Marrying Young Can Spell Disaster. Not for Me.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 27 2011 7:15 AM

Love, Child

Statistically speaking, marrying young can spell disaster. Not for me.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

To celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary last year, my husband and I spent the weekend at a funky motel in the Catskills. We arrived Friday night, poured some wine, put on Bonnie and Clyde, and exchanged gifts. The T-shirt I gave Adam featured a bear fighting a shark; he gave me earrings shaped like shark teeth (we often have similar ideas). Then we noticed there was a fly buzzing around the room, so Adam started chasing it, doing ninja moves in his underwear.

We're 29, and we've been married since 2005, cohabiting since 2000, and together since 1997—which comes to 14 years total, or roughly half of our lives. Within a week of meeting in second-period Spanish class, we had exchanged phone numbers, met each other's parents, had our first date (we watched A Clockwork Orange with the grumpy drummer in Adam's band; it was about as romantic as it sounds), and written several letters containing the song lyrics we felt applied to our burgeoning love. Soon, we were talking about The Future, when we would make art and travel and get married. Meanwhile, we played video games and made out in photo booths and tried to out-belch each other. It was never a question: We knew we were going to be together from then on.

Katie Arnold-Ratliff and her husband. Click image to expand.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff and her husband, Adam

Two years after we met, I received my college acceptance letters. Most came from universities in our native California, but one came from a college in New York. When I'd applied, Adam had said that he wasn't ready to move—he planned to go to college nearby, to stay close to the band and his friends—and that if I went east, I'd have to go alone. I respected his decision, and he respected my decision to apply anyway. When the deadline to either accept or decline admissions offers arrived, I sat on my bed with Adam on my right and my best friend, Erin, on my left. We all cried. Erin was headed to Massachusetts; if I moved to New York we'd be mere hours apart. I checked YES on the New York college's acceptance card—it was a more prestigious school than any of my California options, and my first choice. A few minutes passed. Something felt horribly, epically wrong. I picked up the card, changed my answer, and accepted an offer from a college less than an hour away.  

***

I was a sophomore when Adam and I moved into our tiny first apartment, after which a curious thing happened: We became 20-year-old senior citizens, combining an immature worldview with hobbies that were distinctly—and dorkily—middle-aged. I started reading Saveur, and sewing, and collecting Depression-era glassware. The first time we drank—being upright citizens, we waited until we were 21—we made martinis and were very nearly scared off from booze forever. Other people spent these years doing keg stands and having sex on pool tables; we spent them playing Scrabble and training our cat to answer to her name.

Soon, we got married. I wore a white shantung blouse and skirt, and the groomsmen wore black Converse sneakers. At the afternoon reception, we ate cold cuts and listened to Elliott Smith and The Clash. It was a quintessentially young-people affair—heavier on sentiment than spectacle, and lacking an open bar—and it was one of several such events we attended in those years. The aforementioned grumpy drummer married one of my friends a few months before Adam and I tied the knot; Erin married her boyfriend one year after our wedding. Not one of us was older than 23 when we said our vows. I wasn't so young that I couldn't appreciate the rarity of this. I remember a friend saying at my bridal shower, "This is all so 1950s of you!" She was right, of course. Back then, the first-time bride's median age was about 20; in the decades since, it has inched up to 26.

But by the time I hit my ripe old mid-20s, I was already heading for divorce. I wish I could explain what happened between the day Adam and I said "I do" and the awful night a year later when we separated, but it's gone, lost to history. All I recall is what I kept telling people during that period: The books say the first year of marriage is really hard. By the spring, we were fighting in that sprawling, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf way of two people no longer attempting to spare each other's feelings. One evening I came home from work, joked with him for a while—even when things got really bad, we had moments of lightness—and then said flatly that I wanted to end our marriage.

He said he hated me, and I drove to my mother's. I remember thinking that it was all so comically obvious, so dismayingly clichéd: We weren't ready. We'd known that marrying young ups the odds of divorce: To take just one of the many unsettling statistics, women who marry when they are under 18 are twice as likely to separate or divorce than women who marry at 25 or older. But we'd ignored such numbers; after all, we 'd been together for eight years already. We'd weathered the rocky transition between adolescence and adulthood. We also loved each other, which we thought was enough to make a marriage work. It was suddenly so clear how naïve we'd been. How young we'd been. So when I moved to New York three months later—to attend graduate school at the college I'd turned down six years earlier—I had a goal in mind. I would go into the world alone and grow up, and then see if the grown-up me still loved him. If I did, I would just have to hope that the grown-up him still loved me, too.

I thought I would be lonely in New York, but I wasn't. I did lots of earnest things, like watching avant-garde hokum at Anthology Film Archives and attending readings by writers I hadn't read. Adam and I communicated sporadically, and he was careful never to press me about when I might be ready to resume our marriage. I wrote fiction, and ate bagels, and had an awful, karaoke-singing roommate. It was the first time anything significant belonged to me alone, and it felt good. But I couldn't deny that it didn't feel right.

So late one night a few months after I arrived, I got in my car and drove for three days straight, until I arrived in California, at the store where Adam worked. He stood there in his cashier's uniform, staring at me with an awful mixture of pain and relief. He cupped my face in his hands and said he was happy to see me, and we went out to dinner. We were 24. It was all decidedly grown-up. We were decidedly grown-up. When I returned to New York a week later, he came too.

***

That was five years ago. Now, I can't think of one trait I possess that Adam hasn't informed. I'm a great cook because he's an enthusiastic taste-tester; I'm a writer with a built-in first reader; I warmed to the idea of having children after watching him rock a screaming baby to sleep. And I'm someone who is happily married because my husband let me leave and come back. It might sound weird, but I love Adam like I love my siblings, or my parents, or the sky: I love him in a way that never entertains his absence. I'm not saying I take him for granted. I'm saying he's the bedrock of my life.

We never did catch the fly. After Bonnie and Clyde, we were tired (the drive, the wine, the ninja moves), and when we went to sleep, I had the dream I have at least once a month. It's 10th grade, and I'm sitting in Spanish class. In walks Adam in his Rancid T-shirt and buzz cut. He takes the desk beside mine. Our first conversation replays in its entirety: We talk about Adam Sandler movies and how stupid our school is. And I'm overcome by an out-of-body feeling, like this is the moment when something begins. This is when I realize I'm dreaming, and that the dream is a form of routine psychic maintenance: Are you sure you made the right choice?

In that moment, I'm simultaneously me at 15 and me at 29. In a massive wave, I remember everything that hasn't happened yet—that we have this future together that's going to be hard and beautiful and worth fighting for. I turn to Adam and say something I also occasionally say in real life, whenever I look at him and realize that the goofy boy I loved as a kid has turned into a strong and decent man—and that I've become an adult, too:

"Dude, we're married!"

Katie Arnold-Ratliff is the author of the novel Bright Before Us, and a senior editor at O, the Oprah Magazine.