Married before graduation: trends, fears, and successes

4.21.2015

By Katie Gilbaugh

Wedding 2

Two 15-year-olds sneak out of their homes at midnight to meet at a park in Derby, Kansas. They talk until 3 a.m., but the boy can only replay his script over and over in his head until he finally blurts it out. “Do you want to go out with me?” She smiles and says, “yes.”

Four years later, the couple, now college students, decides to spend their Christmas gift money on a trip to Houston, Texas. They are wandering in a nature center and notice a wide, open clearing. The boy asks to take a picture, and once again nervously plays his script over and over in his head. As the camera shutter snaps, he gets down on his knee and finally blurts it out. “Will you marry me?” Again, she smiles and says, “yes.”

Seniors Trevor Prater and Aurora Yager have been married for eight months, but have been together for nearly six years. They don’t give off the vibe of a young married couple. They don’t hold hands and touch each other incessantly. The only sign that they are married are the rings on their hands and their eye contact. It seems as if every time either one of them spoke or told a story, they looked lovingly at each other.

“I think that maybe some people want to get married young, but I think with us that wasn’t the case,” Prater said. “It’s just because we happened to meet each other so early that we ended up getting married.”

Saying “yes” to dating as a 15-year-old isn’t unusual, but sending out wedding invitations before senior year of college is something of a rarity. Prater and Yager, both 21 years old, are unusual, especially when compared to the average marrying age in the US. In 2013, the average age that a man married was 29, for a woman, 26.

According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, just 26 percent of people ages 18-32 are married. This statistic follows the declining trend of young people choosing marriage. In 1997, 36 percent of 18–32-year-olds were married; in 1980, it was 48 percent.

Dr. Randy Moredock says there’s a consistent trend of couples reaching their senior year and struggling to make a decision about whether to continue in the committed relationship. Moredock has experience with college students, having worked as a counselor at Brockport State College of New York for 25 years. He is now working as a therapist in Lawrence. He is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and has counseled couples of every age.

“I think a lot of people don’t think about it in terms of a focused activity—a ‘love will conquer all’ type of thing,” Moredock said. “I’m a die-hard romantic myself, I’ll be honest, but love does not conquer all. It gets pretty lonely if you haven’t seen your significant other in a month or something like that.”

So what’s causing the decline in marriage rates since the 1960s? Moredock has a few theories—first that the high divorce rate is instilling a fear of marriage in younger generations.

“They may come from a family history of multiple divorces so there are a lot of factors impeding on them to get married,” Moredock said.

Maybe it’s not a lack of desire to be married, but rather a lack of finances. Sixty-nine percent of unmarried milennials said they’d like to get married; they’re just waiting for economic stability before making the leap to lifelong monogamy.

Moredock’s second theory is focused on how the function of marriage has changed.

“I think it comes down to, that the role expectation has changed so much over the years,” Dr. Moredock said. “There is no longer an expectation that the wife will move for the husband’s career and so there’s a lot of great stuff going on. I see it as ultimately a positive but it can be a real stressor.”

In 2013, an economist and MIT grad student published a report that says the economic value of marriage for women has been reduced. Because more women are getting an education, making money and exercising control over fertility choices, they simply don’t need the economic support of a husband.

Yager’s only mention of difficulty in marrying young was when she discussed their careers. Yager, a social welfare major, is applying for grad schools while Prater, a chemical engineer, begins working in Kansas City.

“That is something hard when you’re in a serious relationship with someone, because it’s like, how do we make this work?” Yager said. “How do we support ourselves while getting our immediate goals done? It’s a little more complicated in planning, but it works out.”

Kathy and Mark Schulte faced a similar complication when they got married in 1986. Kathy had just finished her junior year at the University of Kansas and Mark was three years older, already graduated, and working in Kansas City.

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“It just made sense for us,” Kathy Schulte said. “I never doubted the decision for a minute. It’s not like we were rushed into it; for our situation it made a lot of sense. A lot of it was plain: we wanted to be together, and if we weren’t married then we weren’t together.”

In August they celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary.

She remembers having to switch colleges for a semester her senior year because of her husband’s job. She then transferred back to KU, then moved to Wichita and finished her degree in personnel administration as a guest student at WSU. For any couple wanting to get married while in college, Schulte strongly believes in the importance of finishing school.

“Marriage should be a partnership and I want my kids to feel like an equal partner in the marriage,” she said. “If they would choose to get married in college, I want them to feel confident in themselves and feel confident in their ability to provide for themselves and their families.”

Whether getting married in 2014 or 1986, both couples and Moredock emphasized the importance of communication. However, Kathy Schulte put it best.

“I think the best gift you can give your kids is a successful marriage so you have to make sure you’re still talking, still communicating and that you don’t grow apart,” Schulte said. “If you’re expecting every day, every year to be wonderful that’s just not realistic. There will be times when your spouse annoys the hell out of you, but you have to have that staying power, remember that you’re not perfect either, and have that gumption.”

For myself and for many unmarried college seniors, the thought of marriage is one that can instill annoyance and even fear. However, couples like Mark and Kathy or Aurora and Trevor might just be the examples the pessimistic Gen-X needs when approaching marriage.

“You’re rolling the dice at this point,” Dr. Moredock said. “You like this person and fit well with this person, do you want to change the course of your life to be with this person? It’s pretty spooky.”

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