How young is too young to get engaged?
December 18, 2012 2:45 PM   Subscribe

What are some good SECULAR reads (books or websites are both great) on getting engaged, marriage, etc.? Particularly for those who are not engaged but would like to get engaged in the (maybe not-so-distant) future. Also, some relationship-specific questions inside. Primarily, when's a good time to get engaged?

It seems like every book I can find on the topic is religious in nature, while we are both non-religious. I'm thinking books with advice for couples looking to make the plunge. Questions to ask that may not have been asked. Compatibility issues that may not have been considered. Something that covers these types of topics WHILE being secular is perfect!

Relationship-specific stuff follows. Feel free to just give me reading recommendations and skip the rest.

I'll need to give a few details at first. We are both 20, Juniors in college, and have been together for 3 years and 9 months or so. Started dating our Junior year in high school. My parents are just about done finalizing their divorce. Because of their divorce and my girlfriend's parents' awful relationship, I am really hesitant to get engaged. I want to be together with whoever I marry and not have a shitty relationship, for my future kids' sake.

Despite this, we are WAY farther along in our relationship than either of our parents were at this point in time being together. My parents were together for two or three years before getting married right after college. Her parents married right out of high school. We live together and are definitely sexually compatible (I know that played a role in the failure of my parent's marriage).

Anyways, my main relationship-specific question is, how young do YOU (or relationship/marriage experts) think is too young to get engaged?
The cynical side of me looks at our parents' failed relationships and makes me think I'm far too young to get engaged and be guaranteed (well not guaranteed, but as much as one can be going into a marriage) to have a long, healthy marriage. But then the other side of me looks at how wonderful our relationship is, how great the sex is, how compatible our personalities are, how compatible our long-term goals are, etc. and it makes me just want to take the step and just get engaged; at least by the time we graduate college in a year and a half.

Any advice? Anything I'm overlooking? I hope I wasn't too long-winded (that's a bad habit of mine). Feel free to ask questions.
posted by BenS to Human Relations (30 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If you feel too young, you're too young. Some people are ready at 20, some still aren't ready at 30. If you don't REALLY feel ready and sure, just wait. Rushing into marriage because you're going to break up if you don't isn't going to make your marriage any better. I have friends who married too young, too fast who said they knew at the time it was the wrong decision, but felt too deep in it to back out.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:51 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of people here will probably think I was too young... I got engaged at 22. I was also hesitant at first since I had no married role models (had a single parent, divorced aunt, divorced grandparents). Have you tried going to a bookstore? There were tons of books in my local Barnes and Noble full of questions to ask before getting engaged, most of which seem secular. He and I perused one such book with 1000 questions!
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 2:54 PM on December 18, 2012

60% of couples who web between 20 and 25 will divorce within 5 years. I know you think you'll beat the odds, but so does every single other couple who gets married, and the overall divorce rate is still 50%.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:55 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

ThePinkSuperHero has it - if you don't really feel ready, you're probably not ready, but only you can know that. As for resources for the so-called pre-engaged, check out It's a wedding website, but it's more about relationships than pretty parties. I got married 2 years ago (!) and I still read it. There are lots of posts on how to navigate the waters before you're actually engaged. Best of luck to you.
posted by hungrybruno at 2:58 PM on December 18, 2012

Although I didn't read the whole thing, and I might be totally off on the non-religious thing(we are both non-religious and I don't remember getting miffed at what I saw but it was a while ago), but flipping through "The Five Love Languages" and doing the quizzes at the end really helped my relationship just realize some little incompatibilities that were secretly annoying us(strong of a word for it, but anyway) both but were simple to resolve with just knowing about them consciously! It was good to have those things ironed out before we started seriously talking about engagement and the like.

It's worth a skim and 20 minutes on the couch to do the quiz and talk about the results anyway.
posted by lettuchi at 3:00 PM on December 18, 2012

Could you go to a relationship counselor/couples therapist?
posted by mskyle at 3:00 PM on December 18, 2012

To answer just the book portion of your question, I thought Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert was really good. She is considering getting married and does what is basically a social and historical survey of the practice of marriage, how people do it, why, what rules different societies follow, and how all of this folds back into her own decision.
posted by chatongriffes at 3:02 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you asked for opinions and not just resources... my philosophy is that if you are ready to marry this person today, get engaged, but not before then. I think being "engaged" isn't just a next step in a relationship... it's saying, We are going to get married, we just need some time to plan the wedding. It doesn't mean a whole lot if you get engaged because you think sometime in the future you will want to get married.
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:04 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get the NOLO Press book on prenuptial agreements, sit down and make a prenup. Not to protect assets, or whatever, just to understand what the 3 different legal notions of marriage are in this country, which of those apply in your current jurisdiction, and where each of you stand on the way that those notions will influence your commingling of lives and finances.

Once you've done that, then ask what of those legal protections and arrangements could or could not be done with separate contract structures, and why you're choosing marriage as the basis for those contracts.

Best thing we, two secular atheists, did before getting married after dating for about 8 years and living together for many of those years.
posted by straw at 3:10 PM on December 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with Straw: going through the prenup process really, REALLY illustrates what marriage is from a legal and financial point of view. I got married without really understanding any of that. It was with a lot of good-will that my divorce went as smoothly as it did (well, that, and we had hardly any joint assets to speak of.) At the very least, it lets you understand how property and finances work when you get married, and how things might go if you happen to get divorced. Also have frank discussion about kids, how many, when, and how to save for their college.

Aside from that, I also agree with folks who said that if you think you're too young, you're too young. If you are both happy to get married, then you're ready. I got married at that magical 20-25 age, and yup, we were divorced 3.5 years later.

That being said, if you're not going to get married until you're done with college, maybe wait until then to get engaged. Give yourselves the 'luxury' of finishing your degrees without family members pestering you about what kinds of linens to have at the reception, or how Uncle Bob simply cannot be seated next to Aunt Rita. Heavens, just thinking about it makes me twitch! :)

Anyway, be deliberate in making your decision. You each have nothing but your whole lives ahead of you; if you're going to be together, you will be together, wedding or no. Best of luck to both of you!
posted by absquatulate at 3:38 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Susan Piver has an excellent book. And of course, I can't remember the exact title or look it up (dumb phone) but it's "100 questions before you say I Do" or similar. It's good because it's not just compatibility questions like "are you a saver or a spender?" but delves into self-reflective questions about your beliefs about partnership, models of marriage you were raised with, etc. Now, the author is a Buddhist meditation teacher but it's not a Buddhist book. Just a warning. I agree 100% with the sentiment to only get engaged if you would get married tomorrow. Engagement isn't the next step; marriage is. I have no opinion if you are too young. But if you were my kid, I'd discourage it strongly. But only because I know how radically people change in their 20s. The persons I was at 20 and 25 and 30 are so mind blowingly different that 30 year old me being married to someone 20 year me thought was a good match is terrifying. On the flip side, people are constantly changing...
posted by peacrow at 4:00 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't really get into "too young/too soon" ish personally -- too many factors I think potentially have equal or greater weight.

You don't sound ready, actually, based on how you framed your question. I think that you may feel like you need to take another step forward (engagement) because you've been together for a while, you're happy, et cetera... but guess what? You don't have to.

I don't have any specific recommendations, but I'd recommend looking into pre-engagement counseling (it does exist, and there are some secular counselors), over getting bogged down with books. Of course, the first person with whom you should be discussing your future plans is your girlfriend.
posted by sm1tten at 4:16 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

John Gottman's book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work should be a must read. It's based on years of insightful academic study of the practices and attitudes present in long, happy marriages.
posted by Sublimity at 4:18 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly, the best relationship website I can think of is AskMetafilter. Spend time with each of you pulling out questions from the vast history of Human Relations, particularly "marriage" and "relationship" tags to glimpse the array of conflicts and issues real couples are facing.

Turn the questions into hypothetical scenarios that the two of you are in. Think about how "you" "got" there, or how you want to prevent getting there.

Read all the replies to the questions that interest you, and discuss those, too. Which answers do you agree with, which answers does your girlfriend agree with?

Talk about lots of hypotheticals, have many discussions about how you think you're going to apply your values.

I, too, am in the 20-25, divorced after 4 years group, and thinking about relationships veeeery differently now. My boyfriend and I work intentionally to keep certain freedoms of singledom from fading away from our lives and getting lost in the comfortable fog of long term couplehood.

If you're focused on the goal of a marriage with the person in front of you, there's going to be a lot of confirmation bias and possibly ignoring of warning flags. You'll easily dismiss what you don't want to hear because things are good now.

Talk about how you plan to handle Attraction to Others. Talk about how you plan to handle Unhappiness in the Relationship. Talk about how you plan to handle changes.

Above all, life the life you have now. As you guys graduate and get jobs and work at supporting yourselves and establishing yourselves as independent adults in the larger world, things will change. A lot. Priorities, values, goals, and so on. And they *should*. The capacity for becoming yourself more deeply grows exponentially in your 20s.

Take your time. Enjoy your relationship. Enjoy your life.
posted by itesser at 4:18 PM on December 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

Have you found the wonderful (and absolutely secular) website A Practical Wedding yet? You can scroll through their archives, but here are a couple relevant posts that I found via le Google:

Maddie’s Guide to Getting Married Young
Being Married Young Rocks
And they have a whole "Getting Married Young" tag with lots more posts

The comments on the blog posts are great resources, too.
posted by Maarika at 4:56 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Uncommon Common Sense: A Guide for Engaged and Married Couples was written by a Professor of Home and Family Studies, so it reads a bit like a textbook. But it does cover everything from engagement to parenting. With several checklists/questionnaires.
posted by zinon at 5:06 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're not sure, you're not ready, IMO. I think getting engaged at 20 is too young (not that this matters at all, but you can't even drink legally yet). But I don't know you or your girlfriend.

Your question is oddly reactionary to the relationships of your parents. Why does it matter when they started seeing each other vs when you and your girlfriend started seeing each other? IMO, it doesn't, like, at all. Like, how long my baking soda has been sitting in my refrigerator is as relevant.

There aren't any guarantees ever. I would rather face this guarantee-less world with my husband than anyone else ever.

A good question, IMO, is, what's the rush? My brother is 27. He and his girlfriend have been together for maybe seven years. They're not engaged yet and aren't going that route any time soon AFAIK. Then again, my sister in law and her fiance got engaged after seeing each other for less than two years. When ypu're ready, you're ready. But it doesn't sound like you're ready.
posted by kat518 at 5:14 PM on December 18, 2012

The Hard Questions is what my wife and I used.
posted by drezdn at 5:28 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm not saying this to be mean but if you're counting how many years and months you've been together, you're too young. Now I'm being a totally superficial jerk but that sounds like how little kids say things like, I'm NOT 4, I'm 4 AND A HALF. And I can't think of any couples in my peer group who started seeing each other in high school. But again, I don't know you or your girlfriend.
posted by kat518 at 5:30 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ditto on checking out A Practical Wedding. It's the only wedding website that doesn't make me hate weddings.
posted by radioamy at 6:41 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

My two cents:

20 is really young. I know you're almost done college and it seems like the right time, but you are REALLY young. I and so many of my friends changed dramatically between 20 and 25. Quite a few marriages didn't survive those years. My friends who married closer to 30 have found much better fits. But, I also have friends who were together in high school and are still going strong. You honestly don't know what the next 5 years will bring you. Will you change in the same ways? No idea. I can practically guarantee that when you are 27-28, a bunch of your friends will be going through the first waves of divorce. Guess when they got married?

You're not on a timeline. You're areligious, for Pete's sake! Move in together, have sex, do the dishes and laundry together, it's all the same. Make your own "the next level" traditions. Buy her a fancy piece of jewelry, go on a trip. But take your time before making expensive-to-revoke legal ties.

Finishing college is not a reason to get married. Health insurance is a reason to get married if your country ties the two things together.

Sometimes you're never sure. I was totally ready to get married, but I still had "Oh god, what if…?" thoughts up to the day of and even after. My brain's just that way. It's still the best decision I've made. (I was 27.)

So, how do you know your relationship is strong and nimble enough for marriage? Well, there are a few tests you can pay attention to. Here are some that I found useful (though I wouldn't recommend making one happen on purpose! Time will bring these to you.):
  • Pregnancy scare. Do you turn on each other? Are you supportive to one another? This crisis moment can teach you a lot.
  • Death in the family. (The current parental divorce will be similar in relationship-testing value.)
  • Have a major disagreement that you can't sort out in 2 conversations. For my partner and I, we "discussed" marriage for a year before we agreed on whether to do it, what it would mean, how to go about it, etc. Learn to fight productively. Learn to create a space safe enough to say "I don't know, and I'm really upset so please give me a minute," and even better to be angry and defensive and still able to say "you're right, that's a good point." Learn to agree to disagree for now, and then come back to it respectfully. Learn to trust each other when the stakes are high.
I'm always a little hesitant when people describe their relationship as all awesome, all the time. Relationships are hard work. Opening your heart is a risk. They're worth the hard work, but they're still hard work.

Book recommendations:

I really enjoyed Unmarried to Each Other. It guides you through thinking about living together, marriage, ways to be a couple, and ways to strengthen your relationship and your knowledge of each other. It's respectful of religious practices but does not assume any, largely because it does not assume that you will eventually marry nor that your relationship would become more or less valid if you did marry. It explores marriage as one of many options for long-term relationships.

Most usefully, it explores personality types, family cultures, money issues, sex issues, children issues, and other things that you should agree on with a spouse. Lots of good questions in this book.

If you like that book, you may also like the Alternatives to Marriage website. Lots of marriage research there.

Seconding John Gottman's book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Also pick up Hold Me Tight.
posted by heatherann at 6:52 PM on December 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

What heatherann says! Your typical Western-culture (Aus, UK, USA, Canadia etc.) wedding is vaguely Christian and sexist... we're not Christian, and one of us is female. So why do it? The committment had already been made and it was the easiest route to a visa (so we could stay together! - I'm American, he's Australian). I agree - if you want to share health insurance, file taxes together, etc. and marriage isn't changing the relationship*, then go for it.

*It makes me nervous when people propose and the other person is genuinely suprised. It shouldn't be suprising (well, unless you're doing it some crazy you-tube-worthy thing). You should know it's coming because you've been talking about it. Getting married shouldn't be "taking a big step" it should be commemorating a step that's already been taken.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:02 PM on December 18, 2012

Seconding what heatherann says again, about meeting challenges together. An example: you're sexually compatible now... But we only recently ended a months-long period of celibacy due to some chronic health problems I've developed. Crazy stuff happens. My cousin had a baby last year and had "post-partum depression manifesting as mania" and spent time in the psych ward. Seriously - who sees this stuff coming??? No one.

Remember you're both going to change - A LOT - and life is going to throw a lot of things at you. I think learning how to handle/moderate incompatibilities (compromise) is almost more important than being "compatible". "Compatible" to me just kinda means you're both reasonable, friendly, mostly-responsible people. You know? I get along with a log of people; I'm only married to one.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:11 PM on December 18, 2012

dan savage, though it may take some time to sift through the other (good!) advice to get to the advice relevant to your question.

but, it boils down to: if they are "the one" or close enough that you can round up to "the one" they still will be one year from now. and five years. and 10. so, just wait, there's no harm in it. in the mean time you can move towards married life in all but the name. for example, living together, family vacations, and getting a dog. getting married should be the last thing, not the first.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:33 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

While having kids is not necessarily a part of marriage, I think that's a good discussion to have with your girlfriend before getting married. If one of you has your heart set on kids and the other is dead set against kids, that's something you need to talk about sooner rather than later.

That said, kids - yes or no? is really the tip of the iceberg. When do you want to have kids? How many? If you don't want to have kids right now, what are you using as birth control? What if it fails? What if it fails in spectacular fashion and you get pregnant with twins? Triplets? Where do you plan to be in your life before you start having kids? Do you want to own a house? Have traveled together to crazy places? Have rewarding full time jobs? How will you raise the kids? Is one of you going to stay home? Who? Will kids go to daycare? Public school? Private school? What would you do differently than your parents when it comes to raising kids? Go on more vacations? Fewer? What would you do if you had a special needs kid? What if your kid had a really badass talent like sports or music? If your kid was super smart, would you let them skip a grade in school? If your kid wasn't so smart, would you let them repeat a grade?

I don't mean to scare you. These are just things that you should be relatively comfortable talking about with someone you might marry. You don't necessarily need to know the answers but you should be relatively comfortable with the questions around each other. Then there's the flip side - what about your folks? What if one of them got sick? What if they couldn't work anymore? What if one of them wanted to move in with you? Do you have siblings? What if one of them got sick?
posted by kat518 at 8:54 PM on December 18, 2012

One thing to keep in mind is the cost of getting married. If you're like most Americans, you will end up having a huge, incredibly expensive wedding where you and your family pretend for one glorious day to be WASPy New Englanders dining in tuxedos on the country club lawn. The average American wedding costs tens of thousands of dollars and takes months of planning.

It is very reasonable to wait until you are financially stable as a couple before getting married, especially if you want to go this route. I have friends who got engaged last winter and aren't going to actually have the wedding for another year or more, due to money concerns. At your age, it is uncommon to have much in the way of savings. So assuming you are not independently wealthy, this might mean convincing your family to take on a large portion of the cost, or waiting until you can afford the wedding you want.
posted by deathpanels at 9:43 PM on December 18, 2012

Re deathpanels comment: most Americans. We invited 30 people (immediate family and a few very close friends) and spent - brace yourself - a whopping $5k (mostly venue + food). Yup. So you know... you can make choices. Whenever you decide to go for it... being reasonable is a wise move. You'll feel better when you get home from your honeymoon and don't have any bills ;) (especially if you get married young!).
posted by jrobin276 at 12:47 AM on December 19, 2012

Thanks for the answers guys! I'm still trying to dig through all the links and read your answers more in depth, but it's sincerely appreciated.
posted by BenS at 8:09 AM on December 19, 2012

60% of couples who web between 20 and 25 will divorce within 5 years. I know you think you'll beat the odds, but so does every single other couple who gets married, and the overall divorce rate is still 50%.

Actually, the current divorce rate is closer to 35-40%, and among college grads it's less than half that. So I'd go with gut more than statistics.

I will say that I married my most serious college sweetheart. However, I married that person 17 years later, after going different directions and growing up a lot individually. All the key elements were there, but we were better partners as older people, as well as better able to value the things that fit well. Did we miss out on "all those years"? No, couldn't have happened then, needed to grow and have more relationship with other people, get other things our of our systems, etc. Your mileage may vary.
posted by acm at 8:11 AM on December 19, 2012

I think you're too young. I'm thirty now, and I'm so different from the person I was at twenty that I wouldn't even want to hang out with my younger self at a party. When I look at myself and my friends, it seems to me that we really became the people we were going to be permanently sometime between 25 and 27.

Also, it's not unheard of for really good college relationships to suddenly collapse when you try to move them into the real world. They don't all do that, but it's a good reason to wait a while.

If you're not religious, what's the hurry to get married? Move in together after school, if you want. It will be functionally similar, and you can see if you two can make it through what's going to happen to both of you in your twenties.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:30 AM on December 19, 2012

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