There are plenty of ways growing up in the Christian culture affected me for better or worse. One of the worst teachings by far — that was also the hardest for me to get over — was how the church views young marriage.
When I started Bible College at the age of 19, the phrase “everyone’s doing it” came to mind. Unlike a regular college, everyone wasn’t experimenting with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs (which I had already done in high school). “Everyone” under the age of 25, especially women, had their sights set on finding a mate.
Now that I am “old” and married with two kids at the age of 31 (and wasn’t married as I intended at 21), I’m so glad I didn’t go down that road. There’s nothing technically wrong with young marriage, though I personally believe and will tell my children that it’s so, so important to take time to get to know yourself and other people before you make a lifelong commitment.
There is something wrong with being coerced and even brainwashed into thinking you need to get married at a young age to be complete — in the eyes of God and in the eyes of other people.
No, I did not grow up in a Duggar-like cult. I grew up in a fundamental Christian home, which was quite common for my area of South Texas. I’ve spoken to a number of friends, including my husband who was the son of a Baptist pastor, and our stories match up. Young people are still being led to believe that young marriage (implying abstinence from sex) is the only way to please God, and these young people who follow this path are not being told the whole story.
Publicist Melinda Jackson confirms her experience of what we called in Bible College the “MRS degree,” meaning you entered school as a single woman and left as a Mrs., if you played your cards right. Jackson says, “I grew up in a very conservative Christian household in North Carolina. I went on to attend a private Baptist university. The general rule of thumb is that if you are a female, you either get married to your high school boyfriend a year or two after graduation or you meet a guy in college and get married to him the summer you graduate.”
Joelle Caputa came face-to-face with this pressure for Christian women to marry young to set a good example for other Christians while interviewing participants for her book, Trash the Dress: Stories of Celebrating Divorce in your 20s. Unsurprising to me, this pressure was a leading cause of divorce among the couples Caputa encountered.
In her book, Caputa writes, “Avery, a 27-year-old research assistant in Ohio, told me, ‘Part of the reason why we got married so soon was because we moved in together about five months after we first met. We were very involved in the church and our youth pastor was encouraging us to get married so we wouldn’t set a bad example to the youth we were leading. They all looked up to us. My rationale was, ‘I love this man and want to grow old with him.’ We stopped having sex after we got engaged and perhaps this was a motivating factor that brought him to want to tie the knot so early.'”
“Willow, an online editor from New Jersey, had a similar situation: ‘My mother brought it up after she found out we were sleeping together. She was a born-again Christian and said we needed to get married to make it right. He was all for it and proposed that Christmas day.’ Willow’s marriage began when she was 20 years old and ended when she was merely 23. Thanks, Mom.”
When I was in a relationship in my early twenties, I felt this same pressure in the Christian community. Premarital sex was unacceptable, and young marriage was the only option. When I was single while attending Bible College in my early twenties, the pressure was still there: The Bible says women are supposed to be submissive to men. A woman without a man is incomplete. If you aren’t married, you haven’t fulfilled your life’s purpose yet.
This religious perception of marriage may not be true for every Christian woman, but it certainly resounds with me and thousands of other women. I was also given a poor example by my mother who married my stepdad to “save” our divorced family and also because God led them to.
Reading all of this now makes me angry for myself and for other women in the same position I was in. I spent years of my life looking for a perfect, righteous, godly man because I was told I was incomplete without him. When I finally got married to my husband, my best friend who I reunited with from high school, I spent even more years playing the submissive wife role and denying my own voice.
No longer. I still believe in God, but I’m working slowly but surely to challenge these antiquated, misinterpreted beliefs about young marriage and submission in marriage. I am a woman, and I am just as valuable on my own. I want my sons to see me as a mother and a wife who contributes as an equal partner so they know what to look for in a mate when and if they ever decide to get married: Someone who is content alone and in a relationship. Someone who has their own voice. Someone who loves themselves so that they know how to love other people. I didn’t learn any of that in Bible school.