Waiting for the right moment: Local couples find their own timing for marriage

Kellee and Gary Pratt pose in front of a bowl of X's and O's, which they say they bought as a table decoration because the two text message one another constantly and always sign the messages with X's and O's.

Kellee and Gary Pratt, Lawrence, pose in front of a movie premier poster they had for guests to sign at their movie-themed wedding at Liberty Hall. The couple chose a movie-themed wedding because of their shared love of the cinema.

Angela and Brett Folks.

Lawrence couple Gary and Kellee Pratt sometimes wonder what their lives would have been like had they found each other sooner.

But it’s not a thought that holds them for too long. Each married for the first time in their 20s, and it wasn’t until their 40s, after their previous marriages had ended in divorce, that they took a second go at marriage.

“Some people are lucky enough to find their true partner for life early on,” says Kellee Pratt, 42. “I know that wasn’t the case for me, nor for my husband.”

The Pratts say they wouldn’t have minded meeting a bit sooner, but they are glad they didn’t meet in their 20s when both feel they weren’t ready for marriage.

“I wouldn’t go too far back,” says Gary Pratt, 43, “because if you meet somebody at a young age, you don’t really know who you are. I really know who I am now.”

So, what time is right?

Statistics show that many Kansas couples are delaying marriage. The percentage of new brides under the age of 20 has shrunk from nearly 15 percent in 1988 to about 8 percent in 2007, according to reports from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. And the statistics for new grooms has dropped as well, from about 6 percent in 1988 to 3 percent in 2007.

In 2007, the latest year reported, the average age was 30 for Kansas brides and 32 for grooms. First-time brides had an average age of 25, and grooms were 27 on average.

Lining up almost perfectly with those numbers are Kate Shipley and Ben Gleeson, who will be 25 and 26, respectively, on their June 2010 wedding day. Being part of the average seems right to the Lawrence couple, who met as sophomores at Kansas University.

“I never wanted to get married when I was really young. I never wanted to get married until I graduated college,” Shipley says. “I wanted more life experiences, a more mature perspective on my life.”

Another way they line up with the statistics? They are living together before their wedding day — buying their first house together this summer. Nationally, the number of unmarried couples who live together has been on the rise for decades, according to statistics from The National Marriage Project at Rutgers. In 1980, nearly 1.6 million couples of the opposite sex cohabitated, according to the project’s State of Our Unions 2008 report. That number rose to 6.4 million in 2007.

“I don’t really think the relationship changes between the day before the wedding and the day after the wedding,” Gleeson says. “I think a lot of it is other people’s perceptions and legal standing.”

One statistic Shipley and Gleeson don’t plan on coinciding with is the divorce rate. On average, the ratio of marriages to divorces is 2-to-1 in Kansas and nationally. And in 2007 the most common age group for marriage dissolutions was among 25- to 29-year-olds.

Paul Hahn, a marriage and family therapist with Hahn Marital Therapy, 4105 W. Sixth St., says he believes the divorce and cohabitation numbers go hand-in-hand.

“So many, many of those 20-year-olds grew up in broken homes, and in their adolescence they saw and experienced in their own lives how painful divorce can be,” Hahn says. “And I think one of the reasons why we have so much cohabitation and such a high divorce rate is that we have a generation of young people who on one hand don’t believe in marriage and on the other hand haven’t had examples set for them in their families of how to maintain a marriage.”

Shipley and Gleeson both consider themselves lucky in that regard — both their parents are still married and have, according to the couple, set good examples.

“I don’t think I’m jaded,” Shipley says. “I wish that everyone could get married, that’s one thing I have a problem with, but barring that, it seems like marriage is a pretty solid way to make a commitment to someone for your whole life.”

Kellee Pratt says that an early flaw in her first marriage was that she didn’t know what she wanted for her life other than a chance to make that commitment.

“I didn’t know myself as well back then as I do now,” she says. “I honestly thought, ‘I’m in a small college town, and maybe this is my only chance to get married.’ I can’t believe I used to think that.”

Hahn says that from his experience, it’s common to place a deadline for marriage.

“There is sometimes that cultural expectation of when you’re supposed to get married, according to the date of your birth,” Hahn says. “But really, age is really just a number. The big issue for couples to consider is, ‘Am I mature?'”

Newlyweds Angela and Brett Folks say they believe that. Though Angela was just 24 on her October 2008 wedding day, she says after two-and-a-half years of dating, they knew they were ready.

“I feel like we’re both mature and we wanted to be together,” Folks says. “We just kind of knew that it was the right time.”