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Dating Advice #206 - Married Students

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Will the emotional and financial demands of marriage preclude completing her education?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have been dating a man for three years now and we both feel its time to tie the knot. The only thing is that both of us are students, and I'm scared that being married without an income, and being a wife and a student at the same time, is not an easy thing to juggle.

I have three more years of school and I'm not even sure I'd finish school if we got married now, because soon after would come kids. School is important just so that I can get a good job after I graduate. My fiance has two more years until he graduates.

Do you have any suggestions, or examples of what other young couples do to make ends meet?


Dear Toni,

You've raised an important issue, which actually used to affect many young couples. Today, the average age for marriage has climbed over the past several decades, as many young adults prefer to finish their education and become established in their career before they think about marriage. However, there are still a good number of men and women who, while in the midst of their studies or at the beginning of their careers, realize they have met the right person and would like to begin building a life together now, rather than later.

From our own perspective, marrying young can be a good idea for two people who have maturity, well-articulated goals, flexibility, and good relationship-building skills. Starting off with very little materially can actually be an advantage: You learn as a couple how to prioritize time and expenses, give emotional support to each other's education and fledgling careers, shape dreams for the future together, gradually acquire financial stability in a shared effort, and develop a common history. These are all experiences that can greatly enrich your marriage.

Yet with all these advantages, young married couples still face challenges. They often have to adjust (temporarily) to a lower standard of living than the one in which they were raised. Also, they are still maturing cognitively and socially, and will be undergoing a great deal of personal growth during their early years together. While this means that some couples will grow apart, husbands and wives who focus on maintaining emotional intimacy usually grow in the same direction.

Frankly, marriage at any age has its benefits and detractions. Couples who marry after they finish their educations may have a shorter period of economic uncertainty and struggle than a younger couple, but also face the challenge of balancing the time they want to spend together with the demands of their fledgling careers. Men and women who want to enjoy their 20s without the responsibilities of making someone else happy or raising children often have difficulty acquiring the mindset that enables them to develop an enduring, mutually-beneficial relationship.

Further, those who marry after investing their energy into developing their careers and themselves have different challenges -- how to transition their active singles lifestyle to that of a married person, how to deal with the wealth each has accumulated, and how to share and be involved with another person after being single for many years.

There is no one perfect age for marriage -- it depends on the maturity of the couple, the point in life that they meet, and their willingness to trade the costs and benefits of their current lifestyle for the costs and benefits of being married.

So what about your situation, where you both are still in school? We would encourage each of you to clarify what you would like to accomplish as an individual and as a married person over the next six months, one year, and five years, and the way you envision achieving these short- and long-term goals.

Next, the two of you need to discuss how your individual goals can be met at the same time that your mutual goals are being met. You should be careful about abandoning personal goals in order to please your partner, or because there is only room to achieve one person's goals. People who push their goals aside often regret the decision later on, and may come to resent the other person. Of course, this does not preclude reworking your goals in order to achieve a compromise where each partner can have expectations that both will support.

What troubles us about your letter is that you seem to accept the idea that if you get married while still in school, you may have to give up your education, which is the key to your ability to work in a career that will be emotionally and financially rewarding. Not only is this not necessary, but there are a myriad of solutions that you can choose from to insure that both of you complete your educations, whenever a baby comes into the picture.

In this regard, it is crucial for you to psychologically support the other's goals and to be willing to make some changes in the routes each of you have been traveling until now. Have you as a couple considered any of the following possibilities, or some combination?

1. Adding extra courses each semester, going to summer school, and/or taking CLEP exams in order to graduate a semester or year early.

2. Transferring to a less expensive or less demanding college.

3. Taking as many courses as practicable now, and switching to part-time studies if you have a child.

4. Going to college at night.

5. Working part-time while you are in school.

6. In addition to college studies, taking a training course now that can enable you to find part-time and summer employment that pays better than traditional "student jobs." People who've thought out of the box on this have put themselves through school as lifeguards, cosmetologists, telemarketers, caricature artists, real estate agents, etc.

As a couple, you should be able to come up with a few workable solutions. Newlyweds can attend college full-time and work part-time and still make enough time for each other. Since your lives will be pretty full, you'll also need to work together to balance them with other responsibilities of married life.

It's also a good idea to reach a mutual understanding about your roles in maintaining the household: how you will divide budgeting and financial management, shopping, meal preparation and planning, housework, errands, appointment-making, maintenance of your apartment and car, etc.

In your decision whether to become engaged now, there is also one more factor that you probably have already taken into consideration -- that you have reached the point in your courtship where you are ready to move to the next level. You feel the need to add the depth that can only develop when two people make a lifelong commitment. Couples who have reached this point of readiness cannot stay there for too long without things getting stale and stressful.

We hope our suggestions are helpful.

Rosie & Sherry


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