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First marriages by women under age 18 are the most likely group to divorce.

Teen Marriage and Divorce

Teen Marriage and Divorce

Can Bristol Palin Make Marriage Work at 17? Experts Say It's More Likely to End in Divorce


    She's 17, five months pregnant and planning to get married to her 18-year-old boyfriend. Given her mother is Sarah Palin, the GOP nominee for the vice presidential office of the United States, Bristol Palin isn't your typical pregnant teen-ager. But her circumstances have Americans asking, can a teen-age marriage survive in this day and age? Most say no.

"First marriages by women under age 18 are the most likely group to divorce," said Brette Sember, a retired attorney, author of "The Divorce Organizer and Planner." "The divorce rates are quite high for this group. Recent studies have shown that the brains of teens and those in their early 20s are not fully mature, so to expect someone to make a lifelong commitment and be able to stick to it at this age is just not realistic."

According to a 2001 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are more likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after age 25. The study used statistics from 1995.  

"Making it as a family requires some characteristics that come with maturity, such as selflessness, stability and self-control. It's best to wait for their arrival,"  wrote James C. Dobson, Ph.D. in "Seven Keys to Lifelong Love."

Whether they have those attributes or not, the couple appear happily engaged. On Wednesday night, Bristol and her new fiance, Levi Johnston, sat with the other Palin siblings in the VIP box at the Republican National Convention. They held hands during the speech and were later greeted on stage by GOP Presidential nominee John McCain. 

U.S. Census statistics from 1998 show 1 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds as married. But the rates were higher among 18- and 19-year-olds. They also vary by region, with highest rates in the South. The agency does not collect information to show how many of the marriages involved pregnancy. 

Betsey Stevenson, assistant professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, noted that "shot-gun marriages have declined and the number of out-of-wedlock births has risen dramatically" in the last few decades.

Kay Moffett, author of "Not Your Mother's Divorce: A Practical, Girlfriend-to-Girlfriend Guide to Surviving the End of a Young Marriage," thinks it's unlikely young couples like Bristol and Levi will stay together. “Many couples who marry too early haven’t achieved a fully formed self,” she said. She advises couples to wait until they’re in their late 20’s to marry. “This allows for a period ...to figure one’s self out." 

Bristol Palin's circumstances may have become a political issue in the 2008 election, given that her mother, who has five children including one with Down syndrome, is a right-to-life advocate. But teen pregnancy and teen marriage has been around long before Sarah Palin announced her daughter's pregnancy and upcoming nuptials. In New Hampshire, young women can marry at age 13 if there's a "special cause" and they have parental consent and court permission. The majority of states allow for marriage at age 16 with parental consent. Some experts have suggested a national age for marriage.

Still, the median age for marriage has increased in America over the last 35 years. In the late 1950s, most women married at about age 19, said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. But that's climbed from 23 for men and 21 for women in 1970 to 27.5 for men and 25.5 for women in 2006, said William A.Galston of the Brookings Institution. 

The trend toward waiting to marry may be positive, said Lori Gorshow, the owner and president of Dating Made Simple, at www.makedatingsimple.com, a dating coach who helps people develop successful interpersonal skills. “As you gain more real-word experience, you gain wisdom,” Gorshow said. “And with wisdom, you can apply that to your relationship.”            

And over the years, the expectations that Americans have of marriage have changed, according to Caroline Schacht, a divorce mediator and teacher at East Carolina University. In the 1950s, the main purpose of marriage was to have and raise children, while today women and men want marriage to provide intimacy and companionship, she said.  

No matter what expectations that Bristol Palin and her finace have of marriage, it's still possible the couple -- like other couples who have married after a pregnancy -- have a chance, according to Divorce360 expert Dr. Mark Goulston, Ph.D., a Los Angeles, Calif., psychiatrist and author of "The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship." 

"One thing that might help Bristol Palin and her boy friend to stay together is the intoxication of new fame and notoriety that they both share that no one around them will have in common," he said. "In essence they could become the Bonnie and Clyde of the teen pregnancy group."


1. Shared core values.
Values are not what you say, think or believe, but what you do on a day-to-day basis and resist changing. If the teens have these it increases the chance of a lasting relationship, if they don't it decreases it.
2. Maturity.
This is the ability to resist acting on impulses. It would seem that if two teenagers can't resist the tempation to have unprotected sex, they won't be able to resist acting on other impulses. This is related to a concept called object constancy which means the capacity to sustain and maintain a connection and relationship in the face of disappointment, upset and hurt. Immature couples, like young children, go from anger to "I hate you" to "Let's break up/get a divorce/ etc." Mature couples when upset say: "When you did 'X', I felt 'Y', and I would like you to not do that again. If you are upset with me, the best way to communicate it do me so I will hear it is 'z'."Immature couples love each other for they do right; mature couples love each other in spite of what they do wrong.

3. Supportive family and friends.
Teenagers who are pregnant are very sensitive and succeptable to other's influences. If their parents or sets of parents are supportive and cooperative, it has a better chance of working out than if everyone is angry, blaming and continuing to offer unsolicted opinions and advice. If a teen pregnancy takes place in a subculture where it is common, that works for it. If it doesn't and the couple is surrounded by people who gossip about it, that works against it. 

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