A Blue, a First or a husband? It’s accepted that you have to get the first two while you’re still at University. The third, you might assume, would develop over time. Indeed, the average age of marriage in Britain has increased by around 5 years since 1961, to 30 for men and 28 for women. However, for some students the reality of having a husband or a wife happens when they are still at Oxford. For couples Jenni and Nathaniel Fenton, and Kathryn and Nathan Burden, the university experience is somewhat different than for the rest of us: for them, student life is also married life.
Jenni Fenton (née Norman) is 22 and met Nathaniel Fenton at the beginning of her second year of Chemistry at Corpus Christi. ‘Nath was going into his third year studying Maths at Mansfield. We were both working for the International Welcome, a Christian Union event, meeting international students as they arrive from the bus station.’
Jenni and Nath began going out soon afterwards, and were talking about the possibility of marriage fairly early on in the relationship. ‘I had just got out of a relationship and wasn’t keen on going into another serious relationship unless I knew it was right,’ says Jenni. ‘All through that Michaelmas term I was praying for guidance about this. But I am a strong believer that there is such a thing as the right person.’
Many people might argue that that’s all very well, but why not wait? Jenni responds that there was no reason to do so. ‘We already knew that we were right for each other, so there was no reason to hold back.’ The couple hadn’t been living together before the marriage, in accordance with their Christian beliefs about pre-marital sex. Did this temptation have anything to do with their decision to marry so young? She acknowledges that ‘the temptations were clearly there, but they were not a factor in us deciding to get married. I had always considered marrying early. My mother married at 22, and in fact, Nath’s younger brother got married before he did.’
Jenni and Nath got engaged a year into their relationship. ‘My parents were delighted,’ she says. ‘My friends were very happy for me. If anyone around college was surprised, no one said anything negative about it to my face.’ They were married in the summer of August 2008, just after Nath completed his studies in Oxford. They now live together in East Oxford, where Nath has a job, while Jenni completes her last year. ‘We live like a proper married couple. As I’m a 4th year chemist, I have a similar 9-5 schedule to Nath, and we both come home to our house in the evening.’ They have joint bank accounts and share everything in their first home.
Jenni feels that marriage has unfortunately become a ridiculed institution in much of society, due to factors like the increasing divorce rate. ‘I find this really sad, because for me, marriage is a real joy. To be committed to someone for ever, through thick and thin, is an amazing thing. Especially as a girl, I think we need security, and marriage is a part of that security. Girls don’t guard their hearts enough.’
While most students spend their second year at Oxford rejoicing in light of a year free of exams and planning ways to get horrendously intoxicated, Kathryn Burden was planning her wedding. She married Nathan Burden at the Royal Marine’s Museum in her hometown of Portsmouth in August 2008. She is 21 and is a Music finalist at Worcester College. Her husband is a year older and is studying Natural Sciences at Reading University. They live together in housing for couples, provided by the university, with Nathan commuting three times a week to Reading.
They met at Christian camp when Kathryn was 15, ‘we didn’t particularly like each other, but for some reason we started talking afterwards… He asked me out a week after my 16th birthday which was funny because my mum had told me not to have a boyfriend until I was 16′. When I enquired more about the role her family played in her decision to marry, Kathryn explained that they were entirely supportive and any reservations they had were resolved when she and Nathan explained why marriage was so important to them. ‘We both were brought up as Christians and our parents placed quite a lot of importance on marriage, for example saving sex for marriage. It’s a gift from God. They just didn’t want it to affect our experience of university life’.
I was eager to understand how Kathryn and Nathan combated the curiosity regarding who they might meet when beginning life at University. She said, ‘we were engaged before we got to university so there was already that stability and commitment, so I guess while there’s always that feeling of not having been with anyone else, other people go through five serious relationships and end up heartbroken so we’re just really happy and grateful.’ Half moved and half freaked out by just how happy Kathryn seems to be, I tried hard to unearth some sort of buried desire she may have to live life like an average student by asking her if there’s a single thing she secretly wishes she could be doing. She laughs and says, ‘not at all, really’. Fair enough then.
The only time I sense hesitation from Kathryn is when we talk about the impact being married has on her social life which of course must be huge. ‘It’s different in that when your friends come to visit you, there’s two of you there. But I go to College every day to make sure I see my friends and it’s just really nice having a house and being able to invite people round for meals’. Upon hearing about Kathryn’s plans, she admits her friends uniformly thought she was crazy, but in a positive way. ‘Obviously, my Christian friends were less surprised than the others and a lot of my friends just aren’t in the same place but everyone gets excited about a wedding anyway and wedding dress shopping is amazingly fun!’
I asked Kathryn if she was ever worried about changing too much during her time at university and the effect that could have on her marriage. She replied, ‘because we’ve been together so long, we know that as long as you communicate, you can work through change. Actually that’s one of the best things about being together so young as opposed to when you’re 30 and already so established in your own life – we’ve got to grow together. He loves the me that’s underneath, inside, and he’s really helped that to come out and encouraged it – I haven’t lost anything, I’ve just gained so much’
Kathryn hopes to be a music therapist and Nathan has applied to do post-graduate medicine, ‘but we’re open to whatever God wants us to do and one day we’d like to have a family. Four children.’ She giggles, adding, ‘and maybe one day we might be missionaries, I don’t know.’ She goes on to say, ‘our passion for God is what I anticipate will keep us together. We both know that God is first in our lives and that we come second so we’re both heading for the same goal and that’s really binding.’ Prompted by the word binding I ask her about her ideas on divorce. ‘It’s not encouraged as you can imagine, but if it was to happen we wouldn’t be outcast. However we look upon it as not even an option. We believe that marriage is for life, it’s an institution that binds in the eyes of God so it is sacred in that way and your commitment to each other is just really important.’
Despite the fact I had met with Kathryn to talk to her about her marriage, the first time I heard her refer to her husband I had to stifle the urge to say, ‘sorry… your who?’ Marriage at this age is an alien concept to most students, though by the time I had finished meeting Kathryn, it seemed a lot less weird. She is in a loving relationship, is fulfilling herself spiritually and was most importantly, really happy. While I cannot help but be sceptical about divorce not being an option, and about the dominating role religion has played, I also don’t feel it is my place to criticise the brave decision of two young people in love who are going to try their best to stay in love forever. ‘Being married is really cool. You get to be with your best friend all the time! And it’s so nice, knowing that if you have an argument it’s going to be fine because whatever happens we’ll always be there for each other.’