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May 17, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Too much, much too young?

Salient writer Jessy Edwards explores the reasons why some young people are deciding to tie the knot—some would say—much too young.

“You’ve done too much, much too young,
You’re married with a kid when you could be having fun with me,
You done too much, much too young,
Now you’re married with a son when you should be having fun with me.”

—The Specials, ‘Too Much Too Young’, 1979.

They sung it in ’79, and we’re singing it even louder today.

It’s 2010 and we live in a secular, progressive society. We are Generation Y, with a passion for individualism and ourselves. We have contraception, not to mention a healthy cynicism for love. The average age for marriage in New Zealand is 28 years plus, and rising.

And yet we all seem to have those mates who have been dating since—it seems—forever. Now they’re deciding to get married. Many of us would react with a “what the fuck?” or at least an “oh my god”, but for some marriage is still the natural next step to take.

What is causing some young people to buck the current trend and decide to marry young? Is it just a small town phenomenon: religion, boredom, something in the water? Are small town folk still adhering to old-fashioned values? Just why, for God’s sake, are people doing it?

Is it weird now?

Information from Statistics New Zealand released just this month confirms that Kiwis are choosing to get hitched later. The median age for first marriage is 29.8 and 28.1 years for men and women, respectively.

In 1971 it was a different story—the majority of New Zealanders marrying for the first time were aged between 20 and 24. Today, based on recent statistics, only 16 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women decide to tie the knot that young.

And why would you? These days there isn’t much you can do in a marriage that you can’t do in a romantic relationship—unless you’re a devout Christian. As a result, we have seen the marriage rate decline to a mere third of what it was at its peak in 1971.

Statistics New Zealand suggests many factors have contributed to the decrease, such as a rise in de facto unions, a general trend towards delayed marriage, and an increasing number of Kiwis remaining single.

Sandra Johnson got married at age 21, and has been married almost 30 years. She agrees that times have changed—in the late 70s a lot of people did marry young in her hometown of Invercargill, and in other small towns all over New Zealand.

“I had just finished my nursing training when we got married, and in my class of nurses probably half of us got married soon after graduating,” she says.

“In small towns then we still held on to family values that had been instilled in by our parents. If you wanted to live with someone you got married, and had a family—just got on with it.”

These days, things are different. There is no norm to say that we should get married at any specific time, if ever. In fact, we are encouraged to pursue travel and careers before settling down. The women’s liberation movement was a contributing factor in the change in society’s attitudes to marriage.

Pill poppin’

Despite the fact the contraceptive pill became available 50 years ago, it was not readily available to single women from that time. Elaine Tyler May, Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota, says that of the 6.5 million women who were using the pill by 1964, the vast majority of them were married.

Johnson agrees that a lack of opportunities for women, both contraceptive and career-wise, led to more young marriages.

“Contraception was not so available as it is today, nor was abortion, so if someone got pregnant they got married. Smaller towns were more traditional in their values, travel was not as accessible and it was expensive, and job opportunities for girls were still a bit limited.”

Politics and gender roles also play a huge role in public attitudes towards marriage. For example, Susan Williams met the father of her children in the 1960s, when she was just 21. In the midst of the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement, she made the conscientious decision not to get married, just to play her own part in the movement.

Now that women can choose to have a career, have sex without getting knocked up, and travel to almost anywhere in the world, marriage seems less and less relevant.

Melanie the escapee

It is hard to imagine Melanie Williams, 21, as a married farmer’s wife in Murchison—population 555 at the last census count. The tall, slender, red-head looks as though she has just stepped, gazelle-like, off the stage of a glamorous cabaret in New York. She studies architecture in Wellington, and plans to travel—but her life could have been very different if she had not broken up with her fiancée in Murchison at age 19.

“We had been going out a year and a half. I wasn’t planning on getting married young, I wanted to live together first and travel. He would have preferred that maybe I didn’t go to uni, and become a farm wife—which I didn’t want to do.”

When asked how she thinks her life would be different if she had ended up tying the knot, her reply resonates more with the sense of ‘dodged bullet’ rather than ‘lost love’.

“I would feel a little bit ripped off. Because I was still studying, I hadn’t achieved my various life goals that I wanted to pursue. Getting married, there is the expectation that you settle down and have children. It would have come too quickly.”

Melanie describes Murchison as a small farming community with very traditional values. A place with routine and ritual where it was fairly common for people to marry young. A place where you would go to a tea room and have a custard square.

“A lot of people were stuck in a previous time. Even the sayings they use… and the industries are less cutting edge. Even the way they dress, I really stood out. There was a strong sense of community and more traditional values, which translated in to marrying young.”

Small towns are like Greeks

Studies show that rural communities, like Murchison, do have more of a tradition of marrying young. The small town culture is similar to those cultures with a collective focus, such as Greeks or Indians, where there is an expectation to continue the family traditions or business and look after your elders.

City slickers can be compared to individualistic societies, of which most Anglo cultures are an example. These families encourage individual uniqueness and self-determination. Kids are cheered on to leave home, go flatting, and make a career for themselves. Marriage is postponed until you’ve done everything you want to do.

In collective societies marriage is an important marker in the life cycle, especially where there is a family business to continue. It signifies adulthood, and the succession of authority. If you’re not married by a certain stage in a collective culture, you become something else—a spinster, or that old guy who is always in the pub by himself.

Melanie noticed the difference between attitudes of those in Murchison to those in larger cities who are looking for love in the Hollywood sense. In Murchison, marriage is as much a model of practicality as it is of love, especially in a town where many girls leave because the main industry is farming.

“You’re going out with someone and, hey, there’s no one else, and you’re not gonna leave so you may as well marry them—to put it bluntly. Most of the people are paired up, and if they aren’t then you’ll just end up alone. There are a lot less girls in a community like that, so once they get a girl they stick with them.”

The Religious Model

Another reason people might marry young is religion. It is a common belief that the rule stipulating “no bonking before an eternal oath” has driven many a young Christian down the aisle.

In some countries sex before marriage is an offence punishable not just by eternal damnation, but also by a cane to the backside. Vice Magazine reports that “fornicators (people who fornicate but aren’t married) are flogged all over Asia”, with the number of lashes corresponding to how much of a fornicator you are. This is also the case in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Thankfully we live in a society where we can “fornicate” as much as we like without fear of not being able to sit for a week—depending on what you’re doing. But are some young Christians still getting married just so they can get in the sack?

Mike and his wife Laura are Christians from Feilding and Gisborne, respectively, who decided to tie the knot young. Mike was only 21 when they got married last year, but he insists that sex had hardly anything to do with their decision to get married.

“Because of our faith, Laura and I didn’t go for the ‘try before you buy’ option, you know, live together first,” he says.

“It’s difficult, but that’s how much we believe in our faith… It’s so much more to us than just following some ancient rule… Sex is just one—awesome—part of marriage, and so when we decided to get married, sex was just one part of our decision.”

So Christians like sex too, but they also like God—fair enough. But with an increasing trend for citizens of Western nations to marry later in life, it’s fair to ask what exactly the benefit is of marrying young, if it’s not to bonk.

The “We found each other young” Model

For Mike and Laura, marriage was just the logical next step in their relationship, he says, as well as a commitment in the eyes of God to be together forever.

“We felt we had reached a point in our relationship where we were ready to make a serious commitment to each other. It kinda felt like things had ‘plateau-ed’ and marriage was the next step for us.”
Catherine Sparks and her partner are both 21, non-religious and from Tauranga. They decided to get engaged a year ago. Cat says that from age 17, they were both pretty sure that they were going to get married.

“The idea of being married and sharing everything and making a family with him is so exciting. It is a lifelong commitment… but not in the eyes of God for me, as I am not religious,” she says.

“I have had the best role models in terms of a happy marriage, my parents have been together for almost 30 years and still madly in love.”

Nicola, 23, married her partner both as a “celebration of love”, but also as a legal recognition of their relationship. As the couple want to live overseas at some point, this aspect of marriage was also important to them. Being a non-religious couple, this was the deciding factor between getting a civil union, and getting married.

“Civil unions are not as widely recognised overseas, so that was something we weighed up before we decided between marriage and civil union. I know people who have had to get civilly united and then get married later on because of visa requirements.”

The reasons for young marriage are more plentiful than we might think. But whether because of religion, because you have good role models, or because you want to be legally united, the decision to get married boils down to one thing: love. These couples really like each other, and plan to do so for a really long time.

A really really really long time

Getting married young means that you have promised to spend the rest of your life together, which—if you are smoke-free, eat healthy, and exercise—is a really long time.

The life expectancy for New Zealanders is around 82 years for women and 78 years for men. If you marry at age 21, you can probably expect to be with that one person for over 50 years. Which is a bloody long time—a long enough time to set off a siren of cynicism in most young people. It’s so long that it makes me feel like lying in bed with a ciggie burning in one hand and the grease from a chicken drumstick dripping down the other.

Yet some people have gone the distance, and still believe in the institution of marriage whole-heartedly. Barbara Johnston, an Invercargill girl, was 20 when she met Gus, a central Southland farmer.

“We had only known each other a year when we married and now we are coming up 30 years of wedded bliss,” she says. “When it’s all boiled down, what we want out of marriage is love, commitment, security—and it doesn’t just happen, you have to keep working on it.”

Today, with divorce rates being what they are, some couples are choosing to go in to marriage with more ‘realistic’ vows. Instead of “till death do us part”, one might say “as long as I love you”.
Take our celebrity friend Peaches Geldof, British socialite and daughter of rock royalty Bob, as an example. She was married in Vegas at age 19 to 23-year-old musician Max. After six months the couple separated, with Peaches revealing that she was always realistic about her marriage.

“You can’t ignore divorce rates. Every friend of mine has parents who are divorced. I didn’t go into it with Max thinking, ‘This is going to last forever,’ but I did go into it thinking, ‘I love him right now and I know that I’ll continue to love him for a long while.”

Just a few months after her 23rd birthday, Britney Spears married her childhood friend at The Little White Chapel in Vegas, ironically the same chapel where Peaches was married. The marriage lasted 55 hours.

Perhaps marriage is not the infinite vow of love that it once was. Perhaps there is now room for young people to toy with the idea of marriage for as long as it suits them—much to the Pope’s delight, I’m sure.

The Verdict

Despite the changing attitudes to marriage, all of the young couples I spoke to absolutely believed they would be together forever. All admitted that married life is not going to be easy, but that they were committed to it.

It might be true that people from small towns get married younger, but small-town values have well equipped these young people for the long haul—AKA wedded bliss.

Though young marriage may not be for everyone, a background of community, parents who have been together forever, a small, strong support network and an optional dash of faith can’t hurt when one finally decides to take the leap. Just don’t expect to see me walking down the aisle any time soon.

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Comments (48)

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  1. Mike says:

    I’m 28 and have been married for 2 years. I can definitely see the rational of those wanting to stay unattached while they explore the world around them, however my own experience of tying the knot has shown me that it is possible to do both, possibly in a more meaningful way if you do it right. For me it has been the perfect remedy for the fickle and self serving culture of our generation.

    We are so coy about love and blasé about romance these days. If you love someone and are feeling despondent about the state of our binge drinking, credit obsessed, 5 minute attention span generation then get married, have kids and SETTLE DOWN!

  2. Umberto Eco says:

    Ain’t he cute?
    No he ain’t
    He’s just another burden
    on the welfare state

  3. Manchester United fan says:

    Could be worse
    Could be scouse!
    Eating rats
    In a council house

  4. anon says:

    This article is a load of shit “melanie” is just a stuck up girl not even from Murchison, who knows fuckall about the people and the way of life there. Iv lived there my whole life, im at university now, have no intention of getting married young and nonone expects me to at all… Murchison is not ‘old fashioned’ at all and ‘melanie’ just thought she was better than everyone else.
    this is a load of crap

  5. hoooooooooooooo boy says:

    ^^ melanie’s jilted fiancee???

  6. murcho says:

    I also was brought up in murchison. I would never change this for the world I thought it was an amazing place to grow up. Im 22 now and I only know of 1 of my class mates that is married now, they dont even live in murchison anymore. I have just just finished studying also have many classmates currently studying towards degrees( Sport, law, accounting, marketing etc) for a class of about 25 the stats are pretty good. I think melanie is shallow and doesnt know what shes talking about. murch is rocking!!!!!!!

  7. Murch Girl says:

    “Melanie’s” ex-fiancee is a good guy who deserved way better than her. My family comes from and still lives in Murchison and has always encouraged me to attend university and to be a strong, independent woman, not to settle down and have kids for fear I would be a spinster. Much like other small towns, many people move to Murchison seeking a safe place to raise their families and escape city living.
    My parents are farmers and have worked hard to provide a good life for our family and have always given my siblings and I the support we needed to succeed, both emotionally and financially. This has been possible due to agriculture being an economic powerhouse here in New Zealand. Fonterra (a multinational dairy industry company) is New Zealands biggest company with a revenue exceeding $16 billion. “City-Slickers” who think their food comes straight from the supermarket freezer would not understand the advanced science and technology which is applied in New Zealand agriculture and sought around the world by other states wishing to be as agriculturally successful as New Zealand.
    Give small towns a break and do your research before resorting to stereotypes and misinformation.

  8. From a small town too says:

    http://www.salient.org.nz/features/theres-more-to-farming-than-just-cows-and-sheep

    Feature, in the same issue of Salient, about the importance of agriculture industry to NZ.

    Just FYI.

  9. Murch mum says:

    Murchison is a town that produces well rounded and balanced young people who are honest, loyal and give back to this country and the world. As this young lady did not grow up in Murchison I think it unfair she comment on this towns culture.
    I am proud of the young people of Murchison who find a place for themselves either in Murchison or in the wider world. Murchison is a place where we say Hi to strangers, feed anyone who is hungry and care for our old, young, sick and lonely. We all know our neighbours and enjoy a safe and happy environment. Can you say that where you live.

  10. Small Towner says:

    I’m 21, with 4 good friends already with kids, and 2 engaged and 2 or so married (not the ones with kids!), and I’m a year or so older then most of them, and I’m from a larger scale “small town”, but the rest of us are out about studying or working, its not being from a small town, its staying that causes people to get married and have kids young, as you’re bored and not much else to do. Perosnally I wouldn’t care if I got married now, later, or never, my plans of travel include my “Special” someone, and so does my career, in this modern world, you can travel, get married, have kids and have a good carreer all at the same time, so long as you can multi task

  11. Murch Girl, you got it in one. A lot of people head back to Murchison after finishing advanced degrees and contribute enormously to the country’s economy. I grew up there (although my family are not murchites), and although it wasn’t the greatest years of my life, I respect the community and the place it has in our society. I am only aware of one of my classmates who is now married with children and she is thriving as a result. I am engaged and have been for a long time, and I think it has nothing to do with ‘small town syndrome’, and more to do with the fact that I found the perfect guy at a young age. God knows I kissed a lot of frogs before I found a prince, but I was lucky and I sure as hell aint planning on popping a couple of kids for AT LEAST another ten years.

    Also, Reporter (sorry I don’t really give a crap what your name is), I just LOVE your generalisation of a healthy life. Really well rounded there.

  12. smackdown says:

    u small town hicks where did u steal ur comps from old mc donald had a farm not a pentium ahaha owned

  13. anon says:

    Gee, smackdown, where did you steal your brain from, a jar of formaldehyde?

  14. anon says:

    “smackdown”
    Id bet money that us ‘small town hicks’ are higher educated and wealthier than ul ever be.

  15. smackdown says:

    successfully trolled i win im the best

  16. Shitkicker McGee says:

    They have internet in Murchison?

  17. Closh Jeary says:

    Now now guys. We shouldn’t pick on Murchison. It’s a lovely town where the people are white, the dogs are golden, the ice cream is brown(maybe a bit of red in there too), and the grass is unrelentingly green. Murchison is, in fact, a government experiment into what a program of apartheid and chemical brainwashiing would have made New Zealand look like.

    As it turns out it looks a lot like an infomercial from circa 1950’s heartland America. So, you know, go Murchison?

  18. Touche says:

    Apart from insulting Murchison, this write had also insulted Greeks and Indians. If you want to talk about these cultures, please look into them first. Greeks are no longer expected to look after their elders, or to marry young.
    Jessy, honey, step away from the computer before you irrevocably damage your future.

  19. Murch Girl says:

    @From a small town too, that makes it even worse. It is saying, yes farming is important and we will take the wealth that your industry pours into our economy, providing us with the lifestyle that we believe we deserve. However, we will look down on you as a subservient working class, stereotype you without the slightest understanding of farming or the people who work in the industry and continue to blindly reinforce that stereotype without question.

  20. KBaybee says:

    G.O.D this girl from my old law tute who is from Murchison just got engaged to a greek guy after 2 weeks of dating. Is this article about her? Or is this just a classic example? LOLZ.

  21. Murch Girl says:

    Sorry Kbaybee it’s not her, she’s hardly a tall red-head! And again, this isn’t a common example, more like unusual occurence.

  22. Touche says:

    Well said, Glenhopian!! :)

  23. Sarah Robson says:

    Guys, keep the comments to the content of the article. The Salient website is not a place to be trading personal insults.

  24. Touche says:

    @Sarah Robson, so… Salient is only for insulting articles? Because in the 3 years I’ve been here, there have been a bunch of VERY insulting articles o_0

  25. Sarah Robson says:

    Personal attacks on interviewees aren’t ok. But you can go ahead and be critical of the content.

  26. Murch Girl says:

    I like that, the interviewee can personally attack us, our friends and families, but we have no right of reply. Perfect.

  27. Meow says:

    Hello everyone!

    Personally I think this feature states Melanie’s opinion on her scenario and should not be taken personally as I don’t see her specifically attacking anyone!

    Maybe Murchison wasn’t for her— that doesn’t make it a bad place at all. I know some great people who have lived and worked in Murchison (and loved it), and just as the city isn’t for everyone, so are small towns. Respect Melanie’s opinion and get over it.

  28. Sarah Robson says:

    Murch Girl – you are more than entitled to your right of reply, as is everyone, as this comment thread shows. I removed one comment earlier today that I deemed inappropriate because it crossed the line into personal (named) abuse/attack, which has no place on the Salient website.

    Below is an extract from the Salient legal page, which includes the commenting policy (http://www.salient.org.nz/about/legal)

    “We respect free speech so there are only three reasons for the removal of a comment:

    1. Obscenity, mindless abuse, threatening comments, and personal attacks have no place on the Salient site…

    Comments against these guidelines will be removed at the Editor’s discretion.”

    You’re more than welcome to keep debating the topic. Just bear this in mind.

  29. Mr Magoo says:

    HAHA the Murchisonians commenting prove they’re hicks way beyond anything in the article. This is why we can’t have nice things!!

  30. The Flying winger says:

    Being engaged does not neccesarily mean getting married at least not right away it can be seen as more of a commitment. I think that perhaps this melanie was getting a bit ahead of herself, i find it hard to believe she would of ended up as a farmers wife as the guy in question wasnt a farmer in the least or ever wanted to be one. It could well be that the “dodged bullet” is a mutual feeling. The young people from these small towns that i know very rarly get married and the ones that do have usually travelled, lived a little before hand and have quite often moved away together when they have “tied the knot”. Twisted story maybe?

  31. Shitkicker McGee says:

    Everyone seems to know more about Melanie’s relationship than her. Probably coz everyone in Murchison is cousins. (sadtrombone.com)

  32. smackdown says:

    hey i got a funny joke

    knock knock
    whose there
    merchinson
    go away theres no one home

    ahaha owned

  33. Murch mum says:

    “smackdown” go back to kindy. Murchison has been written 50 times and you still can’t spell it!

  34. Murch mum says:

    Interesting Sarah you won’t publish the replys from the murch girls away at uni but you do keep the imature comments from people who have nothing better to to do than sling mud. I have contacted Annette King MP ex murchison woman, and look forward to any comment as she is a proud murchison person.
    Yes the woman of Murchison have been hurt by this artical and it should be put right.

  35. Voice of Reason says:

    I don’t understand how the people of Murchison have been deeply offended. This article only illustrates the perception that small town people are more inclined to get married earlier, which lets be honest is not a new argument and has in fact been around for a while.
    I find it amusing that you Murchites are promoting your town as such a wonderful oasis considering your comments. I think you Merchites are giving yourselves a bad name. Not this article.
    So before you all start lighting your torches and recruiting a mob, look at it in perspective; this article is relaying a personal experience. Emphasis on the word personal. Im sure there have been many a happy, thriving Murchite marriage. This article does not suggest otherwise.

  36. Mike says:

    “The woman of Murchison have been hurt” – Holy Shit. Thanks Voice of Reason for saying everything that needed to be said.
    Also the censoring of the earlier comment was completely appropriate considering Salients legal position.

  37. Dennis O'Saur says:

    Hi everyone!

  38. Clement McBigglewaddle says:

    “The woman of Murchison have been hurt” the grammatical error there says it all.

    The fact that an article about marriage which mentions one person’s opinion of a town she once lived in, gets the supposed wrath of all women in that town (I HAVE TOLD ON YOU TO ANNETTE KING, SHE WILL GROWL YOU NOW) does nothing but illustrate why someone wouldn’t like it in the first place. Pull your head in, indignant Murchies, no one said your town was filled with crazies but you’re making it look that way.

  39. Dennis O'Saur says:

    Yeah.
    Yeah.
    No.
    Yeah.
    Cool.
    Yep.
    Cool.
    Talk to you later!

  40. mumma in murch says:

    Holey moley, everyone is biting today!!! Luckily everyone is entitled to an opinion i guess, shame it has to drop so low!! melanie n —– were not suited, SO WHAT?!! I wouldnt think it was anything to do with murch!

  41. Hank Scorpio says:

    “Mumma in Murch”

  42. Shitkicker McGee says:

    does annette eat goff cake? om nom nom

  43. ....... says:

    Sounds like this Melanie is still hung up on Mr Murch…

  44. Poor fiancée says:

    I used to live in a big city like your self Melanie and yes it is a bit different in a small town place like Murchison but it sounds like you thought you were far to special for your own good. You say you didn’t fit in well no wonder if you had that type of attitude “The tall, slender, red-head looks as though she has just stepped, gazelle-like, off the stage of a glamorous cabaret in New York.” Bet your fiancée is glad he dodged that major bullet!!

  45. Annie says:

    Love your work Jessy – the world is your oyster xxx

  46. Murch mum says:

    Jessy. As a Journalist your artical worked. It created emotion on many levels. Your artical was me 26 years ago but I wanted to be a farmers wife and was lucky to find a good one. There is a glass ceiling for women and in the country it seams to be double glazed. Country women are the most hard working, careing, independant and strong women you’ll every meet. Most of us went into farming life already with careers and most need to carry on working off farm to supplement income. To all those beautiful country girls out there, you go girls, head down bum up and lets show the world what girl power can do.
    .

  47. Shitkicker says:

    Is there anyone in Murchison who hasn’t commented on this post?

  48. the a team says:

    latest vsm ep dropping this fall pitchfork gave it 4/10 kim wheatley ate it with his wheatley bix

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