Finding love at university is not uncommon: if anything, it is expected. Recent figures by London South Bank University estimate that a quarter of all students find their life partner while studying for a higher education degree. What’s more, 20% of women and 17% of men said that they expected to find their future spouse at uni.

However, the face of young love is changing. Seeing couples on campus may be a regular feature of student life, but there is now a sizeable portion of the 18-21 population going one step further, disavowing the single life in exchange for an engagement ring and a promise to marry – prior to graduation.

Leaving behind the stereotype of spontaneous flings and one night stands, IMPACT met with four young couples who are balancing study guides with wedding plans and posed the question: is it possible to get married while at university?

The Married Couple Next Door

When third-year Tom Mackay told Natalie’s mother that he and girlfriend Natalie Razavi had big news, she immediately assumed the worst.

“She thought we were having a baby!” laughs Tom, “I remember she had this look of fear on her face – and then I told her we were engaged. She was relieved to say the least.”

Earlier that week, Tom surprised his girlfriend of 18-months with a proposal during a group holiday in the windswept mountains of Northern Wales. The ground was so rocky, the leading man had trouble bending down on one knee. “Funny thing was she was not expecting it at all”, he says. “We’d been living together at University throughout second year and towards the end of that I began thinking that I wanted to marry her.”

Tom and Natalie’s story is a traditional one by most standards. After a chance meeting in Freshers’ Week, the pair made it official shortly before Valentine’s Day last year. This placed the incipient couple in an awkward position. “We’d only been going out a couple of weeks so it would be weird to buy a massive present. She got me some Cadbury Crème Eggs and I think I got her some bread and butter puddings.”

We still have our dreams. The only difference is we want to be doing it together

But how has (nearly) married life affected them? For the past two years they have been living in a shared house with three other students. However, Tom insists the dynamic is the same as before. “You know, I can’t say whether some other married couples have a hard time with housemates, but ours have always been really accepting and helpful.”

He also believes that being engaged is no different from being in an ordinary relationship as far as your social life is concerned. Before getting serious, the two of them still made time for each other. “When you are sharing a house with other people you need to make sure that you set aside time for just you two.”

Despite being an atheist, Tom credits his religious upbringing with shaping his attitude towards relationships. “I was a Christian before I came to university, and that partly influenced my decision to study Theology” he says. “However I prefer to think my background didn’t affect my decision [to get engaged] at all. Even if I had been raised without a religion, I would still have gotten engaged young.”

As other third-year students gaze out into the future with uncertainty, Tom is optimistic. “When you’re a student you have all these wild dreams. ‘I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to travel.’ Both of us have still really got that. The only difference is, we want to be doing it together.”

A Foreign Affair

A lifelong relationship often begins in the most ordinary of circumstances. For Aaron and Jess, it was the decision to study the same subject at A-level which first bought them together.

It wasn’t until they decided to go on the adventure of a lifetime, however, travelling for six months across the globe, that they realised things were getting serious. At the time they’d only been together three months. They were placing not only their money but their relationship on the line.

Spending an extended period of time in the company of just one person is tough, even when that person happens to be the love of your life. But being immersed in a foreign culture unsurprisingly presented its own challenges to their fledgling relationship.

“We had times when we couldn’t afford food, or we didn’t know where we were going to sleep that night. We had a few major arguments but we had some really, really good times as well. I think you get to know people’s bad side and good side, because you’re together the whole time.”

Far from driving the couple apart, these difficulties only served to draw them closer together. “It either works or it doesn’t. When you spend six months with someone, you’ve got to come out the other end. Travelling created a bond.”
It was when they were away from home that Aaron realised that Jess was the person with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. “When you spend six months with someone, twenty-four hours a day, it’s going to work,” he says. “It’s that cheesy thing when you know you’ve found the right person, you take the plunge.”

Living together is important. I don’t think you can know someone unless you do that

Ever the gentleman, Aaron waited until they had returned to England so he could ask Jess’ parents for their permission before popping the question. And when he did, on a trip to Knighton, Powy, a few months later, it was certainly unforgettable.

“We went to a log cabin and we got completely snowed in. It was so beautiful – we had a hot tub and a wood fire. Aaron made us an indoor picnic and he put on a cute cheesy song and he got down on one knee and proposed.”

“I kind of sat there for a minute just like, with my mouth open, thinking ‘oh my god’. Then I said ‘yes’ straight away.”
Aside from the obvious consequences of their time spent travelling together, it also served to develop Jess’ ideas about relationships on a wider level. “I really think that living together is important. I don’t think you can know someone unless you do that.”

For Jess and Aaron, the gamble paid off. Their experience abroad, while not without difficulties, strengthened their relationship in a way in which they could never have foreseen. It was by overcoming those challenges together, that they now have confidence to embark on the most exciting adventure of all – married life.

45% of marriages end in divorce
Half of all divorces happen in the first 10 years of marriage
60% of marriages between under-25s are unsuccessful
67% of graduates rate university as one of the most influential times of their lives
Source: The Office for National Statistics

Holy Matrimony

For some young couples, faith plays a significant, if not pivotal, role in their relationship. For Anna and her fiancée Pete, becoming a couple was an important decision in itself with an emphasis on commitment from the very beginning.

The pair took their time in making the decision to begin a relationship. With a serious perspective from the outset, Pete explains that there were “a few months between telling Anna that I liked her and beginning our relationship. I was working in East Africa at the time, and we thought about what a relationship would mean to both of us, and we realised it would mean a lot”.

Anna, who comes from an army family, says that their “perception of a relationship is quite a serious one”. Despite being close friends for over two years, they had “already spent a lot of time praying and asking God His opinion” on their relationship, seeking guidance before making the decision to become an item. She remarks, “I see relationships as a way of working out whether you want to marry someone or not, rather than just having fun”.

Although most couples mainly look for shared interests when choosing a partner, for Anna and Pete uniting their faith was something that influenced and shaped their relationship with each other considerably. Pete tells us how “knowing Jesus loves me enables me to love Anna so much more. Rather than worrying about myself, I find my security in Him and that allows me to put her first”. Anna chimes in, “I’m utterly convinced that God delights in our relationship and that’s what He wants and I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way”.

 I see relationships as a way of working out whether you want to marry someone or not, rather than just having fun

Besides religion, tradition also played a significant role in this case of young love; Pete sought permission from his fiancée’s father three weeks before he proposed. The proposal itself took place in a flawlessly romantic setting, during a holiday in France on the bank of the Dordogne River. With candles, fairy lights adorning the wooden beams of the house, champagne and a lake covered with floating lanterns, Pete recalls how he asked Anna to be his wife, “I took her up onto the balcony, told her I loved her and asked her to marry me. It was amazing”.

Anna observes how long before they were a couple she still “felt that Pete and God were trying to make me go out with Pete.” Suitably, their Christian faith will play a prominent part in the marriage ceremony next September, as well as in their relationship. “It’s not just our day,” Anna points out, “it’s our union with God, a promise before God and we’d like to acknowledge that”.

The Age Gap

The whirlwind romance of Charles and his wife Cécile in the French capital reads like a chapter from the ultimate Parisian romance. Yet despite the couple’s fairytale beginnings, there were problems pretty much from the outset.

At 23, young Charles wasn’t exactly used to the pressures of married life. Only months earlier, he had been settling into his studies while on a year abroad as part of his degree course. But he soon started to develop strong feelings toward one of his co-workers, a 48 year-old woman named Cécile. Beginning as friends, things soon escalated:

“We were sitting together, looking out toward the Seine and we could see the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre… We were just talking and then it suddenly hit me that I was in love,” says Charles.
Contrary to expectations, the age difference and its attendant responsibilities were never really an issue for the two. As Charles points out, “Age has nothing to do with it – it’s about being in a stable, loving partnership. For me, that’s all I care about.”

Fairly soon, however, their relationship began attracting the wrong sort of attention. Female colleagues would supposedly snoop around while they were out of the office, looking for evidence of their affair. “They searched my personal belongings, read my personal papers” says Cécile, “It’s been a very painful experience for me”

This resistance has in many ways shaped the couples’ outlook on life. Charles admits that “the whole experience has made me a lot less self-conscious. I’ve learned not to care what people think. I’ve become a very open, proud person and nothing can knock me down.”

It’s strange the respect you get from men when they find out you are in a relationship with an older woman. I guess there’s some sort of virility associated with it, I don’t know

But what about reactions closer to home? He describes the situation with his parents as a “delicate matter”, but says that they have gradually come to accept it. His mother in particular had reservations, and one of the issues she brought up was her son and daughter-in-law having children. “The thing is we do want [that],” he says “and we will try. But I know that if we can’t, I will accept that.”

Being in a relationship with an older woman – a woman who has three young children of her own – certainly brings serious responsibilities. Charles explains how he learned to balance university life with the experience of being an adoptive father. “I had to grow up very quickly, but I wanted to do this” he adds. “I didn’t feel pressured at all. I love them as if they were my own. They’re my family.”

Against adversity, Charles and Cécile have built a life together. “Sure, we are going to reach different stages of our lives at different times,” he says with an optimistic smile. “But to be honest, I don’t care. I’m just really happy that we’ll be together.”

Sarah Murphy, Rosie Feenstra and Izzy Scrimshire

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