Viewpoint

Sometimes, Getting Married Young Really Is A Good Idea

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Alasdair McLellan

Late into an evening pub visit, my university housemates started hypothesising about who would get married if we were all to pair off. Some of the matchmaking was obvious (already coupled up), some of it was tenuous (both like rock climbing) and some of it was just plain ridiculous (similar heights). At the end of the activity, I realised I hadn’t been paired up. “You’re just very compatible, Hannah,” the boy sitting next to me quipped, “You could probably marry any of us.”

Perhaps this was the witty retort of someone caught out in a mistake or perhaps it was an incisive observation about either my ability to love people or my desperate desire to please people. Or perhaps pairing me up was futile because – at the age of 20 – my housemates knew I was already with the man I wanted to marry. As it turns out, none of the people sitting around that table on a cold autumn evening ever married each other, but three years later, two days after we graduated, I married the man I fell in love with when I was just 16.

This year marks 10 years since we said our vows and 16 years since we first met, and at the age of 32, that means I have now been with my husband for half my lifetime. This fact tends to surprise people. Recently, a couple of new friends came round to our house and spotted a wedding photo on the wall, and after noticing that my husband looks a lot like his numerous brothers, they commented on how young we appeared in the picture. On discovering that I got married at 22, a new acquaintance probed, “And that’s who you’re married to now?” as if divorce and a second marriage within 10 years was more likely than sticking with a partner selected so young.

Because we were young – and not just in the tight jaw line, glowing skin, glossy hair sense of the word – but according to the statisticians’ pie charts. Per the Office for National Statistics, women in heterosexual couples in England and Wales are most likely to get married between the ages of 25 and 29, and men between 30 and 34. On the Brides website, clinical social worker Kelsey Torgerson explains that she believes it is a good idea to wait until the brain is fully developed (age 25) to make such a major decision. Even Adele in her post-divorce album, 30, sings “I was still a child” of a relationship she began in her early 20s.

In Committed – her memoir about attempting to make peace with marriage – Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert writes that you are two to three times more likely to get divorced if you marry in your teens or early twenties. Approaching her first marriage “at the totally unfinished age of 25, much the same way that a Labrador jumps into a swimming pool”, she outlines how youth makes us “more irresponsible, less self-aware, more careless and less economically stable”. A very poor cocktail for making sensible, life-altering commitments.

But in the back room of a questionable pub at a punk gig – with just 16 years under my belt and without my brain fully developed – I made a judgement about someone that I would stick to for 16 years to come. Somehow, with the stats stacked against us and with the occasional patronising shake of the head from a sceptical relative, we have endured. We are not the only ones, either, even though – officially – a Future Foundation study found that the last decade when childhood sweethearts survived in any noticeable numbers was the 1960s.

It takes more than two hands for me to count the couples I know that met as teenagers. Obviously, it would take many more hands to count the ones that broke up, but the point is that childhood sweethearts are not quite the rare, disastrous breed the official stats would have us believe. If anything, the secret to my relationship is not – as my housemate predicted – my compatibility, but the fact I have known my husband for such a long time. I can recall the colour of his first car, the oversized second-hand blazer he wore to his 21st birthday meal, the band posters he had peeling off his walls. I was stood next to him at his favourite gigs, at our own gigs, at his graduation, on completing his first half marathon, on the day I got my first job, at his dad’s funeral. Aside from our son, the curve of his hand in mine is the only one familiar to me.

The Marriage Foundation recently found that couples that meet online are six times more likely to get divorced, which they attributed to “marrying as relative strangers”. Apparently, “gathering reliable information about the long-term character of the person you are dating or marrying is quite obviously more difficult for couples who meet online without input from mutual friends or family or other community”. The fact that I know my husband’s mum always apologises when presenting us with the most delicious meals, and my husband knows that my dad likes to experiment with recipes he has found on YouTube, is actually important stuff when it comes to the resilience of a relationship. Not only do we know each other really well, we know each other’s families, too, creating a transparent basis from which to build a healthy union.

Intimately knowing someone, knowing where they come from, their family, their history and their motivations, stands you in good stead when facing more rocky terrain as well. My sister-in-law – my brother-in-law’s plus one at our wedding 10 years ago – says, “I think knowing each other for a long time means we know when the other one is struggling.” This can traverse the mundane (excessively grumpy in response to the lack of pancakes for breakfast usually indicates tiredness) to the more serious (lack of motivation to engage in previously enjoyed activities might suggest depression). And a long-standing partnership often means methods of communication are well practised. A school friend who also met her husband at 16, comments: “We have been through most of our life together, so have learnt to communicate about everything.”

Over the years, rather than growing apart, my husband and I have grown together, bearing witness to the wonder of human transformation. He observed me digging in my heels at an emotionally exhausting job, and I heard him overcome his reluctance to sing in serenading our son. On asking my husband if he thinks meeting so young has benefited our relationship, he answers sweetly: “I feel very fortunate that even in our thirties we’ve had the opportunity to spend so much of our lives together.”

Sixteen years ago, I had no idea whether I would marry the tall guitarist on the left, but I felt that I could marry him – and that tiny alteration in spelling has made all the difference. It leaves a tiny window of opportunity, a slither of light in the darkness that says there is always hope even when you’ve spent the morning arguing about Wordle, the heating bills are extortionate, and the baby is crying. Even now, I can’t necessarily say I would love him forever, but I could love him forever. My friend Vicki, who has known her husband for 20 years, sums it up pretty well when she says: “I can say I have lived a full, happy life with the greatest man by my side.”