The headlines are abuzz, “Bristol Palin and Levi Johnson engaged, again!” Most of us, of course, wish them well, and this time they might make it work. As Naomi Cahn and I explained, however, in Red Families v. Blue Families, we are skeptical that marriage by itself is the answer that magically makes things better. In the modern era, the question of whether they will marry may be less important than whether they will stay married – and what being married does for their preparation for adulthood. So what exactly are Bristol and Levi’s prospects and what can they – and other young couples with less prominent parents – do to make them better?
Let’s start with age. Marrying at 19 improves the odds over marrying at 17. It’s a good bet that Bristol and Levi are more mature – and more realistic about family life — than they were two years ago.
Would they be better off marrying even later? Statistics show that marriages at 21 are more stable than if they begin at 19 – and significantly better than at 17. Older studies indicated that waiting beyond 21 didn’t make much difference, but the most recent studies report a change. Today, those who marry in their late twenties or early thirties are less likely to divorce than those marrying at younger ages.
The important reasons are why. If Bristol believes that marrying Levi means that she can quit work to devote herself to her children, she is in for a big disappointment. Forty years ago, a young man without a college degree could expect to support a family; today, young couples need two incomes. Paul Amato finds that financial stress makes it much more likely that a couple will divorce today than a similar couple facing financial stress a generation ago – and almost all couples in their early twenties face financial hardship unless their parents bankroll the family.
The second issue is whether they share a realistic commitment to the same marital ideals. If Bristol and Levi plan for two careers, or if Levi’s income hits six figures and they agree she should devote herself to the children, they may do quite well. If, as more frequently occurs, marriage makes it more likely that Bristol has a second child shortly after the first and less likely that she finishes college, she may be worse off in the long run. Amato’s studies indicate that while two career couples enjoy high quality marriages, women who would prefer to be at home but find themselves stuck in unsatisfying jobs because of their husband’s lack of income or benefits are heading for divorce.
Finally, the real issue (as the blogs get right) is whether Bristol should be marrying Levi. Economist Stéphane Mechoulan finds that later age of marriage does predict family stability – in large part because the successful become more likely to find each other if they wait. Bristol has apparently told US Weekly that the couple will probably see a marriage counselor, emphasizing that she believes Levi has “a lot of work to do.”
Levi, watch out – and do what Bristol says. Long term studies on marital quality find that the wife’s behavior raises the risk of divorce only rarely and then in the most extreme cases. The much more significant predictor – how well the husband responds to the wife’s criticisms.
And whatever the impact on Bristol, their son Tripp is more likely to have a strong relationship with his father if the two stay together. Not only do married men spend more time and resources on their children, but father and son are more likely to form an emotional bond that may weather a later breakup if they live together as a family during Tripp’s childhood.
The best advice for Bristol and Levi is the same advice they should have followed before Bristol become pregnant – stay in school, prepare for your future, be respectful of each other, and don’t have a child within marriage or without until you are ready to accept the responsibility that goes with it. The timing of the second child may influence their collective futures more than the timing of the nuptials.