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The Problems With Young Love

September 16, 1988|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

They say we're young

and we don't know /

We won't find out until we grow.

Well, I don't know if all that's true /

'Cause you got me, and, baby, I got you."

From "I Got You, Babe," Sonny and Cher, 1965

Lane Fields and Mary Willis began dating around Valentine's Day, 1986, when he was 17 and she was 16. Within a year, each began thinking funny little Valentine kinds of thoughts--like maybe they had found a lifetime partner. But unlike most other teen-agers who think such thoughts and then two weeks later are dating someone else, Lane and Mary did an unusual thing: They got married.

Unusual, because on their wedding day in May, Lane was 19 and Mary 18. At a time when people are delaying marriage (the national median age for first-time marriages is 23.1 for women and 25.7 for men), Lane and Mary decided to buck the odds.

Why?

"You know if you're ready or not," Lane said, sitting with his bride in the living room of their Santa Ana apartment. "Some people might look down on you, getting married this young, but a person must choose for himself. We are both the oldest in our families, so we've had a lot of responsibility that way. I think a more pressing factor might be if you're responsible enough."

National statistics indicate that about half of the marriages that start today will end in divorce. While none of several professional psychologists interviewed had statistics on teen-age marriages, all said the chances for divorce are much higher for those marriages than for the population at large. "I'd say it's probably more in the 75% to 80% range," said Linda Grossman, a Laguna Niguel clinical psychologist.

"What I usually try to tell teens who are even thinking about (getting married) is that people in their late teens and early 20s change a tremendous amount--and very quickly--in their goals," family therapist and psychologist Thea Reinhart said.

Asked if teen-agers can understand that, Reinhart, who doesn't know Lane and Mary and who was speaking generally, said: "They can if they're insightful, but if they're very determined (to get married) for other reasons, like a deep inner need for love or to anchor or attach to someone, they won't hear it. They'll understand it logically, but their deep inner feeling will drive them to hold on to that thought of marriage."

Statistics are unavailable on the number of married teen-agers in Orange County, but a county court official said there probably are thousands. One barometer is the county Superior Court's Mediation and Investigative Services, where, as required by state law, a counselor interviews teen-age couples applying for marriage licenses. The counselor then recommends to a domestic relations judge whether the license should be approved.

In 1987 in Orange County, the service evaluated 185 applications, down from 290 in 1986. Jan Shaw, the director of the county program, said the drop-off most likely reflected the county's enactment in 1987 of a more thorough evaluation procedure. When teen-agers learn that the county has more than a pro forma procedure before they can get a license, Shaw said, "A number of them will say: 'Fine, we'll go to Las Vegas.' "

Through July of this year, the service has intervened in 103 cases, recommending that 89 be approved and 14 be denied. Shaw conceded that the percentage of favorable recommendations was high but noted that many couples withdraw their applications during the evaluation procedure. "Often times, we're successful in helping couples understand they're not ready for this marriage," she said. The county doesn't keep track of what happens to couples who aren't recommended for a marriage license, she added.

Although the state requires counties to evaluate marriage license applicants under 18, it doesn't specify the program. Orange County toughened its evaluation because the same counselors who interview those applicants also handle cases of child custody and visitation resulting from broken marriages, Shaw said.

"Because we see so much of the other end of the continuum (the failed marriages), it became very obvious to us that we needed to take as close a look at these under-age marriages as we could," Shaw said. "We really try to sort out these couples that are likely to make it and those who are not."

The mediator's interview with the couples, which averages 1 1/2 hours, is designed "to paint a picture for the court . . . in terms of the suitability of the couple to marry," Shaw said.

None of the professional therapists nor high school counselors interviewed for this article--picked at random and asked to speak in general terms--expressed much overall confidence in the ability of teen-age marriages to survive. To oldsters, the reasons the professionals give are painfully obvious: teen-agers aren't aware of the changes they will undergo or the difficulties of married life.

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