Young Couples and Marriage

December 4, 2003 – New York, NY

Toni Nicolino, reporter for the Washington Square News, had some questions for Dr. Allison Kahner, a clinical psychologist in NYC who provides therapy for couples and individuals in her private practice, and also directs Cognitive Therapy Associates (a network of therapists in the NYC area). Nicolino noticed an increasing trend at NYU of college students tying the knot, and she went in search of some answers to her questions about young couples who are contemplating, planning or expect to get married during or right out of college.

Q. “More couples get divorced within the first 2 to 3 years of marriage than at any subsequent interval; most of their undoing may stem from a failure to undo their complicities.” (Sarnoff, Love Centered-Marriage in a Self-Centered World). Do you think this statistic is especially relevant to college students who get married during or directly following college? If so, what do you think is the reason? Could it be because they had not established themselves in a career yet?

Dr. Kahner: Young couples are at the highest risk for divorce. The statistic starts to drop when people are in their late 20’s through 30’s. It is possible that those who marry too young are still maturing and are not as equipped to deal with the stresses and strains of marriage and family. Not being established professionally is one of those stresses.

Q. Before couples meet, they usually have a number of relationships with other people–friends, family, etc. When a couple forms, especially in a relationship as serious as one they feel would lead to marriage, the two begin to spend more time with each other and less with the other people in their lives. In a college atmosphere, is this detrimental to the psychological well-being of the student? Do you think this could negatively affect the student in their future?

Dr. Kahner: Students who marry while in school may be missing out on some experiences that would enhance their life experience and maturity. In their late teens and early twenties, people are still forming their adult identities, and are still doing a lot of growing psychologically. It is best to wait to marry until after about age 27 or so to ensure that this growth curve has begun to slow down. This reduces the chance that people will later come to realize that they didn’t really know themselves yet when they got married, as well as feel that they have grown apart from their partner.

Q. Do parents seem to have more of an impact on the relationship of a couple that is in college due to the fact that they may still rely on them financially and mentally for stability? Do you feel this could be a factor in the success of their marriage?

Dr. Kahner: Family pressures can pose a real obstacle to a married couple’s life even when the couple is not financially or emotionally dependent. When money is involved, so is the potential for influence or control, and you don’t want that to come from the outside. It is definitely more desirable for a couple to marry when financially independent. Not only does it protect the integrity of the couple, but the way each handles money will have a chance to be demonstrated to the other beforehand. One of the most common of conflicts between couples is how they spend or save money, and if they each have a sense of how they and their partner deal with money, they will be making a more informed decision before they enter a marital situation. As for emotional dependence on parents, this can be a real problem in a marriage because a partnership requires prioritizing and using judgment when it comes to managing conflicts with parents and in-laws. A person who is relying heavily on parents for approval and support will have a tough time when it comes to putting one’s spouse before the demands of parents, and is likely to feel quite torn.

Q. The beginning of a marriage is a crucial time for developing a solid relationship. If this time in the relationship is happening alongside the couple’s career pursuit, how do you think this will affect the success of their marriage?

Dr. Kahner: This is a difficult question to answer. It depends on many factors. But basically, if the couple is struggling financially and having a tough time getting on track with their careers, then it can put undue strain on the marriage, increasing the chances that the marriage will not last. How well the two work together as a team is critical.

Q. Carin Rubenstein and Philip Shaver have found that the loneliest of all Americans are single men and women between the ages of 18-26; these are the ages of most college students. Do you feel that this statistic has any effect on their desire to find and hold onto a partner that they meet in college, or before they enter the “real world”?

Dr. Kahner: The ages between 18-26 are particularly challenging, because in some ways, people feel ready for a more permanent adult relationship–especially the women at that age. However, due to the way this society is set up, people don’t achieve financial and emotional independence until later. So there is a conflict in needs and readiness when it comes to relationships for those in that age bracket. Some may marry prematurely because the need for connection wins out.

Q. Do you think that marriage comes to the minds of college students because college is the first time in many young adults’ lives that they are in a setting without parental restriction, and they now have the ability to freely pursue their first sexual relationship?

Dr. Kahner: Not necessarily. Again, it depends on the individual and their motivations. If they are uncomfortable–for either socio-emotional or religious reasons–being sexually involved without the promise of marriage, then there is more pressure to get married. But others may enjoy their increased freedoms without feeling the need to get attached too quickly. They may feel that they are just starting out and are not ready for marriage.

Q. How influential do you feel circumstances such as the culture and location of the college is in whether or not a couple will marry? For instance, Manhattan, due to the phenomenon of television shows such as Sex and the City, seems to promote the single life. Do you think these media influences affect a student’s decision whether or not to marry during or directly following college?

Dr. Kahner: The culture in which a person is raised does have an influence on an individual’s expectations and behavior. Media is part of that culture, but it is unlikely to account for everything that goes into a person’s decision about when and whom to marry. People usually use what is considered the norm for their reference group as a guideline. That is, they are often influenced by their immediate environment or social circle.

Q. Do you feel that if a college offered a curriculum that discussed these issues that it would effect a student’s decision of whether or not to marry in college? Do you feel courses concerning marriage would encourage or deter students from choosing to marry?

Dr. Kahner: I would hope that a college course on marriage would help people make a more informed choice. Such a course would be geared towards exploring the pros and cons of each side.

Q. Have students come to you with the fear that they may never meet “the one”?

Dr. Kahner: People usually have more fear of not meeting “the one” after they have been out of school for some time, and find they are not in an environment where they are meeting other singles. There may be a need for some different strategies than those used while in college, when it was relatively easy to meet others who are available for dating or relationships. People who expect to meet someone “naturally,” or without specific intention or effort, may feel discouraged, because their expectations do not coincide with the requirements for the situation, unless one is in a target-rich environment. However, if one is willing to step up and actively pursue different avenues, but without forcing the issue or seeming desperate, then this is the appropriate way to proceed.

Q. I’m aware that NYU is considering a new mixed-housing policy, where roommates can choose to live in the same room (not just as suite mates) with someone of the opposite sex. I have also come across research that suggests that the chances of divorce are higher when a couple has lived together prior to getting married. Do you think that such a policy could affect student relationships if they choose to take advantage of it? Do you feel it is harmful or beneficial to the relationship, and why or why not?

Dr. Kahner: You are correct­-living together often does not lead to marriage; those who live together usually wind up marrying other people. But it can be good practice, and prepare those who cohabit to be better spouses in future relationships.

As for cohabiting in college, I am assuming that it wouldn’t be an assigned arrangement but rather a choice for couples. If so, then it has some merit. However, if it is co-ed and randomly arranged, I think that can lead to more problems than one might bargain for! I wouldn’t go for the latter, but if there is cohabitation for couples, then perhaps there should be some counseling involved beforehand, to explore the pros and cons of their options before taking the plunge.

Some potential problems I can think of when it comes to cohabiting in a dorm environment is that couples may fight and disrupt their neighbors (privacy is still an issue), they may get distracted from their studies or lose focus, and they may not benefit from the variety of social opportunities that are available and later regret having missed out. Also, what would happen if they want to split up? It could create a lot of headaches for both the students and the administrators.

Some benefits are that it can avoid the imposition on one’s roommate in having their significant other staying over too much. A couple (especially those that are harmonious) may actually do better academically because they can encourage each other and are not out socializing as much, and they may gain better relationship skills from the experience of cohabitation.

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