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  • Writer's pictureKate Cammell

Ring by Spring

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Longstanding matrimonial pressure at Christian Colleges across the nation mingles with new pandemic uncertainty.

The veil selection at Spring Sweet, a bridal shop in Holland, Michigan. Photo by Kate Cammell

As snow fell past ivory gowns hung in windows, Alison Kent straightened the tulle of a mermaid-style dress to prepare for a full day of appointments ahead. Kent is the bridal manager at Spring Sweet, a popular wedding boutique in the lakeshore town of Holland, Michigan. January is one of the store’s busiest months as brides prepare for spring and summer weddings.

While Kent navigates clasps and zippers, helping women into dresses, she asks them about themselves and their love stories. She estimates that half of the store’s clientele is either still in college or recently graduated. Spring Sweet’s high percentage of young customers isn’t just because of their millennial targeted, bohemian-aesthetic—crisp white wooden floors and florals. It’s because of its proximity to six Christian colleges.

Though most students don’t go to Christian schools with the intention of being engaged, earlier marriage is more common on these campuses, and in response, a pervasive matrimonial anxiety has grown. This pressure is often referred to as Ring by Spring, a tongue-and-cheek phrase used to describe a desire to be engaged by or near senior graduation. And despite the rising average age of first marriage, now 28 years old for women and 29 for men, Ring by Spring pressure persists.

The Big Red Lighthouse in Holland Michigan, a popular student engagement spot. Photo by Kate Cammell

The Council for Christian Colleges (CCCU) is the leading network for Christian institutions representing 150 schools throughout the U.S and 30 in other countries, their global alumni number 3.6 million. Dr. Stacey Keogh George a sociologist at Whitworth University, is the first to tackle quantifying the phenomenon. Her study of CCCU alumni across the U.S. found that among those who graduated between 2012 to 2017, nearly 88 percent experienced matrimonial pressure.

Yet engagements and marriages are also moments of real celebration. School administrators and students alike are trying to reconcile alleviating this matrimonial anxiety with celebrating happy couples. That’s easier said than done as campuses across the nation have been shuttered, many indefinitely, in response to COVID-19. Traditional relationship timelines have shifted in unprecedented ways and now, engaged and single students are occupying a common ground in their uncertainty.

Holland State Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan, is a popular student engagement spot. Photo by Kate Cammell

Michiganders show out-of-staters where they’re from by holding up their hands. It doesn’t matter which one as long as the thumb is pointing to the right, mimicking Michigan’s left-mitten shape. Holland, a 33,00-person town with 170 churches, would be somewhere near the middle of the palm on a hand map. On a real one, the city would appear on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. It’s also home to Hope College, a 3,000-student Christian school with roots in the Dutch Reform denomination.

Kelly Arnold met her fiancé Jarod Wolters as a student at Hope. The twenty-three-year-old graduated last year with a degree in communications and digital marketing, and shortly after found her wedding dress at Spring Sweet. Now, Arnold works as a digital marketing project specialist with the furniture company Herman Miller.

Arnold and Wolters engagement photo. Image courtesy of Kelly Arnold

On a brisk morning in early January, Arnold walked to the microwave to reheat limp pizza for lunch in her office’s communal kitchen. Laughing, she explained that her subpar leftovers were the result of a busy night. She and Wolters were looking at houses to move into after their wedding in August. A mortgage agent had just called her that morning to start the process.

Arnold and Wolters met at a school club gathering during their junior year, but it took her awhile to get up the nerve to ask him to hang out. When she did, they went to lunch and got slushies, then drove to the beach. In Wolters’ parked car overlooking the water, the two talked for hours.

Arnold knew early on that she loved him. She doesn’t think she’s the most empathetic person but believes that Wolters has made her gentler. Arnold said, “He’s helped me grow my heart. Which is kind of a weird thing to say, but I feel like the Grinch—like my heart grew two times larger with him.”

“Futuristic,” is how she describes herself, constantly making lists and thinking about her next move. Her last semester at Hope, she was working 30 hours a week for Herman Miller while taking classes. She said, “some people just didn’t understand why I would want to start early.” But she was ready.

One weekend Wolters suggested taking a drive to look at the trees. By late October the leaves in Michigan had changed color to hues of yellow, orange and red. As soon as he suggested stopping at their favorite beachfront park, Sanctuary Woods, Arnold knew that the moment she’d been hoping for was coming. She was doubly sure when he asked to hold her hand without her gloves on as they walked. It was cold and he wouldn’t inconvenience her without reason.

So, she played along.

Wolters kept talking about how much he loved her until they reached the overlook. Then he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. There was no speech. Neither of them wanted or needed one.

The pandemic has changed their original plan. Though the ceremony is up in the air and their outdoor gathering is limited to100 guests, per the State of Michigan’s social distancing guidelines, the couple plan to get married in late August regardless of ceremony restrictions. Arnold laughed before confessing that, “being a planner now, is definitely not fun." Her new phrase is “day by day.”

She said, “Whatever comes, I know God will equip me to be ready."

Like Arnold and Wolters, many students wait until just after graduation for engagement. Ring by Spring is not literal in its implication. Rather it references a broad cultural affinity towards engagement that’s linked closely to students graduating and moving into new chapters of their lives.

Schools themselves play a very minor role in actually causing this pressure. Rarely do the institutions promote the idea of getting married young, rather campuses are host to a coalition of external pressures like religious theology that places an emphasis on marriage and abstinence, family influence and tradition. However, school administrators, are often hesitant to talk about or address the Ring by Spring culture because of the stereotype it elicits.

Students file out of Friday chapel at Hope College. Photo by Kate Cammell

Reverend Paul Boersma, the senior chaplain at Hope College, is one of them. He’s worked at the school for 26 years and met his spouse as a student at Hope himself. He’s aware of the other buzzwords used on campus that capture a sense of this need to be engaged like “freshman frenzy,” when students first arrive and immediately enter into relationships and then “senior scramble,” when single students panic before graduation.

Yet, he noted that he’s cautious about acknowledging Ring by Spring because of the small minority of students who actually end up married. Less than a quarter are engaged or married by graduation. But the reality is the cultural pressure often isn’t felt by those students. Arnold can’t wait to walk down the aisle to Wolters. Matrimonial anxiety is felt most deeply by single students, like Sarah Hughes.

Hughes is a twenty-two-year-old senior at Calvin College, located thirty miles down the road from Hope in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The brown-eyed, brown-haired super-senior graduated in late May over Zoom with a double major in biology and German. She’s currently applying to medical schools after coming home early due to the pandemic from a semester abroad in Vienna. She’s not sure what the upcoming year will hold but echoed Arnold, saying she’s “taking it one step at a time."

Sarah Hughes during study abroad in Germany. Image courtesy of Sarah Hughes

Having never dated before college and attending an all-girls Catholic high school in Detroit, Hughes was excited at the prospect of dating at Calvin. But she felt her hopes sinking throughout her time in college as she remained single.

She’d watch other students emerge hand-in-hand from Calvin’s nature preserve on dates, having gone on what students call a “Calvin walk.” She’d scroll past hordes of high-definition engagement photos on Instagram with warm sepia filters. She’d see couples sitting side-by-side at Calvin’s campus dining hall.

Between exploring identity and faith, school, jobs, navigating relationships with friends, family, men and thinking about her future; like any college student, Hughes often felt exhausted. Relationships became one of her main stressors. She confessed, “honestly it’s been probably one of the biggest burdens of my life feeling like I need to set myself up to find someone.”

For students like Hughes, Ring by Spring is more than a humorous phrase, it’s a psychological weight on their college experience.

Hughes said, “there’s this underlying message of like, this is the last place you’re going to find, or be in a position where you have, all of these amazing Christian guys.” Her peers echo this fear that their four years on these campuses are their best shot to meet a fellow Christian. Many of her friends have expressed fears over not returning to campus in the fall, she thinks this relationship anxiety will probably cross their mind in the process, but said, “people don't actually want to say that. I don't think people are going to admit, yeah there goes my dating pool."

Wedding dresses at Spring Sweet Boutique in Holland Michigan. Photo by Kate Cammell

Students on Christian campuses, like those at secular colleges, are also divided in their views about why they’re looking to date. Dr. Keogh George’s survey revealed that one-third of students believe dating is a process where you meet other people, not necessarily to marry, while 23 percent of respondents said they only date seriously to marry.

Arnold was one of them. She said, “personally, I don’t see anything fun in dating for fun. That sounds exhausting to me. I’m very much like a cut-and-dry person. I want to date to marry.”

For many Christians, especially women, figuring out how physicality or sex fits into dating is also complicated. Purity culture, a movement spearheaded by evangelicals in the 1990s, promoted the idea that women would be more desirable by men if they remained virgins.

At her religious high school, Hughes was required to attend an assembly where a giant wooden heart sat on a stage. Within minutes someone took a chainsaw down the middle of it, splinters flying through the air. The message she said was clear: “every time you have sex and like do physical things with a guy, this is what happens.”

She bought a purity ring that day.

Students file in for Friday worship service at Hope College. Photo by Kate Cammell

Having grown up learning to associate physicality only with marriage or serious dating, Hughes wanted to incorporate it into casual dating, but had trouble figuring out how. She had her first kiss junior year of college at a roller-skating party. There was a boy there who she had choir with and found attractive.

As lights flashed and music blared, they ended up standing on the side of the rink talking together. Then he leaned in to kiss her, slightly off balance on roller skates. Her friends cheered and yelled her name as they whirled past. Hughes remembers thinking to herself after the kiss, “like, this is normal and I don’t want to marry you!”

Purity culture contributes to students’ dating anxieties and is also one of the stereotypes that everyone is quick to address and dispel at Christian schools. While sex is a component of marriage that excites some students, Dr. Keogh George stressed that “Ring by Spring culture is more complicated than the pressure to have sex.” Her survey found that nearly one-third of students were having sex before marriage, another one-third said they were not and the final third chose not to answer.

A meme posted on Facebook to a Calvin student community page. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hughes.

Reverend Mary Hulst, the University Pastor at Calvin, leaned back in her chair before declaring, “I say I talk about sex all the time. Pornography, masturbation, dating, how far is too far. All of it.” Known to her student congregation as “Pastor Mary,” her pixie cut, tortoise shell glasses and small silver hoop earrings add to her contemporary image.

She’s trying to disassociate sexuality from romantic relationships for her students because she feels it stems from an assumption that marriage is everyone’s goal. Rev. Hulst knows that students who might not want a romantic relationship still will want to explore their bodies, so she wants to tie sexuality to students’ relationships with God, instead.

She said, “I mean sex is a gift from God. And he was the inventor of it. And so, if the church can’t talk about sex who can?”

Similar to its polarizing views on premarital sex, the church is also being forced to contend with LGBTQ rights and relationships, challenging traditional views on who can marry. Ring by Spring culture is heteronormative by nature and many Christian schools continue to overlook LGBTQ relationships and enforce policies that assume they aren’t on campus.

Calvin’s dormitories have a policy known as the “Calvin lock.” The floors in underclassman dorms are divided by gender. When a member of the opposite sex is in a room, the policy is that deadbolt needs to be twisted out so the door can’t close.

Another source of pressure is some denominations’ emphasis on remaining married. Dr. Keogh George’s survey found that many engaged respondents didn’t feel equipped. Only 43 percent were enrolled in pre-marital counseling, and only 20 percent had purchased marital preparation books and materials. Most students who undergo counseling, do so with the clergy slated to marry them. Arnold finished her premarital counseling online. She thinks it went as well as it could have virtually, but admitted it wasn’t the same as their in-person work.

Both Hope and Calvin do offer weeks-long series on dating and relationships through the student chapels, though they’re not mandatory so many students don’t attend.

The entrance to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo by Kate Cammell

But, there’s a more nascent relationship conversation emerging on Christian college campuses about singleness.

Dr. Visser, Calvin’s Vice President for Student Life, admitted, “I don’t think it’s something to shy away from, the fact that people find someone here that they want to do life with. I think that’s a great thing. I think if ever that somehow limits people who find themselves outside of that particular story, that’s really problematic.”

Before the pandemic, Rev. Hulst preached in chapel about singleness as “an amazing gift.” She continued, “I’ll say if you’re engaged raise your hand and there’s like three people, right, and two of them are engaged to each other.”

Relationships continue to be at the forefront of many students’ minds, but as the pandemic forces colleges to shift their attention toward responding to crisis-needs, Rev. Hulst admitted that the faculty have put this conversation on pause.

Arnold and Wolters engagement photo. Image courtesy of Kelly Arnold

When Arnold talked about what excites her most about marriage to Wolters she said, “Honestly, it’s going to sound kind of stupid, or maybe it won’t. Every single day being able to just come home to him.”

Now, Hughes is feeling more confident as she spends time at home with herself. She said, “I'm realizing there's more than one way to life and there's no right way to do things. We have so much more time than college made me feel.”

As students’ traditional timelines are being upended in all areas of life—like academics, jobs and relationships—many, like Sarah, are feeling a new sense of freedom in the uncertainty.

Just five months ago, with a warm coffee in hand to cut the January air, Hughes had confessed, “this is the dark part of my soul, but there’s a lot of people that have gotten engaged recently that like I’m like, I definitely thought I’d be engaged before you. Which is so horrible to think, like I’m so glad you found your soulmate.”

She paused before continuing, “it’s just kind of like, how did that happen, and it didn’t happen for me?

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