Ringless

On the first Sunday of my college career, I sat in my school’s quad with another girl from my floor, enjoying the late August warmth, our relative lack of homework, and the promise of what lay ahead in the next four years of our lives. As we chatted, our conversation turned to boys. My friend’s father had recently passed away, and she said that getting a college degree was more important to her than anything, because she didn’t want to have to rely on a man to support her. She wanted to be able to take care of herself, because you never knew what could happen.

“Honestly,” I said, “if I had to pick leaving here with my college degree or leaving with a husband, I’d choose a husband.”

This, my friends, is West Michigan.

To understand the culture of young marriage in West Michigan, you first have to understand the overall culture of West Michigan. In the mid-1800s, our community’s founding father, Dr. Albertus C. Van Raalte, settled in what grew to be Holland, Michigan. Van Raalte originally hailed from the Netherlands, and many of the settlers who came to his kolonie were Dutch as well.

Over time, the Dutch in West Michigan moved beyond Holland to other cities–Zeeland, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Kalamazoo–but by and large stayed within the same general area bounded by Muskegon on the north, Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo on the east, St. Joseph on the south (if you’re being generous. South Haven is probably far enough south), and Lake Michigan on the west. For the purposes of this post, that entire area will be referred to as West Michigan.

In my life, I don’t know if I have ever found a community so proud of its heritage as the Dutch community in West Michigan. We are Dutch and proud, thank you very much. We adore our wooden shoes, our tulips, our windmills, our unpronounceable last names with their confusing double vowels and Vanvandervansmas. We cling tightly to the homeland, until someone mentions how liberal the homeland has become since Van Raalte established “the other Holland.” We shrug that off, disassociate ourselves with it. The Dutch in West Michigan are the chosen ones. The remnant, if you will. The ones predestined by God (always predestined — to be a good Dutchman is to be a good Calvinist in West Michigan) to escape the rampant sin of the Netherlands for the sake of our totally depraved (again: to be a good Dutchman is to be a good Calvinist) souls.

If you’re Dutch and you live in West Michigan, there is an extraordinarily high chance you are Reformed. You might belong to the Christian Reformed Church, and if you do you likely went to *insert city name here* Christian High School, ended up at Calvin College (named after our patron saint, John Calvin), and probably, at one point in your life, cheered on a shockingly good boys’ basketball team (our genes not only predispose us to blonde hair and blue eyes; they also make us tall. Somehow I missed out on all of these benefits of being Dutch. Alas, the modeling career that could have been!). If you’re Dutch but not Christian Reformed, you probably grew up in the Reformed Church of America, which, for all intents and purposes, is the same thing as the Christian Reformed Church, just slightly more liberal (emphasis–so, so much emphasis–on the slightly. We’re talking “jeans to church” instead of “khaki pants to church” liberal, people, not “homosexual accepting, limited gun rights approving, universal health care accepting” liberal.). The primary difference between you and your CRC compatriots is that you probably went to public high school, and you probably went to Hope College instead of Calvin.

In short, to be Dutch in West Michigan is to be Christian and conservative. Yes, there are certainly exceptions (me, for example), but by and large, the people you encounter are politically, culturally, and spiritually conservative. The 1950s are alive and well in West Michigan. Don’t believe me? I’d like to direct your attention, then, to a phenomenon that is also alive and well on the campuses of Calvin, Hope, and, realistically, many Christian colleges around the country: Ring by Spring.

The general idea of Ring by Spring is that, as a female, you have entered college for one reason: to have a diamond on your left ring finger before you have a diploma in your hand. You may be pretending to be in college to get your BA, your BS, your BMus, your Bachelor of Whatever, but in reality you are there to get your MRS degree. You are there to find a husband. That is your primary goal. As a freshman entering college, that was my primary goal.

To give you an idea of how this looks statistically, I went through my Facebook friends. I have 251 friends that were either raised in this Dutch culture or attended college at Calvin, Hope, or an equivalent school (Dordt, Trinity, Northwestern College in Iowa, etc.), and are within one year of me (college class of 2011, 2012, or 2013). Of these 251, 32 are married. 14 are engaged to be married. In total, 46 of my 251 friends within one year of my age are either married or engaged. 46 out of 251. 18 percent. Nearly one in five.

Just take a moment to digest that. I’m 22 years old. All of the people in this sample are between 21 and 24, and nearly one in five of them is either married or will be soon.

Now, I’m very well aware that my life is not everyone else’s life. My priorities are not everyone else’s priorities. People have different goals, different dreams, different passions, and it’s no more my place to point fingers and accuse these people of throwing away their lives or making terrible decisions for getting married than it is their place to point fingers at me and accuse me of being selfish, ignorant, or just plain jealous.

My problem with this culture of young marriage is three fold. For one thing, statistically speaking, one in three of those couples will be divorced before they hit their 10th anniversary. They could, quite possibly, be divorced before any of us hit 30. And that, to me, is extremely sad. I have serious doubts that anyone enters a marriage with the intention of eventually divorcing. I would like to believe when every one of these couples said, “As long as we both shall live,” they meant it. I would like to think they didn’t drop $25,500 on a celebration of something they didn’t intend to be permanent. I would like to believe they understood the gravity of the vows–not statements, not ideas, not if-I-feel-like-its: vows–they made in front of their loved ones and God (because, let’s be real: all of these couples are making their vows in front of God) and didn’t do it because “it’s just what everyone does” or, just as bad, so they could have sex without feeling guilty.

I think it’s safe to assume that most, if not all, couples enter a marriage with the intention of being together forever, which to me, simply begs the question, “Why the rush?” I recognize that there are rights and privileges only available to legally married couples, but many of these rights–hospital visitation rights, medical decision making rights, child custody rights–more often than not don’t apply to 22- and 23-year-old couples. There are exceptions, of course, because you never know when tragedy may strike, but out of all the married couples my age I know, there has only been one case where any of these rights were relevant. To me, if you plan to be together forever, it makes more sense to allow some time to pass to insure that you’ll actually feel the same way about the person you intend to marry in a year or two instead of making a snap decision to get married young because all your friends are getting married young, only to find yourself in divorce court in a couple of years because you’ve continued developing as a person. (This sentiment is really more directed towards the couples my age that have been together for less than a year before getting engaged rather than couples my age that have been dating since they were both 15, or even 18.) Which leads me to my next point…

My other problem comes from my own life experience. When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Chicago interning. I still had classes once a week, but by and large I was a member of the 9-5 “real world.” It was the first time in my life where I had the chance to taste adulthood, and while I learned a lot of things about independence that semester, the biggest thing I learned was that, as a student, I didn’t have any idea who the hell I was as a person. Being in Chicago gave me, for the first time, the chance to define myself outside the boundaries of “student.”

Being in Chicago then, and, even more so, being in Chicago now, also showed me just how young I am. Being 22 (or, in my case, 21) in college feels old, and that’s because in college, it is. You are old in college when you’re 22, just like you’re old in high school when you’re 18, or you’re old in middle school when you’re 14, or you’re old in elementary school when you’re 11. But just because you’re old in that context does not mean you are old, period. The average life expectancy for a man turning 65 today in the United States is 83. For a woman, it’s 85. As a 22 year old, that means you’re only about a quarter of the way through your life. Barring major accident, tragedy, or health problem, you still have three quarters of your life to live. You’re barely halfway to halfway. You’re not old. You are so young.

So young, in fact, that your brain hasn’t even finished developing yet (here’s where that segue two paragraphs back was headed). I don’t know about all of you, but as my brain developed throughout my youth, my passions, interests, dreams, and aspirations changed. When I was 8, I wanted to be a teacher and liked a boy named Chris. When I was 13, I wanted to be a pop star and was completely convinced Andrew and I would end up together. When I was 18, I intended to be a published novelist and was so, so sure Corey would dump his girlfriend for me, because I couldn’t possibly care about someone that much that I wasn’t destined to marry, even if he had been dating the same girl since our sophomore year of high school. I don’t want any of those careers anymore. I’m certainly not interested in any of those boys any more.

As my brain has grown and developed–which, according to studies, it is still doing right now, and will continue doing for the next couple of years into my mid-20s, which I, and my peers, have not hit yet–my tastes and goals have changed. My interests and dreams have changed just as drastically between the ages of 20 and 22 as they did between the ages of 14 and 18. To make what’s intended to be a permanent life decision in the midst of such development and change strikes me at best as risky, and at worst as downright foolish. Just because I’ve really enjoyed studying hip hop dance over the past seven months doesn’t mean I should quit my job and try to make a living dancing. Again, if this were something I had been doing since I was 15 and had loved doing since I was 15, it’d be one thing, but at this point, even though I’m an “adult,” I certainly have not had enough time to know if hip hop is a viable career choice for me (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that unless I develop a lot more swag, it’s probably not 😉 ) and probably should not be making any serious decisions about what I intend to do with hip hop and its relation to my life for quite some time.

One of the things I value the most about my life is my freedom. I am more free at this point in my life than I have ever been. I have a boss to report to, yes, but by and large, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. If I wanted to move to San Diego tomorrow, I could. It certainly wouldn’t be responsible, or advisable, since I don’t have a job in San Diego, but the point is: I could. There’s nothing stopping me from doing that, because the only person I’m responsible for in my life is me. My life is not intrinsically linked to anyone else’s. My decisions are able to be my decisions because they don’t affect anyone to the degree that they would affect someone if I were married to them, or, even more so, if I were married to them and had children with them.

But even more than the freedom to pack up and move, right now in my life I have the unique freedom to discover who, exactly, I am. I have the freedom to experiment. I have the freedom to take risks. I have the freedom to make mistakes for which only I will have to bear the consequences. I have the freedom to grow, the freedom to develop, the freedom to become the person I was intended to be. This window of opportunity won’t last forever. Again, barring major accident or illness, I have my entire life ahead of me to be an adult. I don’t have my entire life to be a twentysomething.

Finally–and here’s where the feminist tirade comes in–I have a deep problem with the idea that as a 22-year-old woman hailing from West Michigan, I have to be married, either right now or ever. There’s an unspoken sentiment in the community in which I was raised that because I’m not married, because I’m not engaged, because I don’t even have a boyfriend, period, I have failed as a woman. I have not fulfilled my God-given duty to be a wife or to be a mother. That because of my singleness, I am a second class citizen. I had one job–to go to college and leave with a ring on my finger–and I failed.

I’m sorry, (actually, I’m not sorry), but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. I graduated summa cum laude from a good school with a 3.99 GPA. I balanced a full academic load for three years (and a, um, not quite as full academic load senior year 😉 ) with two jobs and six extracurricular activities and still got all A’s (and one doggone A-. Curse you, Intro to Lit!). I held leadership positions in three separate student organizations. I had a full time job in my field–not the norm for English majors by any stretch–fall into my lap six months before I graduated. Do I think I failed my duty as a young woman in college? Absolutely not.

Occasionally I’m asked why I moved to Chicago. I always say it’s because I had a job here, but that’s not the whole truth. I do have a job here that required me to move, but I had every intention of moving to Chicago whether I had a job or not. I needed to get out of West Michigan because I didn’t fit in. As a single 21-year-old with no romantic prospects, I felt like a complete outcast–and how could I have not? I attended five weddings for my peers last year, and I didn’t have a date to bring with me to any of them. Somewhere between the second and third identical sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 and fourth and fifth lighting of unity candles, you can’t help but ask yourself: “How is this happening to everyone my age but me? What is so inherently repulsive about me that I don’t even have a boyfriend, let alone a husband?”

Absurd! I truly believe it’s important to validate, not minimize, feelings, but just look at that! 21 years old and I really, truly felt like I was destined to be an old maid because everything around me was telling me I was. I have a long list of reasons why Chicago has been good for me, and one of the top reasons is because being in this city has showed me that you don’t have to be married at 22. Regardless of what my Dutch, West Michigan, Christian upbringing tells me, it is totally, completely, 100% okay for me to be single right now. 

Do I want to be married someday? Absolutely. Do I deeply hope to have a family of my own at some point? Certainly. But I don’t need those things right now. I’m proud of where I came from, but I simply cannot get on board with the culture of young marriage in West Michigan and the stigma around singleness it fosters. I cannot condone the idea that in order to be a whole person, in order to be an adult, in order to fully realize who I am, I must have a man by my side. These concepts, these thought processes, promote judgment and stupendously poor life choices on the part of too many of my peers that do nothing but create the ideal environment for incredible heartache on the part of both single and married people.

I don’t know how many West Michiganders read my blog. I don’t know if any West Michiganders read my blog. But if there are, please hear me: you do not need to be married right now. You do not need a ring by spring. Your worth should not and cannot be determined by the precious metals on your left hand, nor can it be determined by the age at which those metals appear. You–you–have inherent value as a person. Not because you are a husband. Not because you are a wife. Because you are you.

Thanks for listening.

21 thoughts on “Ringless

  1. I COMPLETELY agree that society (whether it’s the culture of Western Michigan or elsewhere) places way too high a value on getting married. Granted, when I was 22 and newly engaged (and was actually the first of my friends to get engaged) I wouldn’t have thought so. But 11 years later I can totally see why my mom was wary. I am not the same person I was at 22. I’m lucky in that I don’t mind making certain compromises to be with my husband but I still sometimes wonder what it would be like if I was single. So, yes, even as a married 30-something I am totally in support of single ladies with no rush to get married or be in a relationship!

    • Thanks, Erin! I mean, I certainly think marriage is a good thing, but I don’t like how so many people seem to think it is the ONLY thing, you know? I think making compromises and being willing to be flexible is the key to making any relationship work in the long, long run, and that’s totally fine (and even good!) as long as a person’s not compromising who they fundamentally are in the process of compromising for the sake of a relationship, if that makes sense. I think that’s where things can start to get really unhealthy.

  2. This post was everything I hoped! I definitely think we place too much importance on getting married and having a wedding, but, as divorce rates show, we don’t place enough emphasis on the marriage itself. I think people our age especially tend to get caught up in that. It’s so sad to me that people get married so young because they want to have sex without feeling guilty or because they feel worthless without a man. Those are terrible reasons to get married! I am a Christian, but I hate how much emphasis is placed on women’s purity before marriage (which I think is part of the reason why some feel the need to marry so young). I just hope people learn to love themselves first, because you can’t have a successful relationship loving someone else unless you love and respect yourself first.

    That, and it is SO IMPORTANT to know what you want out of life before getting married. If you’re unsure about anything or you have doubts, don’t go ahead and get married just to get married. There’s no shame in taking a relationship slow or being single. We all need to be alone at some point because THAT’S when we find out who we are, what we want and where we want to go.

    Sorry for the novel. I’m just very passionate about marriage and stuff.

    • Oh goodness, no need to apologize for a long comment! I’m the queen of leaving long winded comments when I have a lot to say, so I’m certainly happy to be on the receiving end of that as well 🙂

      I totally agree on the purity thing. I mean, yeah, it’s definitely a nice ideal to aspire to and something I think is worth aspiring to, but definitely is NOT something worth getting married over. Given the choice between explaining to a significant other why I wasn’t a virgin at the age of 27 or explaining to someone why I was divorced at the age of 27, I’d have to go with the first one.

      And YES YES YES to the alone thing. One of my all time favorite quotes is Oscar Wilde’s which says, “I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be defined by another person.” Couldn’t agree more.

  3. First I want to say, I really really enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective with us! I find it so interesting how different the culture around marriage is on the west side of Michigan from the east side. This year, I’m going to one wedding (so far) and it’s for one of Ian’s friends who is 28. None of my friends from home or college are married or even engaged and I think I knew one person who was engaged when my class graduated from college.

    I NEVER thought I’d be dating someone (or living with a boyfriend) in my 20’s. I always thought that I’d be a single career lady (for a while I didn’t believe in marriage) but then I met Ian when I was 20 and things changed. Like Erin said in her comment, I’m not the same person I was when I was 20 and Ian has changed a lot too but we’ve been fortunate that we’ve grown together while also cultivating our own independent interests and friendships so being together works for us. Not everyone is able to have that balance and I really start to worry when I see young 20-somethings who start dating someone, cut off friends, ignore their interests, and settle down too quickly. I wholeheartedly believe that our 20’s are for exploring, making mistakes, and finding ourselves and it makes me sad when people rush into adulthood without appreciating the awkwardness of being fresh out of school with little responsibility but not really established (not that you can’t do that when married but it’s more difficult).

    I’m also totally against the concept of having to have a man support you. What’s interesting is that while I was always encouraged to have a good education, get a high-level degree, and be professionally successful, my dad still believes that I need to have a man to support me. It’s very confusing and very frustrating and goes against every bone in my independent body.

    I also wanted to ask you, if you’re willing to share, what changed your mind about “ring before spring”?

    • You know, to be completely honest I don’t know exactly what it was that changed my mind on ring by spring. It was probably a combination of things. I think a lot of it had to do with my semester in Chicago junior year. I remember talking to one of my roommates during that semester about the whole marriage thing (the program I did is for junior and seniors from Midwest Christian colleges, so there were pleeeeeennnnttty of engaged people in the program) and saying something along the lines of, “I always thought I’d want to be in a serious relationship by now, but I’m so glad I’m not. Changing from being a student to a grown up is such a HUGE transition, and I don’t think I’d want to make all of those major life changes all at once.” She argued that it’d be nice to have someone to go through all those changes with (incidentally, she was one of the four engagements over Mother’s Day weekend), but I didn’t buy it. Haha. At that time, I had no idea I’d end up at the job I have right now, but I was thinking about what I’d want to do as far as getting a job out of college goes, and it was tough enough trying to figure out what I wanted just for myself. I couldn’t imagine making things infinitely more challenging by trying to find a locale that another person liked and was willing to move to with jobs available in addition to just finding something for me.

      I think part of it was also watching people in bad relationships get engaged and being probably 95% sure that they’re going to end up divorced that made me change my mind. I didn’t mention this in my post, but when all those engagements happened a couple of weekends ago, I was feeling ranty and went through my Facebook friends to count the number of couples I really, truly believe will end up divorced within the next decade. I came up with 11 couples. And, uh, that’s A LOT of couples. Like 11 more than I would like to be able to come up with. And I mean yeah, I don’t know all the details about these people’s relationships, but when you see people marrying people that are clearly abusive (maybe not physically, but emotionally, psychologically, etc.) for…what? The sake of getting married because everyone else was doing it? Those kind of things will help you change your mind real fast.

  4. I understand this totally- I went to WMU! 🙂

    For me, it was all about meeting “the one.” Never did I ever think at 26 years old that I would married, living in the suburbs and fighting baby fever. My 22 year old self is baffled.

    • Whoa, no way! I didn’t go to WMU, but I know it quite well.

      When it happens it happens, I suppose. I think what really matters is being open to letting it happen whenever and not forcing it to happen the summer after you graduate from college just because that’s when it’s “supposed” to happen.

  5. Wooooo finally commenting. First, let me start by saying it’s a really good thing I didn’t grow up there. I wouldn’t have fit in either. As someone who is 21 and has never had a real boyfriend, the idea of getting married next year is downright terrifying. Not to mention crazy. I don’t blame you for wanting to find new roots in Chicago.
    I guess the reason I can relate to you so strongly is because that’s how I was brought up. My mom is pretty powerful in her career so seeing her as my inspiration and preaching the importance of having my own life before settling down with someone is all I’ve ever known. The idea of getting married and not doing anything with my life just isn’t an option. I think it’s a big difference between the northeast and the rest of the country and I’m so grateful to have lived here my whole life.
    I’m not against people having serious relationships or getting married young at all, as long as one person isn’t compromising their life for it. I have friends that I wouldn’t be surprised if they got married right after college, and that’s great for them. I know it won’t be me and I’ll be happy to be at their weddings (probably alone, that part I won’t be so happy about) but the fact that it’s expected still in some parts of the country really surprises me. I know my grandparents already ask me whenever I see them “how that boy is” that I was FRIENDS with or if I am dating anyone. It’s like I let them down every time I say no, there is nobody in my life.
    Okay, this is a long enough ramble but let me just say it made me feel so much better about myself while I was sitting in traffic this morning.

    • Yay, I had been looking forward to this! 🙂

      I completely agree on the compromising thing, and I think that’s part of the tricky part about getting married and/or super duper serious so young. Obviously people change and grow throughout their lives, and the only way a couple is ever going to work, whether they’re 21 or 81, is if they’re able to grow together. The difference between being 21 and 81, though, is the opportunity you have to change, and I think sometimes that growth can be stunted if you get into too serious of a relationship or marriage too quickly when you’re so young because there’s a lot of pressure on you to do so.

      And don’t worry, girl: I went to all five of those weddings solo last year, too. If you have other friends there, it’s not the WORST thing in the world. Maybe not the best, either, but not the worst 🙂

  6. I honestly think it is a huge southern mentality, I couldn’t believe the amount of engaged couples at my school right out of college, in college or right after college. I just feel so immature and behind, heck I can’t even find a boyfriend. You are not alone lady. I think society has made marriage a much younger affair, one that some people agree with and some don’t jive as well with

  7. I’m very late commenting on this, but I have things to say so I’m commenting anyway. I agree with so much in this post. I’m from a small Midwestern town and I have a lot of friends who are already married or getting married soon. I even have a few friends with babies. Granted I’m a few years older than you, but 25 is still young. I went through a stage at 20 where I really wanted to be engaged and get married soon. I’m so glad that I grew out of that stage and that Matt was sensible enough to realize I was crazy.
    I have changed so much since I was 20 and even though I obviously still dating the same guy, we’ve made the decision to stay together. This sounds funny, but I think when people stay together or have to move together just because they are married, they may start to resent the decisions they’ve had to make because of that, i.e. moving away from family or to some other undesirable area. In my case, I’ve actually had to think about whether or not I still wanted to continue the relationship when our careers took us to different places. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes I do resent the decisions and the careers, but I also have a realization that I CHOSE this. And being in a long distance relationship has given me the opportunity to grow and understand my self as a person.
    It is so sad that we can look at friend’s/acquaintance’s relationships and think, “It’s not going to last.” But I’ve still done it. I feel like so many people have just gotten married because it was the next thing to do instead of really thinking about what that means.
    I do remember Matt telling me about several of his friends being worried senior year of college because they still hadn’t found a girl to marry. Seriously? There are other places to meet great women.
    I’ve also had to deal with other people’s expectations of when I should get married and/or when I should move back home. It is annoying. It does feel like they are implying that I can’t be happy with my life unless I am married and that my career (and dreams and goals) are somehow less important that Matt’s.
    Great post! Know that you are not alone in your thoughts!

    • I happily accept late comments 🙂

      I like what you have to say about making your own decisions. I knew people who got married straight out of college last year, and whenever the job discussion would come up, they’d be all, “Well, I have to try to find a job in Dodge, because that’s where Joe has a job,” or whatever, and yeah, for me at least I could DEFINITELY see some resentment coming out of that…the whole, “Where could I be if…?” thing, you know? I think there’s some comfort that comes from knowing even if you make a bad decision, at least YOU are the one responsible for that decision.

      And I completely agree on the whole “Well, marriage is just the next thing” thing. I feel silly explaining it like that, but that’s how it seems to be in so many cases. It’s like marriage, not a job, is the next natural step after college in the way that college is the next natural step after high school or high school is the next natural step after middle school. Except marriage isn’t the same thing as school…but you know, that’s just what you’re supposed to do, right? (<– sarcasm).

  8. Great post! I can’t believe people get married so young now. 22, 23, 24… hello you have your whole life to spend with that person, why the rush?! I honestly feel like a different person compared to 3 years ago, and in 3 years I am sure I will look back and feel the same. I know we are always changing and evolving, but we change the most in this decade (our twenties). And settling down before we understand who we are and what we want is a complete disservice to ourselves.

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