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Caitlin ClarkBBC Three / Contributor image

I was 'marriage-shamed' for getting engaged at 22

I knew I wanted to be with my boyfriend forever – so why couldn't my friends and family be happy for me?

Caitlin Clark

“I’m engaged!” I whispered excitedly down the phone to my friend, worrying that I’d wake my future husband’s parents.

Silence.

“Hey, are you there?” I asked, wondering if my reception was bad.

“Yeah,” she finally replied. “Wow. I can’t believe it.”

“I know! It's quite sudden, but I said yes and I’m happy.”

There was a tense silence.

“Wow. Look, I have to go. Glad you’re happy. Speak soon.”

The phone went dead.

I was 22 and I’d just called a close friend from uni to share my news with her. It had been about 12 hours since my boyfriend of just over a year had spontaneously proposed to me. All I wanted was to feel happy and excited, but instead I felt this creeping sense of disapproval.

Sure, we'd grown apart since we graduated, but this was the person I’d confided in about losing my virginity; the person I’d turned to while suffering an anxiety attack; the person who helped me through numerous break-ups.

She had supported me at those key moments in my life and now all I got was “wow, bye”. I knew she was probably busy and caught up in her own life but, still, I was hurt.

Phone CallBBC Three / istock

Cameron and I grew up together in the same small town in Herefordshire. We had been mates since secondary school, sharing soggy cones of chips and flirting while waiting for the bus home. I’d always fancied him, but he had dated a couple of my mates and it never seemed to be the right time for me to make a move. After he left home to go to art college and I headed to London for uni, we drifted apart.

A few years later, fate intervened. I had come home to live with my parents for the summer after studying abroad and, after the novelty of home-cooked food wore off, I downloaded a dating app in a bid to stave off boredom.

Suddenly, there he was – I swiped right on a whim and after a little back-and-forth, I plucked up the courage to write: “Isn’t it weird that we haven’t hooked up yet?” A couple of days later, we finally went on our first date. I drove us up to a local viewpoint overlooking the Brecon Beacons, where we watched the sunset and reminisced about old times. It was perfect.

We spent the rest of the summer joined at the hip. Suddenly, even the most normal of things – like going for burgers and drinks on a Friday, or a hungover walk on a Saturday – was romantic and special. The thought of being apart was devastating, so we decided he would join me when I returned to London for my final year at university.

Despite being cramped into a shared flat with three of my friends, who weren't always thrilled with his presence, it went surprisingly well – Cameron got a sales job and I spent most of my waking hours in the library. Weekends were reserved for late breakfasts, and as the day drew on, cigarettes and rum cocktails on the balcony. Fast forward one year and we were back home visiting our parents, enjoying a pint in a local pub, when his brother walked past us while we were stealing a kiss and muttered, “Why don’t you just get married already?”

We looked at each other. “Shall we do it; shall we just get married?” he asked.

“You’re serious?” I questioned, aware we’d put a few pints away during the day.

“Completely. Will you marry me?” He asked again, wrapping his arms around my waist.

Nobody had noticed what was happening until I turned around, grabbed my oldest friend’s arm and asked her if she had a spare ring. Amid the hugs, screams and shots of alcohol, we resized my friend’s silver ring and squashed it onto my finger. It was the silliest and best proposal I could’ve ever asked for, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Pub ProposalBBC Three / istock

A big white wedding, and marriage in general, wasn’t something I’d really thought about. While some of my friends were really into the idea of the fairytale 'big day', complete with a meringue-style dress and a six-layered cake in the grounds of a manor house, I had spent most of my teen and young adult years dreaming of the day I’d be able to afford a sausage dog.

According to a survey of 4,000 brides by a wedding planner website, the average cost of a wedding is now over £27,000. Other wedding businesses claim it's even higher at over £30,000. How many 22 and 24-year-olds have that much in the bank? This year we'll get married in a small register office ceremony, and then have a short family holiday in Malta.

It seems I’m not alone in keeping it fairly simple. Millennials (aged roughly between 22 and 38) are opting less for big white weddings – or, indeed, any wedding at all. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2015, marriage rates for opposite-sex couples in England and Wales were at their lowest level on record after a gradual decline since the early 1970s. They increased slightly the following year, but the decline in opposite-sex marriages is still marked: 426,000 marriages between men and women took place in 1972, compared to 243,000 in 2016.

The average age at which people are tying the knot has risen too – that same report shows that women tend to marry at around 35 and men at almost 38, almost a decade older than the average ages to marry in 1950, when women married at 25 and men at 29.

Psychotherapist Lohani Noor, who is one of the resident therapists in the forthcoming BBC Three series Sex On The Couch, thinks this could in part be down to society’s changing priorities.

“We’re in the middle of a massive generation shift,” she says. “The roles of men and women are changing. Historically, women were very motivated to marry because it brought them security – particularly financially – [that] they couldn’t get without a man, but now, young men and women are thinking about their own careers and what they want to achieve as individuals. The idea of marriage doesn’t quite meet that narrative.”

She echoes the thoughts of Rachel*, a childhood friend of mine who has just turned 24. She told me that marriage would be “pointless” because she hasn’t figured out her own direction in life, let alone thought about sharing it with anyone else.

It seems that even celebrities aren't immune to marriage shame. Game of Thrones star, Sophie Turner, now 23, recently felt the need to defend her decision to get engaged to the pop singer Joe Jonas in November 2017 - when they were aged 21 and 28, respectively.

But there are examples where young celebrity marriages haven't worked out. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe, who married when they were 23 and 24, have both spoken about marrying young. Reese said in an interview: "I was, like, ridiculously young" while in another interview her ex said simply: "I think more of the problem was age". Meanwhile, actress Olivia Wilde, now 35, who married at 19, and was divorced eight years later, said in a 2012 interview that the marriage “stunted her growth”.

I understand the idea that you don’t know yourself well enough to commit to someone else for life in your early twenties – but wouldn’t it also be fun figuring everything out with the person you love by your side?

Text messagesBBC Three / iStock

I could just about deal with the raised eyebrows and pitying nods from friends, and the quick-fire follow-up texts of “Are you sure?” and “You can always change your mind!”, but the conversations with my family were the hardest.

My brother, who is two years younger than me and one of my best friends, was quiet with me for a while after I broke the news to my family over the phone. He admits he struggled to understand my decision. I messaged him tentatively a couple of times to discuss potential wedding plans, but he didn’t want to engage. 

My parents will be the first to admit that they too reacted with caution rather than total euphoria. “What if it’s like your last boyfriend?” my mum said. “You were so invested in him and then broke up with him a year later.” I told her this was different – that he lifts me up and makes me a better person. But no matter how many times I said I was sure my words didn’t seem to register.

“As a society these days, we understand that 22 is still very young, and there’s a good possibility you’ll change," says Lohani, offering an opinion on why I received so many negative reactions. "Lots of people from older generations married young because that’s just what you did, but they end up coming to therapy feeling like they don’t know the person they married any more.”

“It could be linked to feminist ideas as well," she adds "that women have become so empowered and free, but we’re still not as empowered as men. There could be a sense that you’ve given in and become someone else's property.”

RoadblockBBC Three / iStock

Eventually, the negativity got to me and I found myself crying on Cameron’s shoulder and asking him, “Are we making a mistake?” He shook his head. “This is for us, not anyone else.” I asked him if he’d faced a backlash from anyone. “Yeah,” he chuckled. “I told an old mate about it. He called me an idiot and said marriage was stupid. So, I just told him 'I’m not marrying you, am I?'"

I wish I had Cameron’s ‘I’ll do what I want’ attitude but the lack of support at the start, particularly from my mum, really hurt me. My parents told me it was hard for them to hear the news because I was so young and they hadn’t had time to properly get to know Cameron. I may have known him for 12 years, but they’d met him maybe two or three times. We kept our lives in London separate from our families – not deliberately, but because we were so wrapped up in each other.

My insecurities grew, and I found myself telling lies to stave off tricky questions. “Four years we’ve been together”, I told a co-worker after they expressed shock at my engagement because I looked ‘so young’.

“I’m 26”, I told a friend-of-a-friend I met at a party when she spotted my engagement ring. She sighed with audible relief and said, “That’s OK, then. Just about!”

I avoided using the words “husband” and “fiancé” and instead opted for the less loaded term “partner”. As the months passed, I couldn’t stop lying to people. I just didn’t want to face the unsettling questions of “Why now?” and “What’s the point?” 

Caitlin ClarkBBC Three / Contributor image

Today, a year on from the proposal, things have improved. I've stopped feeling like I need to cover up my happiness. My friends have become more comfortable with the idea and my family are more onboard too. My mum told me recently that she’d bought a silly hat for the registry office. My brother is excited about going on Cameron’s stag do, and we're all looking forward to our 'familymoon' in Malta.

When I said yes to Cameron in the pub that night, it might have seemed to an observer that my answer was as impulsive as his proposal. But I’d known for a long time that he was the person I wanted to spend my life with. It’s true that actually getting married hadn’t crossed my mind until he asked, but I gave our future a lot of thought, and the negativity I received made me weigh it up even more.

I might not have figured out exactly who I am yet, but there is one thing I’m sure about: marrying Cameron is the right decision, and that would be true no matter how old we are.