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States consider underage marriage bans

The practice is uncommon now but still worries some


States consider underage marriage bans

Fraidy Reiss was a teenager in the 1990s when her parents forced her into an arranged marriage as part of their ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith. Her husband verbally abused her and made life horrible for Reiss and their two young daughters. She finally succeeded in extricating herself from the marriage 12 years later, also leaving the Jewish faith. Her family no longer speaks to her.

Although marriage under age 18 is less common in the United States than it was when Reiss got married, recent legislation in several states may make such marriages more difficult—and in some cases, illegal. Reiss said under-18 laws would not have saved her from her fate—she wed at 19—but she hopes age restrictions will stop more young people from marrying too young.

Earlier this month, West Virginia lawmakers proposed a bill that would have required couples to be at least 18 to wed, but several state senators pushed back.

State Sen. Eric Tarr said he was 17 years old when he married. “I’ve been married for 33 years to a beautiful loving wife that I got married to in high school,” he said. Mike Stuart, another West Virginia state senator, added, “My parents were married at 16. They are disgustingly in love. To this day, they can’t keep their hands off each other.”

The bill passed with an amendment allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to wed, provided they have a parent’s permission and the person they marry is no more than four years older.

Last month, Wyoming passed a similar bill, requiring 16- and 17-year-olds to go before a judge in addition to getting parental consent. The state previously had no marriage age restrictions.

Reiss doesn’t think parental permission requirements will help. In many underage marriages like her own, it’s parents who are the problem. Her organization, Unchained at Last, has helped 900 people, predominantly women, leave underage marriages, and she said all of them were in unions instigated by parents. Adding parental consent requirements may stop young lovebirds from running away and eloping. But it won’t help those with aggressive families trying to pair children off.

“It’s like saying you can kidnap a child only if you sign the form saying you’re going to kidnap the child,” she said. “It makes no sense.”

Right now, 25 states allow 16-year-olds to marry, nine states permit 17-year-olds and another 10 states have bills pending to restrict marriage age to 18 and up. Seven states still have no age limit on the books.

According to Unchained at Last, between 2000 and 2018, about 300,000 children under 18 legally married in the United States.

Still, census data shows that underage marriage is becoming less and less common. Just 0.8 percent of American teens were listed as married in 2016. On average, Americans are waiting longer to marry, not rushing into it. The average U.S. woman is 28 years old at her wedding, while the average man is 30.

As a result, states see very few teens marrying. Local news outlet Wyoming Truth reported that out of 4,207 registered marriages in the state in 2022, just 16 involved someone under 18.

Christian marriage experts cautioned that even if teens aren’t forced into marriage, those that marry for love will face many troubles along the way. Greg Smalley, vice president of marriage and family formation at Focus on the Family, said young couples have the advantage of growing up together and sharing many firsts, like a first kiss. Smalley, who married at 23, also said he was immature and found married life difficult.

“I felt so overwhelmed as a young husband,” he said in an email. “I was barely able to care for myself, much less lead my 24-year-old bride. I can’t imagine being an 18-year-old—much less a 16- or 17-year-old—and being able to take that much responsibility all at once.”

Smalley said those who simply can’t wait should get at least 10 hours of premarital counseling and seek out a couple who’s been married longer to mentor them.

Others, however, say age is just a number. Dick Bott was 18 when he married his 17-year-old bride, Sherley. “We were both much older than our years,” the 89 year-old said, and noted that when it comes to a successful marriage, maturity matters more than age. Bott said he was a mature 17-year-old who relied on God and had the support of his family, friends, and church community.

“Young or old, marriage is for adults,” he said. “Some people are 60 years old and still not adults.”

The Botts will celebrate 71 years of wedded bliss this June.

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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