Studies in marriage

The average age of newlyweds keeps rising, but some students don’t want to wait

By Hannah Martin
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2009

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A n overstuffed sofa and cozy recliner are pushed together haphazardly in their Jamaica Plain apartment. There’s a litter box in the kitchen, and a hodgepodge of collegiate decor is plastered across the walls - an Ansel Adams poster, a Heineken logo, hand-crafted dragons that glow under a blacklight.

“What did we name them again?’’ Ashley asks, with a perplexed glance toward the eccentric dragon-craft, her raspy giggle filling the room.

“Buddha and Confucius,’’ Kyle answers.

Kyle and Ashley Adabahr both turned 21 in July. But months before sharing their first legal drink these two undergrads walked down the aisle, sliding rings onto each other’s fingers and hunting for a place for two. While their lives still ooze of college inexperience, they’re married and, so far, loving it.

But the Adabahrs are an anomaly. The number of people married between the ages of 18 and 24 decreased almost 5 percent between 1998 and 2008, according to the US Census Bureau. (The bureau does not keep statistics on people who marry while in college.) The average man gets married around 29, the average woman around 27. But some “collegeweds’’ defy the stats.

Kyle is a sociology major at Northeastern University, currently interning full-time at Cetrulo & Capone, and Ashley graduated early from Northeastern in August, finishing off a psychology degree in just three years. She just started her first job at the online retailer CSN stores.

“We always knew we were going to get married,’’ Kyle said of his high school (and middle school) sweetheart. “It was just a matter of when.’’ By his sophomore year in college, working a full-time paid internship for class credit in addition to a part-time job at Shaw’s supermarket, the ends finally met.

But life isn’t so easy for newlyweds in college. Once the honeymoon is over (if there even was one) couples face the facts: They simply don’t fit into the college norm anymore.

“They’re the exception to the rule,’’ Rich Domenico of RASI Associates, a couples and sex therapist, said of the collegeweds he’s treated. “Being in this part of the country, college educated, and married that young, they’re kind of isolated from their peers. Part of it is trying to help them figure out what their needs are and how they maintain their own friendships and interests while still being a couple.’’

Molly Hazlett Simmons is working on this. The Simmons College senior and Miss Texas 2007 met her husband, Douglas, at a sweet potato festival two years ago in Texas. He offered to buy the biggest root vegetables in exchange for a date; she was sold. Three months later she was engaged, planning her wedding, and packing her bags for Boston, where her fiance lived and worked.

“Being from the South, everyone jokes about getting your ‘Mrs. Degree’ in college,’’ she laughs. But things are a little different in Boston.

Simmons, 23, is new to the north, new to the cold, and new to married life with a 34-year-old financier who inhabits a world of long hours and work dinners. “Honestly, when I got up here I did feel like a minority,’’ Simmons says. “I do have good friends, but they’re good friends at school. They don’t come over. They don’t hang out. My social life is so much different than theirs. They’re all a bunch of girls living together, hanging out, and having fun living in the dorms and, you know, I’m married, going out with his friends to work dinners. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but in the sense of being at college, it has been difficult.’’

But it’s worth the sacrifice to be married, she says. He shares her religious values, takes care of her financial needs (from college tuition to credit card bills), and brought her to Boston, a city she now adores.

“Yeah, there are days when I wish I could go out with these girlfriends or go to this concert,’’ she says. “But for the most part, I’m definitely happy that I’m married.’’

Aside from being at odds with the classic undergrad mold, the biggest obstacle collegeweds face is obvious: money.

The Adabahrs had to face the fact that their parents were no longer covering their expenses, such as health insurance. After a year of marriage, Kyle says they’ve reached a good place. They don’t make a lot of money, but they don’t argue about finances.

“It’s like, we have X amount of money to go out this weekend, and we’ll just do it,’’ he says. “Or if she wants to get her nails done, if you can justify it and you know we have the money, then do it, because it’s not worth arguing about.’’

For other couples, finances are the reason for getting hitched. Jennifer and Josh McGowynn met in high school and were struggling to put themselves through Holyoke Community College. Their parents’ incomes didn’t merit federal aid, but if they married their financial aid would be based on their own incomes.

“It was solely our income that was being used to pay for college, so it made sense financially when we were already planning to get married someday,’’ Jennifer says. Now they can file their taxes together, get more money for school, and have more options when it comes to health insurance.

Some people, including Domenico, say collegeweds are probably rushing into marriage, that they haven’t had enough relationship experience or a chance to solidify their own identity. But Thomas Cottle, a psychologist and professor of education at Boston University, says maybe we’re thinking too hard.

“The danger to me is the idea that there’s something wrong about it, and I don’t know necessarily if there is,’’ he says. “The culture says that you’re supposed to get married and then you turn around and get married and they say, ‘Why’d you get married?’ ’’

He muses: “You’re not prepared to get married in college, but magically you are a year later when you call yourself a medical student?’’

Ashley and Kyle agree; their age has yet to pose any problems, they say. It’s been a hard first year for them, from figuring out schedules and paying bills to dealing with their recent apartment burglary, but they’ve almost nailed down a steady routine.

On days off, they love driving six or nine hours in one direction just to turn right around. They’ll see how many states they can cover in a day, picking up souvenir shot glasses along the way to add to an expansive windowsill collection. They watch “Criminal Minds’’ but tend to pause it 20 minutes in for a rampant discussion of predicted outcomes.

“We’ve gotten to the point in our lives that we’ve always been planning for and dreaming about,’’ Kyle says. “Now it’s about finding ourselves and finding out what the two of us are going to do individually.’’