When third-year health sciences student Olivia DeGroot stood before her boyfriend Andrew on New Year’s Eve as he crouched down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage in front of her family and friends, she felt special. These days, Olivia is special—not just because she received a romantic proposal, but because she accepted it.
DeGroot and her fiancé are part of an ever decreasing demographic of young, student couples getting married. In 2008, Statistics Canada reported the average age for marriage grew from 22 to 29 among women, and from 24 to 31 among men. This rarity, in addition to other misconceptions about student couples, is part of the reason some don’t understand the motivation behind the decision.
“We were really nervous to tell our parents where our relationship was headed because it is really, really soon, but we both just knew right away that we wanted to be with each other,” says DeGroot, who is planning her wedding for next summer. “Some of my mom’s co-workers have made comments, or there’s been the odd person, but I think people, like our friends and family, know how Andrew and I are together, and they see how happy we are.”
Planning her wedding for later this year, fourth-year media, theory and production student Christine Clark mirrors DeGroot’s attitude on criticisms.
“There are some people who say ‘You don’t want to rush into anything,’ or ‘The wedding’s so quick,’ type of thing, but we’ve been together so long,” says Clark, who has been dating her fiancé for five years. “We just want to live together and start a life, and that’s what marriage means to us.”
While preparing for their special day, these young couples must face much more than just the odd comment. With the pressure of student loans, and the inability to work full-time, younger couples have the added stress of making the numbers work—a stress Amy McNall, a London wedding coordinator through her organization Unmistakably You, often addresses with younger couples.
“The biggest concern, and the easiest one to pinpoint, is the financial thing,” McNall says. “So part of my role as a planner is to keep a really close eye on their budget because I really believe that starting a marriage with incredible amounts of debt can be one of the most stressful things—and then we add to the equation that a lot of students have student loans.”
Advising young couples to make smart choices, McNall encourages her clients to put their money in places where it will have the most impact as opposed to splurging. This kind of strategic planning is what brides-to-be like Clark have had to adopt.
“I’ve done all the wedding planning myself, and even though we do have the financial support of our parents, we’re not trying to have this big, grand wedding—we’re trying to keep the numbers down,” Clark explains. “Doing all that research to try and cut costs down wherever you can, you really can save a lot of money as long as you do the research for it.”
For Jordyn Cowl, a third-year English and creative writing student, money has played a large part in not only her wedding planning, but also her decision to get married while young.
“Part of it is definitely financial,” Cowl explains. “It makes more sense to live together now, get married and start sharing finances. Also, my fiancé and I have been saving since we got engaged, any extra cash goes toward our wedding fund, [and] I’ve learned a lot of DIY and budget tricks as well.”
In planning the wedding, financial stressors can go far beyond what the couple can and can’t have. Because engaged students are often unable to front the cost of the wedding, parents of the bride and groom take on the bulk of the costly ceremony and celebration. The parents’ presence in this way, however, can complicate the couple’s plans.
“I do have a lot of parent involvement when it’s with younger couples for sure, and often it’s from a purely financial standpoint,” McNall says. “They’re paying for some or all of the wedding, so they obviously feel they should have some input into it. That’s a balance as well, trying to give the bride and groom what they want, but keep the parents feeling like their opinions are valued.”
This balancing act of dealing with parents’ concerns can be one of the most challenging aspects of starting a marriage while still in school, at least according to London psychologist and marital therapist Guy Grenier.
“Sometimes, breaking away from parents is a particular issue, and how the new couple learns to assert themselves,” says Grenier, who identifies independence as something younger couples have to face sooner rather than later.
“How do they start standing up and demonstrating that they’re taking on and engaging in the adult world, and what do they need to do to make sure they’re seen as adults, not just large children within the family unit? Sometimes that’s a challenge.”
A young couple Grenier worked with was always anxious about visiting the parents’ house for dinner.
“Very often the dinner would turn into the parents criticizing whatever choices they were making, or how they were spending their money or what they were doing with their careers,” he recalls.
To help the couple move forward, Grenier advises they assert themselves, insisting that, as adults, they need to make their own decisions—a move that would yield positive responses. “They came back in a couple of weeks just completely empowered, and I could imagine that it was a bit of a relief to the parents.”
Achieving independence, however, is sometimes difficult to achieve when trying to balance wedding planning with the demands of an assignment saturated university schedule. Cowl, whose wedding is next month, expands on this difficultly.
“It’s been insane—it’s been so much work. I have a job on campus and with classes it’s a lot of work to balance it. I love planning the wedding, but it can get really crazy and right now, with all the assignments, it can get really hectic.”
As a way of dealing with the pressures of coordinating and planning the wedding, Cowl has adopted a new organizational ethic.
“Just be very organized. Keep lists, make a day planner of timelines and things you need to do so you can balance school and wedding stuff,” says Cowl, who also attempts to avoid getting overwhelmed by wedding thoughts. “I try to take days—so today I’m going to work only on schoolwork and tomorrow I’ll work only on wedding stuff. You don’t want to fail school just because you’re planning a wedding.”
This kind of compartmentalizing is also what McNall recommends for her clients who may feel the same creeping anxieties as Cowl.
“I always advise them to spend time with each other and not talk about the wedding. So many couples get so focused on the planning and that’s all they ever talk about—they forget why they’re actually getting married.”
Remembering that initial spark, passion and love is at the root of taking on problems facing student couples—the critiques of strangers, the financial problems, the overbearing parents and the balancing of school. It’s that love that allows DeGroot, Clark and Cowl to feel ready for marriage at this age. When discussing the insecurities of young couples compared to their older counterparts, Grenier demystifies the stigmas and taboos of early marriage.
“I don’t doubt that it exists for some people, and if somebody feels that way they’re probably making the wrong choice,” Grenier says. “But for other people, getting married early, having children early—that’s exactly what they want to do. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all-style of marriage.”