Early marriages entail marriages involving adolescents between the ages of thirteen years and nineteen years. Over the years, the subject of early marriage has sparked controversy among various outfits in the international community including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The main source of concern for most people involves the ethicality of the concept especially in consideration of the possible disadvantages that marriage presents to teenagers including lack of proper gradual transition into adulthood, financial impact of marriage on teenagers, and loss of opportunities for better lives.
However, such schools of thought ignore the society’s involvement in the process and overlook the positive possibilities that early marriage presents for teenagers. This paper seeks to explain how early marriages comply with the society’s code of ethics by presenting different perspectives from those to which most people subscribe. The paper explores the concept of marriage, its implications, the ethical perspective of early marriage, and some of the reasons why the concept should subsist until it dies a natural death.
The concept of marriage
Marriage is a social concept that bears legal implications upon the parties that choose become participants. Traditionally, marriage involved the legal union of a man and a woman of sound mind and above the age of a minority. However, the elements of gender and age have changed over the years.
Recent transformations in the social order in most societies have made it possible for people to conduct marriage at younger ages than the conventional prescriptive age. Some societies have also embraced the concept of the same sex marriages in which individuals of the same sex can legally contract marriage agreements that allow for enforcement of the same worldwide.
Marriage has implications that generally fall into three categories, viz. legal, social, and religious. One of the legal implications that marriage has involves property ownership and distribution for the married parties.
In the United States, division of matrimonial property takes the form of a fifty-fifty percentage share between the marriage partners at the time of the dissolution of their marriage, which means that the law perceives marriage partners as equal contributors to the attainment and maintenance of property regardless of the purchaser of such property.
Additionally, partners in a marriage share legal responsibilities especially with regard to debts and maintenance of their children where applicable. This aspect means that both partners have to monitor and take care of each other’s activities to ensure their conformity with state laws since they both stand to lose if one of them makes irresponsible mistakes.
One of the social implications of marriage is that it binds two individuals’ lives together including their social lives. Usually, each individual has a separate social life consisting of interactive behavior peculiar to that specific individual. For instance, some people thrive in crowds while others prefer seclusion.
Marriage interferes with this dynamic by creating a social atmosphere that requires the married partners to adapt and thrive in each other’s choice of social interactions. Secondly, the institution of marriage creates a responsibility for the couple to reproduce.
Reproduction forms the consummation bit of marriage and in most societies it forms one of the essential reasons that people engage in marital affairs. In most societies, marriage is an aspect that elevates the status of the concerned individuals. Married couples serve as role models to the younger generations as a road map for responsible social behavior and appropriate interaction between males and females, especially with regard to sexual interactions.
Marriage also defines the gender roles in society by prescribing what society expects of men and women alike. For instance, men typically play the role of protectors for women in society, which emanates from their roles as individuals within marriages. Society also requires men to provide for women in their lives and consequently the women in the entire society. On the other hand, women are generally responsible for raising the young members of society through raising their families.
Such a responsibility involves imparting moral virtues into children from infancy and guiding them through to adulthood. Lawrence Kohlberg forms part of the group of scholars that prescribe to this notion through their establishment of the moral development theory. The theory suggests that children take on the moral beliefs of their parents as well as members of society they hold in high regard.
Lastly, marriage requires people to work as partners in decision-making. Decisions depend on personal perceptions of situations and environments. However, marriage introduces a new element to the decision making process, which is the life of another individual. Decisions that a person make can affect the life of the other. For this reason, married people consider the way that their decisions affect the lives of others around them.
In most societies, marriage is also a religious institution. Although most cultures require the legal formalization of marriages, they also consider them religious unions for which they perform ceremonies marking their initialization. Different cultures celebrate wedding ceremonies in different ways, but the ultimate denominator in all of them is the sacred nature with which they hold the marriage institution.
Some societies consider reproduction outside marriage as a taboo, and thus encouraging marriage as a way of erasing the ‘shame’. Since religion forms an integral part of the society’s practices, the practice of marriage as an escape makes it part of society’s practices too.
Early marriage involves the union between two individuals below the legal age of majority, which is usually between thirteen and fifteen years in most societies. In most cases, marriage is a preserve for adults. However, most communities do not have specific ages at which society considers its members adults.
In order to ensure uniformity, the legal institutions in different societies establish a standard age to represent the age of majority at which members of society consider younger members as adults. Setting a definite age of majority is important because it sets the boundary beyond which young adults can conduct their activities legally including property ownership and marriage. For instance, in China, the age of majority is twenty-two years, while in the United States the acceptable universal age is eighteen years for all states except Nebraska, which prescribes to nineteen-years.
There are numerous reasons for which teenagers choose to get into marriage with the most common one being early pregnancy. Research indicates that although the rate at which teenagers get pregnant has dropped over the centuries, over three hundred thousand teenagers in the United States between the ages of fifteen and nineteen got pregnant in 2012.
Traditionally, the American society favored marriage for teenagers going through early pregnancy to save them from shame and stigma. Most Americans consider teenage mothers as irresponsible persons with poor judgment, hence the stigma. Although times have changed and teenagers feel more independent now than they did in the nineteenth century, society still frowns upon teenage pregnancy, thus creating the need for teenage mothers to marry at a young age to avoid the stigma.
The second reason why teenagers choose to engage in marriage is love. Ideally, love is a concept that society believes should be the main reason why individuals choose to marry. However, love is subjective and it means different things to different people, which explains why love is a complex concept to explain. For instance, most people use the presence of affection as an indicator of love, but due to the ambiguity of gestures that constitute affection, it is always difficult to distinguish between genuine and fake affection.
The complexity, ambiguity, and lack of objectivity of love as a concept is one of the principle reasons why the American society deems it necessary to make requirements for parental consent for teenagers under the age of majority. Teenagers tend to act out of impulse in their journey to self-discovery, thus clouding their judgment regarding what is essential in their lives as they grow into adulthood.
Another reason why teenagers yearn to engage in marriage is their religious beliefs.
Religious institutions are some of the avenues through which teenagers learn about their roles in society as well as what constitutes ethical behavior. The more religious institutions teach on the importance and benefits of marriage, the more young members of society who prescribe to such institutions feel the need to conform in order to gain acceptance.
However, in doing so, teenagers usually overlook various other factors such as their responsibility to themselves as children and responsibilities that follow marriage. As mentioned earlier, teenage in a phase in which self-discovery is crucial, usually through trial and error. Although some decisions that teenagers make only have temporary effects on their lives, others, such as marriage, are more permanent, thus creating the necessity for society to shield its children from such effects.
In the US, the law requires parental consent or consent of a legal guardian for marriage between teenagers below the age of eighteen years, usually coupled with a court order. In some cases, the law also prescribes counseling sessions to aid in the transition and inform the young adults of their responsibilities, especially when early pregnancies are involved.
Security is the third reason why some teenagers choose marriage as one of their life choices. The two forms of security that are common in these cases are physical security and financial security. Physical security usually applies in instances where teenagers live on their own or desire better companionship than they currently have with their families or guardians. Such teenagers use marriage as a solution for their vulnerability as it provides them with a permanent guardian of their choice.
Such a move works sometimes albeit not always. Financial security involves the provision of all the monetary requirements that an individual deems essential for survival and comfort among other needs. In most cases, teenagers who choose to marry other teenagers for financial stability consider the family background of the individual in question. Some teenagers even resort to pregnancy as a means of attaining such security from male counterparts with substantial wealth.
Although family and peer pressure are not common reasons for early marriages in the present American society, they are still viable reasons why teenagers choose to marry at an early age. As noted earlier, teenagers have the tendency of making decisions on a whim without thinking the consequences through. As a result, it is possible to find teenagers venturing into marriage just to ‘fit in’ without analyzing the outcome of their actions.
Research shows that unlike marriages that existed between teenage couples in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, teenage couples that marry presently experience higher chances of divorce. Marriages founded on peer pressure lack substantive reason to make them last, thus forming part of the reason divorces among teenage marriages are high.
Culture forms yet another reason why teenagers resort to marriage at such tender ages. The United States is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the contemporary world. The resultant effect of such cultural diversity is an exchange of cultural experiences and activities among communities that live together.
In such scenarios, young individuals from one community learn from and sometimes adopt cultural practices from other communities as they grow into adulthood. For instance, the Hindu culture permits arranged marriages whereas the African American culture favors personal choice of spouses.
A possible result of the two communities living together is young Indian children choosing to adapt the culture of the African American community instead of their own, thus rushing into marriage at a young age to avoid betrothal. Although the American judiciary has tried its best to ensure that young adults do not make permanent decisions such as marriage without oversight from parents or guardians, it is still possible for teenagers to exploit loopholes in laws and contract marriages without parental supervision.
Ethical perspective of early marriage
The issue of early marriages is one that has resulted in a lot of controversy over the years, especially with regard to the ethical aspect of the matter. Some scholars argue against the allowance of early marriages among teenagers by citing various reasons including the mental maturity of teenagers and the concept’s compliance with culture.
In the US, most people strive for compliance with international cultural practices that support the abolition of early marriage provisions in the law. The American government supports the institution of adult marriages over teenage marriages, owing to some of the implications stated above that most teenagers, in society’s opinion, could not handle.
However, it is important to note that the presence of legal provisions in support of the practice under specific conditions means that the American society approves the practice as part of its culture. Therefore, early marriages involving teenagers are indeed ethical. In proving this point, it is vital to go over several elements that influence the ethicality of marriage among young adults.
First, it is important to remember that early marriage is a cultural practice that has run through the American society for centuries albeit at a reducing rate as each century passes by.
Culture is an element that displays the uniqueness of different societies. It connotes the distinctive ways in which people live, represents their experiences, and displays the changes different environments can have to people’s behavioral patterns. Some of the elements that constitute culture include language, traditions, religion, leadership, technology, and cuisine.
Scholars explain that when people live together for a substantial length of time, they develop habits that help in defining who they are. Therefore, annihilating the existence of the practice in conformity with international cultures kills off the identity of the American society as a distinct entity in the international arena. The American society should thus let the practice subsist and die a natural death instead of one thrust upon it in the guise of development.
Secondly, it is important to remember that the environment around which teenagers develop is presently different in comparison to its condition twenty years ago. Teenagers are not as vulnerable now as they used to be. Various factors have led to a change in the physical and subsequently the cultural environment, thus increasing adaptability to new practices. For instance, technology is one of the main elements that have contributed to the great shift in most cultural practices.
Individuals are now in a position to access information regarding other cultures and the benefits that some of them have over their own. This aspect has enhanced interaction amongst different cultural groups, thus enabling the groups to learn from and even adopt specific aspects from other cultures. The resultant effect is the creation of new cultural practices that comprise combinations of different practices from different groups.
Essentially, this aspect means that teenagers no longer make foolhardy decisions out of ignorance, but out of the knowledge that they obtain to make decisions including those concerning marriage. For instance, most teenagers in the Indian communities prefer marriage options that allow them to choose their own partners based on criteria of their choice when making decisions concerning marriage, as opposed to the age-old practice of arranged marriages.
It is worth noting that technology, as an interactive tool, only enlightens the teenagers on their options and allows them to make their own choices thus creating an enlightened society. The teenagers may very well choose to engage in early marriages, but they do so out of enlightenment. This assertion underscores one of the ways that society can let the young in its midst grow into maturity without excessive restraints by allowing them to learn from their mistakes for a better future.
Education serves as another important factor influencing the ethicality of early marriages. Teenagers in the US presently get better education than those in the eighteenth and nineteenth century did. This aspect means that currently, the vast majority of teenagers are well aware of the benefits as well as the downside to early marriage.
In addition, thanks to the advancements in the education system, the young adults possess the independent mentality to analyze concepts such as morality and culture. Morality, for instance, is a subjective principle that depends on the perception of an individual with regard to different situations. Different individuals subscribe to different moral doctrines thus making it difficult to establish whether certain acts conform to morality or not.
One of the moral doctrines available for adoption is moral absolutism, which essentially suggests that certain actions are moral while others are not, without any middle ground between the two. This doctrine is mostly common with religious institutions around the world. An example of actions that such institutions find utterly immoral regardless of the reason behind it is murder.
Scholars that prescribe to the doctrine of moral relativism on the other hand believe that morality is dependent on persisting circumstances during decision-making. Relativism suggests that an action that one person may consider moral at a point in time may appear immoral in another depending on the circumstances.
An example of such a scene where one person steals in order to satisfy basic needs while another steals to amass wealth. In both cases, the common factor is theft, but circumstances differ. John Stuart Mill, a proponent of moral relativism, also posits that a person should be in a position to do what he or she wishes with his or her life as long as such actions do not interfere with the peaceful existence of other people within the same community.
This assertion means that society should allow individuals to marry as long as their actions do not present any threat to the existence of other members in society. Such enlightened analysis of various situations owing to education has enabled teenagers to develop personal theories regarding marriage.
By creating education centers to impart such knowledge, the society implies its trust and faith in teenagers to make decisions that best suit their lives while fostering free will. By doing so, society ensures that it does not guard the freedom of teenagers so much that it keeps them from developing independent decisions concerning their own personal lives.
The actions of teenagers, as young adults, in any society mirror the general attitude and behavior of the majority of the influential members of that society. Several theories suggest that teenagers emulate what they learn from adults from their childhood into their adulthood. Therefore, if adults in a society find it unethical to engage in early marriages, it is easier to teach the same to teenagers by acting in ways that prove otherwise and setting examples for the younger generations.
Kohlberg, who is a proponent of the moral development theory, posits that as children grow, they emulate the behavior of their parents and other influential members of the society before forming independent ideologies during adulthood. The scholars suggest that there are three stages to a child’s development into adulthood with each overlapping the other. The first stage is the pre-conventional stage whereby children learn from their parents through a system of punishments and rewards.
Here, children tend to focus more on actions that yield rewards and less on those that result in punishment. The second stage, the conventional stage, which occurs during teenage, comprises of behavior involving the teenager mimicking actions from members of society they look up to with the main aim being acceptance and conformity. This stage primarily applies to this discussion by proving that teenagers only engage in early marriages if influential members of society make it seem normal.
This assertion underscores the reason behind the decline in early marriages in the US over the years. The last stage in the moral development theory is the post-conventional theory, which involves the adoption of independent views over various issues that an individual has considered the norm throughout the development process. Kohlberg indicate that the last stage sometimes manifests much later in life depending on a person’s cognitive ability. Society should thus not allocate blame on teenagers for their choice of marriage periods.
The personality of an individual often guides the decisions he or she makes. For instance, introverts prefer living in seclusion away from most of society, while social people thrive in attention. A person’s personality also determines how he or she reacts to stimulus from the surrounding environment. Society forms part of such stimulus.
Therefore, it is right to state that society plays a hand in endorsing early marriages by the way it treats teenagers. Most adults in society know the causes of early marriages, but they do little to change the circumstances that potentially compel teenagers to engage in marital affairs. For instance, rebellion is one of the reasons why teenagers choose to get into marriages, as a medium of escape from abuse by adult caregivers.
However, unlike engagement in alcohol and drug abuse, marriage provides a means through which society can monitor the young adults and guide its success as a learning process. Sigmund Freud, the founder of the Psychoanalytical theory on personalities, “explains that personality is divisible into three components, namely the id, the ego, and the super ego”. The id acts according to the pleasure principle, viz. desiring pleasure without considering the environment.
The ego becomes operational at this point, with its function being to synchronize the desires of the id with the environment, thus meeting the desires in accordance to reality. The super ego applies societal ideals and moral judgment upon the ego resulting in actions that are both realistic and moral. According to this theory, actions of adult members of society influence the reactions of teenagers in the same society.
Another scholar, Heinz Kohut, uses the Freudian theory to introduce the idea of mirroring and idealization. In his view, “children need to idealize certain concepts and allow for emotional acceptance in order to learn self-soothing and other skills that are necessary in life”.
This observation suggests that marriage is one of the self-soothing mechanisms that teenagers from broken homes or abusive families apply in their quest for more comfortable living environments. Heinz also supports the view that psychic energy is convertible into behavior.
Translation of this theory into real life situations regarding the subject at hand means that instead of prohibiting the availability of marriage for teenagers, society should strive to change their mode of thinking instead. Another scholar, B.F Skinner, “presents the view that children use bad behavior as a means of obtaining attention”.
The fact that prior activity of the nature usually results in the attraction of attention serves to reinforce the action. For instance, a baby might resort to crying in a bid to draw attention as such behavior has hitherto given such results. Crying, in this case is a response to a stimulus, while attention is the consequence. The stimulus is the circumstance that would cause the child to cry for attention. Such behavior, over time, embeds in the child, thus becoming part of his or her personality.
An overview of these theories establishes that society has a duty to young adults during their childhood years to set the right environments for growth before allocating blame to teenagers and the ethicality of their actions. In addition, marriage laws form part of the environmental factors in the application of the above theories, making early marriages ethical and legal for teenagers.
The American constitution is a document that guards the society’s most treasured values against exploitation and abuse. It forms the core of the society’s moral foundation. The first ten amendments of the constitution comprise laws that together form the American Bill of Rights, the fundamental rights, and freedoms that each American citizen has the right to exercise without interference from other people.
Application of the constitution to the subject matter reveals that early marriage is ethical as long as it complies with the provisions of the Bill of Rights and it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. In this light, the American constitution supports the ethicality of early marriages by providing rules that support.
As long as teenagers seeking to engage in early marriage are eighteen years and above, the constitution protects their right to marry any individual of their choice within the same age bracket without interference from members of the society, regardless of their relationship with the teenagers in question. In cases where the eligibility of teenagers for marriage depends on reasons other than age, the courts provide remedies that suit each case individually. Such endorsement is indicative of the ethical nature of early marriages in the US.
Early marriages comply fully with society’s concept of morality in numerous ways. Most early marriages in the US occur between teenagers under the prescribed age of majority. In addition, society shows various ways in which it supports the practice, including provision of meticulous procedures for teenagers who deem it fit to engage in marital affairs before they attain twenty years of age.
Society goes a step further to provide adult supervision during and after the marriage process by ensuring that it is safe for teenagers. Current trends and changes in society have made the practice diminish in popularity, and thus present few causes of concern for the American society.
Dahl, Gordon. “Early Teen Marriage and Future Poverty.” Demography 47, no. 3 (2010): 689-718.
Hamilton, Brady, Joyce Martin, and Stephanie Ventura. Births: Preliminary Data for 2012. Hyattsville: National Center for Health Statistics, 2012.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. The meaning and measurement of moral development (Volume 13). Worcester: Clark University Heinz Warner Institute, 1981.
Myers, David. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 2010.
Schultz, Duane, and Sydney Schultz. Theories of Personality. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2008.
- Lawrence Kohlberg, The meaning and measurement of moral development (Worcester: Clark University Heinz Warner Institute, 1981), 82.
- Brady Hamilton, Joyce Martin and Stephanie Ventura, Births: Preliminary Data for 2012 (Hyattsville: National Center for Health Statistics, 2012), 98-112.
- Gordon Dahl, “Early Teen Marriage and Future Poverty,” Demography 47, no. 3 (2010): 697.
- Gordon Dahl, “Early Teen Marriage and Future Poverty,” Demography 47, no. 3 (2010): 699.
- David Myers, Psychology (New York: Worth Publishers, 2010) 128.
- Lawrence Kohlberg, The meaning and measurement of moral development (Worcester: Clark University Heinz Warner Institute, 1981), 95.
- Ibid, 98.
- David Myers, Psychology (New York: Worth Publishers, 2010), 61.
- Duane Schultz and Sydney Schultz, Theories of Personality (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2008), 112.
- David Myers, Psychology (New York: Worth Publishers, 2010), 35.
- Ibid, 62.
- Ibid, 86.