It was 10 degrees in Chicago’s Oz Park when the boyfriend of Stephanie Hagan ’05 tried to stop her for a hug, and she was having none of it.
“Why would you want to stand outside and cuddle? It’s freezing!” she snapped.
But then she noticed his whole body trembling and he started talking, and she thought to herself, “I better pay attention, this sounds important.” Sam Bryant, Hagan’s boyfriend of four years and a senior at the University of Chicago, was reciting from the end of “The Odyssey,” the part about the pact between the husband and wife.
And in that park, tears freezing halfway down her cheeks, half-sobbing and breathlessly reassuring worried passersby that she was okay, Hagan made a pact of her own, and was transformed from girlfriend to fiancee.
That was more than a month ago, and aside from the occasional excited message from her older sister — “Stephanie, I have six ideas for your wedding, call me back!” — her senior essay has pushed Hagan’s wedding plans to the back burner.
Such are the challenges of tying the knot — or promising to — while a student. Considering that the average age of marriage has been gradually climbing since the middle of the century, it’s not hard to imagine the reactions the small number of engaged Yale undergraduates have received from their peers. The proportion of their lives women will spend married has decreased dramatically, and a study by the Center for Disease Control shows that 56 percent of women are unmarried at 25, Theresa Kirby of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project said.
Hagan said half the women she talks to tell her the thought of marriage is terrifying.
“But the other half are like, ‘Aww, I don’t even have a boyfriend, I’m so jealous,'” she said. “I think everyone feels a mixture of both sentiments, even if they don’t express one as strongly.”
Hagan’s friends have reason to be worried, Kirby said: women who marry before they are 25 are significantly more likely to experience marital disruption. But though Hagan worries about a lot of things — planning the wedding ceremony, for example — her decision to marry is not one of them.
“Someone asked me if I was nervous, intimating that she was nervous and wanting me to affirm the feeling,” Hagan said. “And I wanted so badly to reassure her, but I had to just shake my head and say no. I firmly believe in marrying your best friend, and I know Sam is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
Sylvia Glassco ’05 said the full impact of her commitment to fiancee Carolina Oster ’05 is registering gradually.
“The other day I was in the train station, standing in line, and it just hit me,” she said. “Oh my god, I’m getting married, and that means I’m a lesbian, and that means I’m never going to be with anyone else, and oh my god! I have moments like that all the time.”
Rebecca Catapano-Friedman ’05, who has been engaged to Jeff Amster ’03 since January, said though she sometimes wonders what it would be like to be in a relationship with another man, she never wonders for long.
“You see someone and think, ‘I like them as a person,’ or ‘he’s really hot,’ but I don’t think there’s anyone who could understand me in the same way,” she said.
Oster concurred, saying that even though she sometimes wonders if someone out there more closely shares her political beliefs or matches her living habits than Glassco, she loves the life she has created with her partner too much to give it up, no matter who she meets.
“Some part of you still imagines there’s someone out there, but what makes me not worry is not that there’s no such thing, but that I couldn’t want to do this with someone else, because I’d have to give up all the things we’ve already done,” she said.
Oster and Glassco, who became involved during their sophomore year, have had a tumultuous relationship, at times reaching points where they thought it would be easier not to be together. But they both said they always knew their relationship was going to end in marriage. By the time Oster proposed, she said the hard work they had put into their relationship made her even more confident because she knew that no matter how painful things got, Glassco would “stick it out.”
Earlier in their relationship, Glassco and Oster would talk in the abstract about getting engaged, concluding that Oster would get more joy from proposing and Glassco from being proposed to and that they would both exchange rings, so that the proposal itself could be a surprise. When Oster would push the envelope in terms of commitment — Glassco said there’s an old joke that lesbians show up to their second date with a U-Haul — she would backtrack by promising not to propose until “at least graduation.”
But after some not-so-subtle hints from Glassco — “so, right after graduation, right?” — Oster started looking for a pair of diamond rings, doing enough research to warrant “a full graduation credit,” she said. And by some bizarre twist of fate, Oster happened to have the rings on hand the day that Glassco, tired of waiting for a piece of carbon, picked her up from Bible study, walked her to the spot they’d talked about proposing in, and told her that the ring did not matter.
The two were engaged in November 2004, and since then they have been kept busy fielding questions. Their parents wanted to make sure they knew what they were doing, Oster’s brother wanted to make sure he could be in the primarily female wedding ceremony and random fellow students wanted to know the details — who proposed, who would wear the dress and who bought the rings. They plan to get their marriage certificate in Canada, where Oster lives, but will likely have the ceremony in the United States.
History professor emeritus Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said that when he got married as a freshman in college, it was significantly less of an anomaly. Thanks to an influx of married veterans returning to school after World War II, including former president George H. W. Bush ’50, marriage as an undergraduate was increasingly common.
“I couldn’t go out to frats and stay up drinking all night,” he said, “but other than that, things were pretty normal.”
Smith almost got expelled because he forgot to get permission from his dean to marry. After 1917, Yale student handbooks allowed undergraduates to get married with the caveat that a dean must approve the marriage a month in advance.
“[The dean] said, ‘Mr. Smith, do you realize what would happen to the residential college system if everyone got married?'” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘No, Mr. Dean, I hadn’t given it any thought whatsoever.'”
As an undergraduate, Smith knew at least 20 married couples. But, he said, things have changed since then.
“All sorts of things happened,” he said. “The pill happened.”
The result was a culture in which getting married as a 20-something was no longer the norm in most parts of the country.
However, Alden Bass ’05, who has been engaged since last year, said getting married young is “not at all unusual in Tennessee” where he grew up. His sister was married at 18, and most of his friends from high school are engaged.
“It’s just the thing to do,” he says. “If you’re in your early 20s, you get married, especially if you find a good girl, which I think I did.”
The “good girl” who accepted his proposal at the top of the Empire State Building a year ago is Candace Cook, whom Bass describes as “a down-to-earth country girl who is simple, almost naive in some ways, but very wise in others.”
Bass and Cook have been in a relationship for the better part of seven years.
Both Bass, a religious studies major, and Cook, a student at Church of Christ-affiliated Freed-Hardeman University, trust God to help them work through their marriage, Bass said. During one of their two breakups, Cook was involved in a serious relationship, and Bass, terrified of losing her, realized he didn’t know what he would do without her.
“I knew then that she was the girl for me, if she’d have me,” he said.