For many young adults, the college years are the first time in their lives when they begin to look at members of the opposite sex as potential marriage partners. The vast majority of college undergraduates are unmarried, but over 90 percent of all Americans will marry at some point in their lives (Bird and Melville 133). College is often the first life period in which considering marriage is practical; most high school relationships involving university-bound students are tempered by the knowledge that eventually they will end, either because of relationship problems or because one or both will leave for college. Students’ futures after college, in contrast, are more flexible. They know that either during or after college they will be achieving independence, finding jobs, growing in maturity, and becoming more capable of entering a marriage relationship. Even if they have no plans to marry in the near future, they are discovering qualities in the opposite sex that they consider either attractive and desirable or irritating and unwanted.
A Road Less Traveled
In this dynamic environment of discovery, wonder, and romantic adventure, some undergraduate students decide that the time is right for them to marry. Some do so because they see no need to wait, as many parents suggest, until after graduation. Some marry because their spouses are working and have the means to support both of them. Some marry because of unplanned pregnancy or religious conviction. Some sever completely from their parents, while others continue to receive financial assistance from them. Some of the marriages succeed, while others become a statistic. The number of factors and situations is almost as great as the number of couples.
Audience and Purpose
This report aims to provide insight into several aspects of the lives of married undergraduate students. By comparing the romantic relationships and life expectations of unmarried college students with those of married undergraduates, it illustrates some of the changes experienced by those students who choose to marry before their college graduation. The intended audience is unmarried college students who are currently contemplating marriage before graduation. By reading this report, they will gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a married college student and will then be able to make a more informed decision regarding their marriages.
Marriage itself is an extremely complex topic that has served as the subject of countless books, articles, films, and workshops. Rather than provide a definitive overview of marriage in general, this report provides a glimpse into several aspects of marriage specifically related to college life. These include premarital relationships and expectations and the balancing act that married undergraduates perform involving school, work, marriage, social life, and, if any, children. Due to the additional issues involved in “nontraditional” marriages–for instance, same-sex, interracial, or interfaith couples–this report focuses upon marriages between men and women of the same race and religion.
Being unmarried myself, for firsthand information I interviewed five married undergraduate students at Baylor University, two of whom were married to each other. Two were male and three were female, and their ages ranged from eighteen to thirty. The duration of their marriages ranged from less than two months to nearly four years. Other firsthand information on college life and relationships comes from my own experiences. To protect the privacy of the students who shared their stories with me, I have given each of them a pseudonym.
Although most college students who eventually earn a bachelor’s degree do not marry before graduation, some choose to do so. Furthermore, many more commit to engagements before they finish their undergraduate years and must choose whether to marry before or after graduation. Their decisions are influenced by, among other factors, parental wishes, religious convictions, social convention, and practicality. Little research has been conducted with specific regard to undergraduates who marry. This report aims to fill part of this void by objectively and realistically describing the experiences of students who have chosen to marry as undergraduates as they relate to the experiences of married people in general.
Premarital College Relationships and Priorities
Naturally, at such a dynamic time in their lives, many university students date to some extent. Although some of these relationships progress to a deep level of commitment and contemplation of marriage, many college undergraduates prefer not to commit themselves so fully to a relationship, particularly during the early years. Their lives are filled with classes, organizations, friendships, jobs, and other activities. They enjoy the freedom of college life, and they usually have something to do, whether it be studying, partying, or simply catching up on lost sleep. Dating is something they do for fun, for friendship, or for love, rather than solely to find a marriage partner (Knox et al. 21).
At this stage in dating, between casual and somewhat committed, college relationships experience an array of activities and problems. Those who date must balance their dating relationship with commitments to school, jobs, friends, family, church, and organizations. Many of them have enough free time to go out on dates frequently, and many are sexually active as well. Dates often involve activities such as movies, concerts, picnics, or simply “hanging out” together (S. Meyers, Hillard, and Ketcham). Despite the disapproval of some parents, some couples choose to cohabitate, sometimes as a “trial marriage” to test compatibility, others simply for convenience or a greater level of intimacy (Bird and Melville 126).
Sources of Conflict
Problems in college dating relationships often involve traditional issues such as communication and jealousy. The importance of some issues, however, differs between casual couples and more committed couples. For example, casual couples by their nature have more problems with honesty, presumably because committed couples are committed to each other partly out of their trust in each other. More committed couples complain of not having enough time for the relationship, which is less of a problem for casual couples because they don’t usually desire to spend as much time together (Zusman and Knox 607-9). One of the most difficult issues faced by both types of couples is the “future of the relationship,” which often presents problems when each individual in the couple has a different plan and level of priority for the relationship. One may want to continue dating casually for the enjoyment of it, while the other may desire to begin discussing commitment and marriage. This will frequently frighten a partner who does not share the same desire (Knox et al. 20-21).
Reasons and Expectations for Marriage
In the midst of the many joys and trials of college dating, some student couples decide that the time is right for them to marry. Of these, many become engaged to be married but wait until after graduation. A few, however, decide not to wait. Their reasons for marrying vary widely, as do their expectations.
College undergraduates’ reasons for marrying are quite similar to those of couples who marry while not in school. Mutual love is one of the primary motivators for most American marriages, including all those of the students interviewed for this report. The individuals both love each other enough that they want to commit to each other for the rest of their lives, live together, possibly raise children, and share in each other’s happiness and sorrow. Married college students frequently see no need to postpone marriage until they are older or have finished their education, as many of their classmates do. One newlywed husband, Josh Hillard, said he and his girlfriend simply decided that “it was time to get married.” Another couple, who had been planning to marry eventually, decided to marry sooner when the wife-to-be became pregnant. Although the man’s father did not approve of their marriage, the couple did not believe in abortion and wanted to raise their child as a married pair. They married soon before their son was born. Like many adults who have already finished college, nearly all of them feel the need to choose their own paths and make their own decisions, with or without the approval of friends and family. In addition, some theorize that one reason is the need for “security in uncertain times,” a sense of control in an unpredictable world. Cherise Davis, who married soon after finishing college, explains this need eloquently:
The world is so unstable…. I think dating is emotional abuse. I think if you find a man you love, you should marry him. There’s something so grounding about being married, saying you will be my mate for life. People need that, people are searching for that (Bernard 40-1).
Before marrying, like most people who marry in their late twenties and thirties, most engaged undergraduates have certain expectations and preconceptions about married life. One study found that college students in general have quite optimistic views of marriage, believing that their marriages would “keep getting better and better over time” and would work out better than those of others (“Students” 15). One woman in the interview group, Sarah Meyers, said she pictured marriage as a 1950’s fairy tale, with the classic white picket fence, nice house, and a dog. However, not all college students have identical perspectives on the issue. Many come from broken or damaged families and have struggled to cope with divorce, abuse, alcoholism, and other threats to the traditional white-picket-fence American family.
Learning from Others’ Mistakes
Because of these struggles, some engaged students approach marriage with the goal of creating a life for themselves different from that of their parents. They have seen the mistakes made by their parents and others. As they prepare to begin a new marriage and family, they want a marriage that will last, a safe haven from the outside world instead of the familial battleground in which many of them were raised. After one woman in the interview group, Holly Brickman, told her parents of her engagement, they tried to dissuade her by describing many of the negative aspects of marriage. Her parents’ actions increased her desire to marry, and she was determined that her marriage would turn out better than her parents had predicted. Others enter marriage with few expectations of how marriage should be or what to expect. They may have an idea of the type of person whom they want to marry. But as Lori Ketcham said, marriage is something that people cannot completely understand until they get married themselves.
Once a couple marries, several changes occur in their lives, one of which is a change in family structure. Before marriage, most college students are in some way the “children” of a family. Many are legally and financially dependent upon their parents. Marriage changes this status by separating the newlyweds from their families and creating a new family of their own. This new family life is one of the most significant effects of marriage.
The Married Couple
The early years in a marriage involve much adjustment in a newly married couple’s relationship. During this time the husband and wife are defining their roles in the marriage, dividing responsibilities, and exploring other aspects of their life together. Many young couples do not have children until at least a few years after marriage, so they can devote the majority of their time and energy to work, school (if one or both are in school), and each other. Researchers have found that the early years of marriage are often the happiest time in a marriage (Lamanna and Riedmann 276-7). Other newlywed responsibilities include establishing intimacy patterns, creating a satisfactory balance between work and home life, and discovering and defining their relationships as a couple with other people, including the family and friends who knew them before they got married. One pair of authors described this period as a process of changing perspectives:
Partners start out idealizing each other and the marriage, then become disappointed as they face daily reality together, and, finally, come to realize that marital success depends on reconciling their dreams with the facts of married life (Bird and Melville179).
These transitions do not happen instantaneously the moment a couple arrives home from their honeymoon; they occur over time and involve much negotiation and experimentation (178).
Marriage also causes many emotional changes in relationships. For most, it increases the love the two people feel for each other and gives them a more intimate relationship. The couple spends more time together and connects with each other in a way that they could not before their wedding. One man in the interview group, Barry Meyers, says that whereas before their marriage he and his wife were not willing to depend on each other, now that they are married, they depend heavily on each other. They trust each other more and make all their decisions together, from deciding on where to live to whether or not to attend an extra-credit lecture after class. His wife Sarah says that they are less prone to give up when problems and disagreements arise, and that their love is more mature.
In many ways, marriage also affects the individuals involved. By joining their lives to those of others, married people join their hopes, dreams, values, needs, and personalities to each other. This union often changes the way in which people see themselves. They must share their attention and resources with another person instead of focusing all of their attention upon themselves. Married college students are no longer simply college students who study and spend time with friends for a few years before graduating and entering the job market; they now have spouses at home to consider as well. Sarah Meyers says marriage tamed much of the “attitude” that she had before she married, and that she did not spend as much time partying as she once did. Lori Ketcham thought that the responsibility of marriage helped her to mature as a person.
Although most married undergraduates choose to postpone having children until after graduation, some add children to the marital juggling act, whether by accident or by choice. In some cases, the marriage results from or is hurried by a premarital unplanned pregnancy; in others, the wife becomes pregnant intentionally or accidentally after marriage. Regardless of the circumstances, raising children during college can be a formidable task.
Holly Brickman, a married junior with a two-year-old daughter, recommends that couples who want children should finish school if possible. She and her husband both work full-time in order to pay all of their bills. Brickman has a difficult time filling, and constantly switching among, her four roles of wife, mother, employee, and student. Furthermore, when their daughter was born, she became obsessed with her and placed her ahead of her husband, which left him feeling abandoned and shut out.
Academic and Social Life After Marriage
One major difference between married college students and married couples who are not in school is the unique pressures of collegiate academic and social life. Married students have different responsibilities and interests than either single students or married nonstudents; they are in many ways a blend of the two worlds: college life and what some students and parents call “the real world.”
The effects of marriage on a couple’s academic career are largely dependent on the individuals involved. One study showed that marriage decreases the probability that a person, male or female, would be currently enrolled in college. This decrease was highest during the first year after marriage, presumably because some married people later decide to enroll or re-enroll in college after being married and out of school for a few years. Furthermore, the decrease in enrollment probability was larger for four-year schools than for two-year schools because the latter generally offer more flexible degree programs and lower cost. The researchers also reported that parenthood has a similar effect on education, particularly while the children are very young. For instance, women with children less than 12 months old have a 26 percent lower likelihood of being enrolled in college than women with no children (Teachman and Polonko 517, 520-521). These findings suggest that marriage adds additional responsibilities that can hinder a couple’s academic ambitions.
However, despite the studies by Teachman, Polonko, and other researchers in the field, individual experiences may or may not conform to trends showing negative effects of marriage on education. One married college senior, Clinton Wilson, says that although he and his wife love married life, “one major con is that it is tough to give time to school work” (Wilson 6). Another married student, Lori Ketcham, describes an unmet need for large blocks of quiet time in which to study; with her working husband home at night watching television and her mother and friends dropping by, she has trouble concentrating. On the other hand, some married students believe that marriage has helped them perform better in school. By redefining his priorities and responsibilities, marriage helped Barry Meyers to focus more intently on school. Having a wife and a son helps him understand the reasons why he is in school. He and his wife Sarah know a school counselor who lets them register for classes early, and they coordinate their schedules so that when one is in class, the other can care for their son. Although Sarah admits that she has been tempted to stay home with their son instead of going to school, she plans to eventually earn a Ph.D. and work as a college professor.
Married social life is another area of change for married college students. Once couples get married, particularly in the early years, their social priority is generally each other, and they spend much of their free time together. “He’s my priority now,” one bride said, so “it’s hard to keep up with everyone” (Trissler 428). When they are not together, they go to school, go to work, or take care of the children if they have any. They still have time to socialize with others, but usually less time than they had before they married.
Impact on Friendships
Friendships involving unmarried friends can change once one of them gets married. While married people often focus much of their energy and time on work, family, and school, singles are often more focused on meeting new people and having fun. Singles often have more money for entertainment than do married students, particularly married college students who are paying living expenses as well as school tuition and fees (Trissler 428). Married students cope with these changes in different ways. Josh Hillard and his wife led a Bible study group before marrying and continued to do so after their wedding, which helps them keep in touch with their friends in the group. Lori Ketcham had several single friends before her marriage who have since gotten married themselves, so much of their social life centers around going out with these couples. Since raising children requires so much time, energy, and money, couples with children often have a more difficult time socially than those without children. Holly Brickman has no friends nearby, partly because of her work schedule and partly because she and her husband choose to spend their free time with their daughter.
Money, Work, and Financial Status
One of the most common reasons for collegiate engaged couples to postpone marriage is the possible lack of financial stability (Wilson 6). Couples that marry before graduation use a variety of methods for paying for living expenses and school.
Any young married couple needs basics such as food, a place to live, utilities, gas, and insurance. In addition to these, married college students must pay school tuition and fees and buy textbooks, which at many universities can cost $10-15,000 or more per year. Married undergraduates cope with these expenses in different ways depending on their circumstances. Some receive support from other people, such as parents or employed spouses. For example, Barry and Sarah Meyers are living on money that Barry inherited from his grandfather and money given to Sarah by her mother and grandmother. They are more fortunate than some others are, because even though they have a son and are both in school, neither of them needs to work. Another couple is less fortunate. In order to raise her daughter without parental assistance, Holly Brickman and her husband work full-time as home parents for teenage girls at the Methodist Children’s Home. Although she loves her husband and her daughter and their job fills all of their financial needs, her job is very stressful and drains much of the energy that she would like to give to her family and school work. Josh Hillard and his wife live mainly off of scholarships and school-related jobs; his wife, a graduate student in English, teaches freshman composition courses, and he works part-time as a tutor for student athletes.
The majority of modern marriages draw two paychecks. In 1986, only 20 percent of all marriages were supported solely by the husband’s paycheck. Although some still believe that the husband should be the primary breadwinner in the family, today most wives work. Some work for financial reasons, others for personal satisfaction or other reasons. According to one Gallup poll, college-educated wives tend to work more for other reasons than for money (59 percent versus 36 percent), while wives who never attended college work primarily because of financial necessity (65 percent versus 33 percent) (Lamanna and Riedmann 350, 361). Husbands and wives in college often have their own ambitions and career goals for which they are preparing while they complete their degrees. Josh Hillard plans to go into mission work with his wife after they both graduate. Sarah Meyers, as mentioned previously, wants to go to graduate school and eventually become a college professor, and Holly Brickman plans to enter social work. Most married college students expect to work at some point after graduation, and they will need to consider their spouses’ careers and their children when making decisions regarding work, family planning, and home location.
Although married college students have many responsibilities that unmarried students do not, marriage during college can succeed under many circumstances. Of course, marriage is never an event to consider lightly or half-heartedly, for it involves a great deal of change, sacrifice, and maturity from both husband and wife. Married students must find ways to juggle their marriage and family life, school, social life, and often work, which for some can be overwhelming. However, many couples who marry during college are quite happy and content with their new lives. If a college couple is considering getting married before graduation, they need to find a balance between blind romanticism and cold cynicism. Yes, college marriages can work out, but they are not always easy. Before marrying, all college couples should realistically consider their situation and the effect that marriage would have upon their relationship, their education, their financial status, and their personal happiness.