Standing in the hallway, seven-year-old Elliot watched as his father attempted to choke Elliot’s pregnant mother. He went to jail for that. Another time, Elliot watched as his father grabbed a bunch of his clothes and belongings and said, “I’m leaving.” When Elliot’s mom asked him when he was coming back, he said, “Never.” His father explained that he could buy more cocaine if he didn’t have a family. The next day, he overdosed at work—and his mom went to pick him up.
“I told her to leave his ass,” Elliot told me. “I said, ‘Leave him there, this is what he wanted.’” He was busting through $17,000 of cocaine a week, and on top of that, he was an alcoholic. That’s when he got violent, and Elliot hated it. But as his father went through vicious withdrawals—blood oozing out of his eyes, nose, and ears—his mother nursed him back to health.
When Elliot was 13, his family lost their house and moved into a trailer park in a new town, in a new school district. The first week on the school bus, some kid smacked Elliot with a newspaper. Elliot punched him in the face and threw him to the ground.
“Man, I helped him up and we became best friends after that,” Elliot recalled. “He was the first person I did drugs with—ended up smoking marijuana with him.” He started selling pot, too, including to his gym teacher. But that ended when the school expelled him for punching a teacher.
“My dad taught me to fight when I was real young,” Elliot said. “My dad, he grew up fighting.” His dad never hid his drug habits from Elliot; he was honest like that. And while showing Elliot his crack pipes, he’d tell him that he could be different. “He always told me that I was better than that and that he wanted me to be the one to change,” Elliot said.
But by the time Elliot was a senior in high school, he was a small-town drug dealer, running from cops in the city and crossing rivers in the country—anything to avoid the police. It was “easy money,” he said, especially after he lost his job at the paper mill a few months out of high school. He learned that he could “invest” $450, and in about two days, have $1,000. “You don’t have to put in an application to sell dope,” he said. “And it’s so hard to find a job, and everybody needs money.”
By this time, though, his dad—still married to Elliot’s mom—had kicked the drugs and alcohol and become a Pentecostal preacher. To hide what he was doing, Elliot basically lived with his girlfriend, Riley, whose parents were heavy users.
‘It’s kinda like a trigger switched in my mind when I found out about her being pregnant.’
And then everything changed. It started when Riley got pregnant with their son. When I first interviewed Elliot in 2011, it had only been a month since they found out she was pregnant. “She asked what we were gonna do, and I was like, ‘I’m not exactly sure,’” he recalled. When she told him she was pregnant, he was jobless, and worried that he wouldn’t be able to take care of his new child. But that changed quickly: he was slated to start a new factory job a few days after our first interview.
“It’s kinda like a trigger switched in my mind when I found out about her being pregnant,” Elliot said. “Now I have something. I mean, I had something to live for, but now I have somebody that’s gonna depend on me and I have to give ’em everything they need. It’s my responsibility—and that’s a lot of what my dad taught me.” His dad may have been a drug addict, but he was always working, he said. “And I know that’s what it takes: you got to work hard to make yourself a good life. And I’m ready to do it.” His time being a “punk” and selling dope was over; it was time to “step up and be a man.”
For Elliot, that also meant that marriage was on the horizon, though he wanted to get some money in the bank first. It’s not that he thought you should get married because you got a girl pregnant; you had to love the person, he said. Otherwise you would constantly argue with your spouse, which would take a toll on the kids. (Watching his parents fight had been hard for him as a kid, he pointed out.) The test, his dad had always told him—Elliot talked a lot about things his dad told him—to see whether you’ve found the right person to marry is this: if somebody put a gun to her head, would you take a bullet for her?
“And I know that if somebody came up and put a…gun up to her head, I’d take the bullet for her,” Elliot said. “And I know for a fact in my heart and my mind that I would. That’s how I know that I love her enough to marry her.”
Elliot was only 19 and Riley 16 at the time. I knew the grim stats on the likelihood of divorce when teenagers marry, but as I sat there listening to him I couldn’t help but admire his bravado. Here was a self-styled punk, the son of a fighter-addict turned preacher, determined to make good on his dad’s admonition “to be the one to change.” I also knew that the “magic moment” of pregnancy often results in this kind of starry-eyed bravado for low-income, unmarried fathers, but that it’s typically short-lived. As I said good-bye to Elliot, I wondered what would become of his man-sized aspirations.
A year later, I caught up with him again. His girlfriend had since miscarried, devastating him and their relationship. One day, he packed her clothes and told her to leave, and the next day he was living with an old girlfriend from high school, and she was living with another boy at her parents’ house. But that lasted maybe a month, and Elliot and Riley got back together again. He was still working third shift at the factory—about to get a raise to $14.25 an hour. That was no small accomplishment: he told me that he had seen about fifty other employees come and go in the year that he had been working there.
For Elliot, marrying was just a part of growing up—and growing up was what he wanted to do.
Moreover, while the magic moment of pregnancy had passed, marriage was on the horizon again—a few months away, he guessed. Sure enough, just a few months after that second interview, my Facebook feed updated me with the news: Elliot and Riley were married.
Some of his friends had told him he was crazy, but for Elliot, marrying was just a part of growing up—and growing up was what he wanted to do:
It seems like the whole world’s based on when you’re young, do every possible reckless thing you can think of. I grew out of it, I guess… I used to be like that. I was real wild, and, I mean at some point, I figured I’d have to grow up. I didn’t know when. But right after I got this job and everything, I’m growing up, I’m making my own life. And that’s what I wanted. I don’t wanna live at home with my parents ‘til I’m 30. I don’t care if I have to work at a factory the rest of my life. I wanna be happy. This is what I wanna do—[I] have my girl and we have a place together. That’s what I want. I don’t care if I’m young. I don’t have a[n] extremely successful job. As long as I’m happy, as long as it’s me and her, that’s what matters.
How should we as a society respond to those who want to marry young? Wag a finger at them and remind them of the higher likelihood of divorce for those who do so? Denounce them as irresponsible and lecture them about the limitations of the still-maturing brain? Adopt the default response of redirecting them towards college and career?
This is not what we do to my Amish kin when they marry at ages similar to Elliot and Riley, as the Amish regularly do. We respect their culture, and acknowledge that their priorities differ from those of middle-class young adults seeking to establish credentials and a career. So why not extend a similar respect and deference to working-class young adults like Elliot and Riley who choose to marry young? Like the Amish, working-class couples who marry young often come from a culture that values family and relationships more than material success and education. Certainly there are many working-class young adults who want to go on to college, and they need our support. But is it a bad thing that Elliot prioritizes his happiness and his relationship over having “an extremely successful job”? I don’t think so.
To be sure, there is an important place for the family, close friends, and religious ministers of those who marry young to ask of a couple those hard questions that need to be asked of anyone considering marriage. But a default stigma for those who marry early? That seems misguided, particularly when marriage seems to exert a future-minded, formative influence, as it appears to do with Elliot. How could we not admire Elliot’s decision to quit selling dope, stay at a factory job that witnesses a lot of turnover, and commit to a woman he loves?
At the same time, couples who marry early need all the support that we as a society can muster. And, here, liberals concerned about early marriage have a point: it is counterproductive for conservatives to support early marriage, and marriage among all sorts of couples facing tough odds, and at the same time to dismiss the importance of good unions and jobs with just wages. But that’s not all. Couples could also benefit from the solidarity and support that religious communities often provide. They need a moral vocabulary that recognizes how love and happiness are dynamic, not fixed.
They need all these things, and more. How about a little respect, too, for the kid who gave up selling dope for factory work and a lifetime commitment to the girl he loves? He stepped up, and he’s a man now.