Marriage: How young is too young?

Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth should be basking in the glow of their engagement, but the young couple instead find themselves having to defend their decision to marry at a young age.

Cyrus, 19, and Hemsworth, 22, became engaged in May having met in 2009 while filming The Last Song together. It appears that some deem a walk down the aisle to be premature for the Nashville born, multi-platinum selling songstress and her Aussie actor beau.

Cyrus, cover girl of US Marie Claire’s September issue, opened up to the magazine: "Life is too short not to be with the person you want to be with.

"I don’t really care about the wedding or the piece of paper as much as I do the promise we’ve made to each other. And we want to have a long engagement."

As genuine and mature as their relationship may be, Hollywood hardly has an impeccable track record when it comes to enduring marriages. But the couple does have one impressive role model in the long marriage department, none other than Cyrus’s very own godmother, Tennessee poster girl Dolly Parton.

Parton has said that she is "really proud" of her marriage of 46 years to husband Carl Dean, telling the Toronto Sun earlier this year: "It's the first for both of us. And the last."

Parton's commitment is rare but not unique in the entertainment world. The late actor and director John Derek met actress Bo Derek when she was just 16. The couple were famously forced to leave the US, lest he be charged with statutory rape, not returning until Bo was 18. They married a year later and stayed together until his death in 1998. Meanwhile, former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, 47, has been with her husband, musician Ric Ocasek, since they met when she was 19. There are, of course, others - but, in the celebrity world, those couples are conspicuous in their scarcity. There are few famous couples that marry young and last the distance.

Cyrus seems all too aware of the pitfalls of a marriage conducted in the limelight. "Neither of us is super-jealous," she told the magazine. "We know each other and would never do anything to hurt each other."

There is a litany of well-known marriages that began young and ended young - Angelina Jolie, then 21, to Jonny Lee Miller, then 23. Drew Barrymore, then 19, to bartender Jeremy Thomas. Solange Knowles, then 17, to Daniel Smith, then 19. Macauley Culkin and Rachel Miner married at the age of 17 and parted ways two years later. This list goes on.

And then there are those that began recently and are still in their neo-natal phase - Courtney Stodden, 16, and Doug Hutchinson, 51, and Peaches Geldof, 23, with her second marriage imminent to Thomas Cohen, 24.

There's no doubt that as an institution, marriage no longer has the overarching prominence it once did, yet - thanks in no small part to Hollywood, but perhaps more in response to biological clocks - many strive for the ''happy ever after'' fantasy of wedding bells.

Certainly, younger people are more eager to marry than their older single counterparts. A new report by the Fairfax-owned dating site RSVP has found that 67 per cent of Gen Y singletons would like to marry, compared with 39 per cent of Gen Xers and just 12 per cent of baby boomers.

Many of us know aunts, uncles, friends and grandparents who married young and have stayed together. But with generational change has come a new way of viewing marriage - and as divorce rates have incrementally risen, so too have marriage ages.

In 2010, the average age for Australians to tie the knot for the first time was 29.6 years for men and 27.9 years for women, according to the Bureau of Statistics. In 1990, those ages were 26.5 and 24.3 respectively.

Not only are Hemsworth and Cyrus comparatively young to be making a life-long commitment to one another, but they have the added complication of fame - and its difficulties - to contend with.  If there’s one thing the glitterati has exemplified beautifully, it is that things fall apart.

One item of certain durability, however, is the couple's choice of engagement ring, which dates to 1880 - and is nearly 100 years older than Cyrus.

"I just love that it’s old and has a story," Cyrus told the glossy magazine. Whether it is a harbinger of a long marriage, only time will tell.

So, if Hollywood is where marriages go to die, and the rest of us are putting off the Big Day for ever longer, just how young is too young to say "I do"?

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