At Whitworth University, a Christian liberal arts college in Spokane, Washington, one hears faint echoes of a social expectation that’s common to Christian campuses: “ring by spring.” It’s the idea that college students should have given or received an engagement ring by the spring of their senior year. “Ring by spring” is not encouraged in any official way, and it’s generally invoked with a heavy dose of derision. But as sociology professor Dr. Stacy Keogh George has observed in a recent study, this dismissive humor belies a very real pressure felt by some students to measure success by finding a marriageable partner. According to George, this “not-so-hidden culture” emphasizes engagement instead of “encouraging men and women of faith to live out their individual vocations, which may or may not include marriage.”

In the fall of 2014, George gathered some initial data on students’ attitudes about “ring by spring.” The results of her study are forthcoming in Christian Reflection. I had the chance to talk with George about her research, the surprising sticking power of “ring by spring” culture—especially at a time when the age of first marriage in the US keeps climbing —and its implications for Christian college students.

How did you get interested in studying ring by spring culture in the first place?

I am a graduate of a Christian college in the US, and when I was a student, I heard this “ring by spring” thing was happening on campus and I had no idea what it was. I realized very quickly that Christian colleges are seen as a place for women to find their spouse. And I say that very intentionally—for women to find their spouse—because the pressure didn’t seem to impact many of the male students on campus.

I didn’t get my ring by spring in college. I went to graduate school, graduated, and came back to teach at a Christian college. Within the first couple of weeks of the school year, I had a number of female students come to my office saying that they were worried about graduating and moving on without having found their spouse. And we got into conversations about this “ring by spring” culture. I was shocked that it still existed, you know, 15 years later.

When you were an undergraduate, what did you do with the “ring by spring” message?

Well, I studied abroad four times [laughter]. I mean, at some point you’re internalizing it. People started to make me more afraid that I wouldn’t find a spouse, saying, “Well, you’re never going to be around so many people of your same age with your same interests that come from a Christian background.” And there’s truth to that. But people made that seem so limiting, like we didn’t have life after 22 unless we had a spouse.

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What were some of the biggest surprises of your study?

One of the biggest surprises came when I saw the statistic that only 6 percent of the students in the survey actually expected to be engaged or married by the time they graduated. Also, almost all of the responses were critical of the “ring by spring” culture. [And yet] it seems to me that this culture is very prevalent. It’s tongue-in-cheek, yet it still exists. So there’s that paradox.

Tell me a little bit more about the scope of the survey and the limits of it. How widespread is the pressure?

I created an anonymous online survey and sent the link out to my students and colleagues, requesting that they ask their students to complete the survey. Anyone with the link on campus could respond; 171 people completed the survey, though not all of them answered all of the questions. Only 27 of the respondents were men, the rest were women. The survey sample is what we call a “non-probability” sample, which means that the students who responded do not necessarily represent the views of all students on campus. I suspect that students who have had close encounters with the culture are more likely to participate.

That said, at least 67 percent of students said they feel at least a little bit of pressure to marry, and 15 percent of women students say they “definitely” feel pressured to marry. However, not all students who feel pressured by outsiders to marry actually feel that they need to be married. So, there may be students whose peers or parents are pressuring them to marry, but they are not necessarily in my office crying when they graduate without an engagement ring.

In your forthcoming article, you’re very clear to point out that this is not an indictment of young marriage or young engagement. You’re trying to stay neutral on that. Do you anticipate any pushback?

We all have different journeys in life. Some of us are called to be married young, others of us later in life, and still others don’t have marriage in their life journey at all. I am pro-marriage for any adult couple, regardless of age, that feels the timing is right and is prepared for marriage.

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Still, I am sure there will be pushback from some who believe that we all need to marry young. And for some cultures, that is the norm. However, the sociological literature is very clear on the implications of younger marriages, and I think we need to consider the science behind those studies when addressing marriage trends. In general, younger marriages don’t succeed as often as marriages when people are older. And young/old is really fluid depending on what research you’re looking at, but over 24 would be an “older” marriage just because you’ve got more of a financial grounding. And what [social scientists] find is that women do better if they get married older than if they get married young because they’ve established themselves financially.

In sociology, when we talk about “success” in a marriage, we’re basically talking about whether you get divorced or separated, and that’s very black and white. You can be with someone for 50 years and not have a great relationship, and there’s a lot of internal turmoil happening that is not documented. And so we don’t know those figures and how they work into it. If somebody were to push back and say, “No, young marriage is great,” I would say for some, yeah, it very well could be, if both people understand what they’re getting into. But I think if we are going to promote [young marriage], then we need to better prepare young people, because we’re seeing a lot of evangelical and other Christian populations mirroring—if not exceeding—the national divorce rate in broader US society.

What would you say to church leaders, especially those who minister to college students, about how to address and even offset these common marriage pressures?

I would encourage church leaders to have open conversations about the pressures of dating and marriage. Evading the “ring by spring” topic only perpetuates the culture because no one is doing anything to change it. Singleness is a viable alternative to marriage, and young adults need to be especially aware of this. We need to recognize that marriage isn't necessarily the best option for everyone. For young women especially, the engagement ring seems more like a fulfillment of social expectations and a seal of approval from more traditional voices. However, if we look closely at Scripture, we will see God honoring many different types of relationships for men and for women, not only married relationships. As far as we know, Jesus and many of his closest followers (men and women) were single. Paul even encourages singleness in 1 Corinthians.

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Part of some traditions’ encouragement for men and women to marry young is so that they don’t fall into temptation and have sex outside of marriage. That’s fine, but as I say in the article, then we need to provide other tools [for dealing with sexual temptation]. If somebody doesn’t find a spouse at 20 or 22, that temptation is still going to exist. What other resources can churches, church institutions, and friends give to students if temptation is their reason for feeling like they have to marry young? There’s some great research out there on this subject.

You recently got the ring. How does your journey through dating and engagement and now married life inform your perspective?

This whole concept of dating was totally absent from my college experience, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I actually started to date and tried on different types of people to see, “Do I mesh with this personality or do I not?” Marrying in my 30s, I feel confident that this is who I am, I’ve got my career settled, I’m where I want to be, and I’ve dated enough people that this is the right fit for me now.

Do you have ideas about how to reclaim dating as an acceptable, exploratory activity?

Some students come from the Christian tradition where you only date one person because you’re courting for marriage. (It’s the I Kissed Dating Goodbye culture, which author Joshua Harris has since spoken out about.) That’s fine, if that’s your culture. When I went to college, we would have date nights organized by the residence directors where our roommate had to pick a blind date for us and we would all go to the zoo or something if we wanted to participate. They were just trying to create casual environments that were organized and where we could all do things that weren’t as serious as “I want to take you out to coffee.”

Which is casual! Coffee should be just “I would like to talk to you in a one-on-one way in a public place with a caffeinated beverage.”

Well, I had a male student talk to me after he’d taken the survey, and he said, “I’ll never take another student out again because I took her out to coffee once, and I didn’t have a great time. Then my friends got upset with me and her friends got upset with me because I was leading her on by asking her out and then I didn’t follow up.” He was like, “I can’t date here anymore.” That’s unhealthy, in my opinion. [His experience] is potentially going to have broader implications, once he graduates from here, for how he perceives dating.

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What are the next steps in this project?

Long-term, I would really like to partner with other Christian colleges through the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities because I know [the “ring by spring” culture] exists at those other places. It would be great to do a comparative study of what we’re experiencing here and at Gonzaga, the Catholic university down the street. I have anecdotal information, but I’d look more systematically at how marriage culture differs at Protestant Christian, Catholic Christian, and public universities, and what dating culture looks like in general. That’s a pretty large project.

Nicole Sheets is an associate professor of English at Whitworth University and the editor of How To Pack for Church Camp, an online anthology of nonfiction about summer camp. Her work has appeared in Image, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Hotel Amerika, and Geez magazine. You can find her on Twitter @heynicolesheets and in Spokane, Washington, where she lives with her family.