roles and influence of those attitudes).   The Tish group resisted acknowledging that church and peers are an influence, although they mention them.  For instance:


    “I was beaten with the good book.”


“My entire family has gone to the same church for 15 years and so they’ve shown me how I’m supposed to live.


However, those in Edmond mentioned being worried about marital stability because of the pervasive divorce rate among their peers’ parents. They suggested the environment does influence the successful outlook on marriage. It appears as if this concern facilitates some degree of ambivalence and distrust about potential success.


“…my friends, like 90% of them, have divorced parents…and it’s kind of sad to say…and it’s kind of scary saying that too.”



Conclusions and Implication


It is clear from preliminarily reviewing the coded transcripts that “not all the same” holds true when it comes to beliefs about age at first marriage among 14-18 year olds in Oklahoma.  There are, however, areas of commonality across groups and these hold important implications as well.  We will first discuss the differences that were most pervasive between groups, then the similarities.  Finally, we will comment on the overall study and suggest considerations for educators and policy makers.


Similarities: The majority of respondents were in agreement in two areas: 1) What it takes to make a marriage work; and, 2) the notion that marriage is “for life.”  Their beliefs about the longevity of marriage is not in doubt, per se. Nor are their ideas of daily skills and behaviors needed in order to keep a relationship healthy (e.g., communication, “not fighting,” learning to cook, getting a job [having an income], etc.).  However, the various experiences related to seeing an intact marriage modeled made the alternative school respondents convey their answers as more abstract and “fairytale-like,” while others who had observed long-term marriages, such as the leadership group, were more clear and specific.


A final similarity across groups emerged in that they all reported  their peers having little influence relative to other factors such as parents and religion when it came to their attitudes, beliefs and decisions about marriage.


Differences: The differences that we identified appear to be based upon location (rural versus suburban), and whether or not they attended an alternative school.  “Experiences with marriage” was one of the clear differences between groups.  The lower income, alternative school group used grandparents as their reference for positive examples while the leadership group and the youth group pointed to their parents.


“Ideal age at first marriage” was another difference. Those from rural areas, such as Guymon and Tishomingo, chose younger age ranges (18-22) while the suburban Edmond group chose an older age range (25-30).


“Difference in the ability to articulate life goals” was shown in two ways.  Namely, the Edmond group differed from the Guymon group in the specificity of their goals (Edmond mentioned more specific objects such as actual degree major, and academic steps needed to accomplish that objective), while the Tishomingo group differed qualitatively from Guymon and Edmond in the context of their goals.  For example, they focused primarily on family goals rather than career goals.



8 thoughts on “Young Oklahomans Speak: How Do You Decide The Appropriate Age For Marriage?”

  1. Very interesting. I did get married later (33) so I hope that means good things for the future of my marriage! I do know it was not good for procreation! We participated in pre-marriage counselling in order to get married in the Catholic church; of course I didn’t think we needed it but it turned out to be very beneficial for our life together.

    1. Ann ~ just by giving your couplehood a dose of premarital education, you immediate inoculated your marriage for another 3-5 years statistically. I’m always so happy to hear when people work BEFORE the problems arise. Pre-Canaa (sp?) is a great program, the Catholics have it right in terms of that program!

  2. As a woman who got married at the ripe age of 20 I say that you can have a successful relationship even if you marry young. For me it wasn’t a decision I just jumped into. I made the decision based on the fact that I had met the man I wanted to spend my life with and I believed I was ready to start that phase of my life. Purity before marriage wasn’t the reason we married when we did although I do firmly believe that abstinence is the way to go. I also think that I was as mature as I could have been to be married.

    As a side note, most of the people surrounding me view marriage as something that is before God’s eyes. We go into it without having divorce as an option with the exception of adultery. With that mindset we determine to make it through the hard times as well as the good times. We have many examples around us that show us that it is possible to live a full, joy-filled life with the spouse of our youth. My parents are going to celebrate 28 years this November and there is no better example. They are still in love after all this time and four kids. 🙂

    1. Stephanie – congratulations on your upcoming 28 year anniversary! You know, there is also a counter-culture study group investigating the question of “whether or not we’re (the U.S.) is now waiting TOO long to marry.” Their argument is that the prolonged adolescence brought on by longer periods in university life and the need to be successful prior to marriage actually prolongs the waiting to the point of ambivalence, looping over and over and wearing those who wait down. A very interesting take on what the research shows as the opposite to be true… thanks for writing! ~ RDK

      1. It is my parents who are celebrating 28 years! My husband and I will be celebrating 6 years next month (May). I would find reading the study you mention in this comment.

        1. Oops – I’m sorry, I misread – six years! Wonderful! (congrats to your parents!)…

          I believe the researchers are out of Baylor, and will need to do a bit of review to find it. I’ll see if I can’t reply to this message w/the link by tonight. Thanks!

  3. Fascinating read, Kelly. One of the suggestions to reduce the divorce rate that’s been tossed around in my “world” is to make marriage harder and divorce easier. It’s far to easy to get married – people take quickie road trips to do it all the time.

    In my exposure to my younger family members, they do think very hard and long about it and have all kinds of reasons they officially cite for marrying between 18-22. I’m still not convinced that all the thoughts they have at 18 are enough to make that decision. I’m also partly convinced it’s partially the abstinence until marriage argument. This is purely anecdotal, of course, but I know of several couples who got married young because they “fell to the temptation of the flesh.”

    Very thought-provoking; thank you for sharing!

    1. You are right about quickie marriages. Various states and even different counties in the state (we have one county that is a “marriage mill” – with shorter waiting periods than others) allow for those wishing to tie the knot quickly to do so. Yeah, I think for any human being going through adolescence, it’s pretty near impossible NOT to feel “the temptation of the flesh” at one point…or many! RDK

Comments are closed.