Over the weekend I spent time speaking with yet another young Christian homeschool graduate considering early marriage. We’ll call her Jen. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard this story. Speaking with this Jen, I was reminded, once again, of my own youthful wedding, and the decisions I made at the time.
Jen told me she felt if she got married, her parents would give her breathing room—and stop trying to sabotage her relationship with her boyfriend. The sad thing is, she’s probably correct on both counts. Her parents believe marriage is permanent and can’t be undone. And at the moment, well—they told her 18 isn’t in the Bible. In other words, they hold that Jen is just as bound to obey them at 18 as at 17. For a young woman, independence from her parents comes only with marriage.
Now it’s easy, from our vantage point, to say that Jen should just assert her independence, cut her parents off if need be, and be done with it. But when you’re in the midst of it—when that’s your life—it’s not so easy at all.
When I had been dating my husband Sean for six months, my parents ordered us to break up. We refused, but they believed they had the right to make such an order, so their response wasn’t pleasant. That last summer at home was extremely painful. I came back to college knowing that I had to choose between my independence—in what to believe and who to date or marry—and my family. I was twenty years old.
At the end of that summer, I spent as much time as I could with my minor siblings, knowing this might be the last time I saw them in a very long time. I was lucky, though—my parents never did cut me off. But—and this is important—this is likely at least in part because I got married the following summer. As long as I was unmarried and refusing to live under my father’s authority, I was a problem. I was a daughter in rebellion—and a bad example for my siblings. Once I married I would be under my husband’s authority rather than under my father’s authority, no longer bound to my parents and thus no longer in rebellion.
I voluntarily stopped visiting home during that last year, even though it meant not seeing my siblings, because I could no longer take the emotional abuse heaped on my when I was there. I went home for Christmas—because I hadn’t been forbidden, had nowhere else to go (the dorms were closed), and wanted to see my siblings—and ended up being yelled at by my father and reduced to tears in front of my small siblings. (For the record, I hadn’t done anything wrong). That was the final straw for me, and I didn’t go back until after I was married. While I was never expressly told I couldn’t visit, I knew that was on the table, and I think I stopped visiting in part so that they wouldn’t have the need to forbid me.
That summer, for the first time in my life, I found my own housing. It was just a subletting sort of thing, it was cheap and I didn’t have to worry about paying bills for the internet or utilities separately. Up until then I had lived in the dorms. My mother told my next-in-age sister that she was surprised when I didn’t come home for the summer. My sister told her that after what they’d put me through, she wasn’t surprised. But I think my mother may also have been surprised at my ability to find somewhere to live without their help. And it’s true, I had no experience with any of this. I had little money, and the only job experience I had was from working part-time campus jobs at minimum wage. Shifting for myself was incredibly intimidating.
And this, quite frankly, is also part of why I got married. I was suddenly forced to figure out this thing we call adult life without my parents as a support system. I’d never looked at an apartment or paid an electric bill in my life. I had no experience with any of this! I had stopped taking money from my parents the previous summer, knowing that money from them would have strings, and now I had to figure out things like housing, bills, and transportation, completely on my own. It was intimidating!
So, let’s recap. I got married in part because I knew it would make things better with my parents, because they would no longer consider me a daughter in rebellion. I got married in part because being thrust into adult life without family support was scary, and marrying Sean meant I could figure it all out with someone rather than on my own. And, finally, I got married in part because it made more financial sense for Sean and I to have a go at life together, and moving in together without being married was out of the question. It would not only mean the end of any hope of seeing my siblings but would also alienate Sean’s parents, who had been very supportive but would likely draw the line at something as sinful as shacking up.
And you know what? I was right.
Getting married did make things better with my parents. My parents told me at the wedding (which they almost didn’t attend) that they had decided Sean and I would be allowed to visit. I was terrified the first time we visited, and sick to my stomach the whole way there, but my parents were much, much better—because they knew there was a limit to how they could treat me, because (in their eyes) I now belonged to Sean. Furthermore, figuring out rent, utilities, healthcare (this was pre-Obamacare), transportation, and everything else with Sean rather than my own felt much less intimidating. And finally, Sean’s parents continued to be supportive, and were extremely helpful to us early on in our marriage.
I wonder if my parents realize that they created a situation that made marriage to a man they disapproved of look like my best option. They believed I was to obey them until I married—the obvious consequence is that I knew marriage was the only way to get them off my back. Further, the partnership that comes with marriage was only more attractive when I no longer felt comfortable taking financial help from my parents or going to them for advice when apartment hunting or the like. If my parents had loosened up, if they had stopped trying to control me, if they had been willing to support me without strings as I entered the adult world, I would have had less reason to marry Sean when I did. In a sense, they drove us together even as they were trying to break us apart.
I now know other young women—other Christian homeschool graduates like myself—who found themselves in the same situation and made the same decision. In other words, this wasn’t just me, this is a thing. They married in part to escape parents who wouldn’t let go for anything less. They married in part because the big world out there was so intimidating, and were worried they couldn’t make it on their own. They married in part because it ensured they would retrain the few supporters they had. Some of these young women, like myself, are still happily married. For us, it worked out. But for others, things didn’t work out. I know young women who made the same decision in the same situation and are now divorced.
This past weekend, I told Jen that she was probably right—that things would likely get better with her parents if she married. I also told her that marrying and making it was possible. I told her that she was right about combining finances, and that facing the world with someone at your side made things much easier—and more pleasant. But I also told her that it doesn’t always work out. I told her that in my own situation, things had worked out because Sean and I in a sense grew up together, rather than growing apart. But I told her that I knew other cases where the couple grew apart as they finished growing up, and the result was divorce.
Any time I speak with someone in Jen’s situation—and this isn’t the first time—I feel like Lorelai Gilmore at Stars Hollow High in season 3, episode 4 of Gilmore Girls. Lorelai is there to talk about running a business, but the students want her to talk about her teenage pregnancy eighteen years before.
GIRL 1: You’re Rory Gilmore’s mom, aren’t you?
LORELAI: Yes I am, and proud of it.
GIRL 1: Oh.
LORELAI: Oh, is that it? Well, I hope all your questions are that easy. Okay, now, why is it necessary to inspire employees? Why can’t you just train ‘em and let ‘em do their jobs? Well . . . yes?
GIRL 2: Didn’t you get pregnant when you were sixteen?
LORELAI: Um, sixteen . . . it was around that age. Sixteen, that sounds right. Okay. Different people working for you will have different needs . . . yeah?
BOY: Well, what about school?
LORELAI: School? I’m sorry.
BOY: Did you drop out when you got pregnant with Rory?
LORELAI: No, technically, I didn’t drop out. I, uh, I kept going as long as I could while I got pregnant, which I would recommend to any girl. Not the getting pregnant part, obviously. Um, although, uh, if that happens, um, you know . . . it shouldn’t. I mean, it could but you should try to avoid it . . . um, anyway, uh, I got my GED, yeah.
DEBBIE: Lorelai, why don’t we move this along?
LORELAI: Yes, oh, moving it along, moving it along. Okay, okay, okay. Boy, I should’ve been more organized here.
GIRL 1: Well, are you sorry you got pregnant?
LORELAI: No, it brought me Rory, but timing is everything. I mean, I could’ve . . . sixteen, you guys are sixteen, right . . . and hey, is that clock right?
GIRL 3: What do you mean by timing?
GIRL 1: Yeah, if you had waited and had a baby with another man at a different time . . .
GIRL 4: It wouldn’t have been Rory, right?
LORELAI: Hey, you know what’s fun to talk about? Late checkout.
GIRL 2: But it was good you got pregnant when you did because you got Rory.
LORELAI: Look, you guys, this is a very important subject, and I promise that another time I would love to take you all for a cup of coffee and, and talk about . . . if you should even be allowed to drink coffee because coffee is for older . . .
Looking back, I view the options I had at the time as suboptimal, but I’m glad I made the decisions I did. For me, it has worked out, and beautifully so. Sean and I adore each other, and the adversity we faced early on drove us together and deepened our relationship. We’ve built a promising life together. But for others, it doesn’t work out. And yes, that’s rough around the edges, but then, that’s life.