Mar­ried teenagers need sup­port

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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. D o h e r t y ’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 lev- els. 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.”

Cher yl Wetzstein can be reached at cwet­zstein@wash­ing­ton­

CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN On the fam­ily

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