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Kristin Shaw Headshot

Is 21 Too Young to Marry?

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When we hired our full-time babysitter at the end of 2011, she was about to turn 20, with a few college classes and a couple of years of childcare under her belt. Rebecca was sweet and responsible, and our son loved her.

During the interview phase, I told her that our previous sitter decided to move to Mexico with her boyfriend so that he could pursue his dream of making it big as an online poker player. Yes, she really did. I joked with Rebecca that she couldn't run off and move away and she laughed and emphatically said, "No, ma'am. I'm not even dating anyone!"

Three months later, Rebecca met someone; a young man just a year older than she is. And two months after that, she sat down in my office and said she needed to talk to me: they were getting engaged and moving to his home state of West Virginia.

I took a deep breath, and tried not to cry. Finding a good sitter is like finding a bar of gold.

Then she said, "But we're not moving for a year." Exhale.

And here we are, a year later, and my young employee is a week away from tying the knot with this young man. She's 21 now, exactly half my age; when I was 21, I was nowhere close to working full-time, furnishing a house, or getting married. I was living it up in college, showing up for rowing practice on the river every morning at 5:30 AM, and ruining my eardrums with early-90s hair band concerts.

My first instinct was to tell her that she's too young. That they're moving too fast. I wanted to tell her to slow down.

But the thing is, I have no idea if they are too young and moving too fast. It's not up to me to tell her that she's making the wrong decision, because although it's possible the odds are against her, it's also possible they'll stay married for the rest of their lives. After all, my in-laws married when they were 20 and 21, and they're still happily wed 40 years later. Even my younger sister was just 23, and she and her husband just celebrated 15 years and three children together.

I can't give her any platitudes or guarantees; there are no books I can tell her to read for great advice. There is no such thing as a parenting expert, and there is no such thing as a marriage expert; every person handles marriage differently. What I can give her is a few insights with age and one failure under my belt.

1) Go to bed mad.

Yeah, I said it. Common wisdom tells you to resolve everything before retiring for the night, but I'll tell you that doesn't always work for two reasons. One, because maybe I'm tired and want to go to bed but I'm not ready to concede or I want to be mad a little longer. Two, because I know that sleep will cool my anger and in the morning, we'll kiss and either forget what it was we were fighting about, or we'll move on in a calmer frame of mind.

2) Enter marriage with the belief that there is not an easy exit hatch.

My first marriage was a disaster in many ways, and every time we would have an argument, he would say, "Well, we'll just get a divorce, then." Trying to have a fair discussion with someone who always has one foot out the door doesn't create a feeling of trust. If you know that you and your spouse are sticking with each other even through the tough times, you will feel safe enough to disagree and express yourself.

3) It really is the little things.

Stock the fridge with his favorite foods, make sure his soap dispenser is full, and tell him how much he means to you. This is especially important when or if you have children, because a kid changes a lot of things. Don't ever forget to show him and tell him how much he means to you. And expect him to do the same for you, within reason. Don't keep score, but pay attention to the balance.

4) Don't wish away these early years.

I know you don't have much money and I hear you saying, "It's going to be so great when we have money for..." but the thing is, you'll look back on this part of your marriage with great nostalgia someday. These first few years, as you figure out who you are and he figures out who he is and you iron out the fabric of your married life, you will find much joy in the journey. Lack of money brings great creativity, and you'll have a great time discovering life together.

5) Love is a verb.

My uncle said this to us on our wedding day, and I know exactly what he means. Getting married doesn't mean that you will automatically love and cherish that person every day of your life; it means that you will have the choice to love and cherish that person every day of your life. In other words, be an active participant, because as many people will tell you, it's not always easy. In fact, sometimes it will be very difficult. It's up to you to choose love.

As Laura Willard wrote recently, "Marriage is more than the best. It's also the worst. It's the hard parts. The lows. Marriage is all of it. It's the sum of the parts. It's a commitment to savor the highs, ride out the lows and appreciate with everything you have the space between."

I will shed tears of both joy and sadness at your wedding. You are like a daughter to me, and my three-year-old, who has fallen in love with you, will surely feel the separation and we will remember your influence in our lives.

Godspeed and best wishes, my young friend.