Marriage terrifies me. I struggle to stick with a job for more than six months, let alone one person for the rest of my life. I am unstable, indecisive, constantly on the lookout for better options. And I love it. Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the idea of leaving another person vulnerable to my restlessness.
Fewer and fewer young people are choosing to get married, and for those who do, the stats aren’t great. Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that one in three marriages end in divorce, and according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, one of the lead causes is getting married under the age of 25.
Elisabeth Shaw, Clinical Director of Relationships Australia, tells me that millennials are shying away from early marriage to allow space for their careers and developmental growth.
“In the past, marrying early meant that your expectations of your life were much more settled,” she says. “Now that we’ve got the global economy, you really need to have a relationship that can stand the test of time.”
Society is now much more open to premarital sex, non-traditional relationships, civil partnerships and gaining relationship experience. Why, then, are some young people still drawn to marriage?
“Come in, come in!”
I hug Hannah, wave at Silas, dump my bags and pop open the shiraz. Fried rice crackles in the microwave. Books, kettles, cups, and an enormous cold-drip coffee machine surround the newlyweds. This Camperdown apartment is their first home away from family.
“Why didn’t you move in together before marriage?”
“I don’t want to be hypocritical by picking and choosing what to believe from the Bible, and it teaches pretty strongly not to have sex before marriage.” She pulls at the threads of the blanket in her lap. “If we hadn’t committed to each other, I wouldn’t want to make myself this vulnerable.”
Hannah and Silas are a rarity – only 1.6 per cent of respondents to the Great Australian Sex Census waited until marriage to have sex, while 35 per cent had lost their virginity by the age of 16. The microwave beeps and I hesitate in grabbing my fork – should I say grace? – but they dig straight in.
“Moving in together wouldn’t have meant you needed to have sex, though…right?” I ask.
“It was more of a self-control thing,” says Silas.
“Maybe we would have lasted one night,” Hannah laughs. “But probably not.”
I spill some wine and Silas jumps up to grab paper towel. He first met Hannah at Village Church in Annandale, where they exchanged polite small-talk after a service.
“I thought he was mysterious,” says Hannah, flicking her hand over her face in imitation of the front-fringe her husband used to sport.
Silas sits back down. I ask them about their decision to break up in first-year uni.
“That’s when I knew he was someone I could marry,” says Hannah. “I’ve never had someone so clearly choose what’s best for me.”
Concerned that physical desire would threaten their chastity, Silas postponed the relationship until they were both ready to commit. They were engaged a year later.
“When you’re 27 and you’re getting married, everyone is like, yay, finally!” says Hannah. “Whereas when you’re 20 they’re like…really? I was terrified.”
“Married couples form some level of stability in society, but personally, if I wasn’t Christian, I wouldn’t get married right now.”
“Oh, I completely agree,” replies Silas. “I don’t think I’d be able to make the vows that I made and mean them.”
Nikita* is relaxing after work with her husband, Jay*, on the other end of the line. They married last year when he was 26 and she was 22.
“It was actually a friend of mine who noticed him first,” says Nikita. “I looked at him from across the classroom and said: ehhhh, he’s alright.”
Jay laughs – a deep, bell-like chuckle. He admits that he was always drawn to Nikita, despite an initial crush on her friend. Their romance bloomed after a group assignment when they began spending time together after class, as soon as Jay finished work, and on his days off.
After a fairytale six months of dating, Jay’s student visa was about to expire. He would have to go back to India, without Nikita.
“I just couldn’t take it,” says Nikita, words rolling off her tongue in rapid-fire. “I had never met someone who I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. It just felt wrong to be separated this way.”
Jay was prepared to try long-distance, but one night, Nikita suggested a different solution: “So…how…what about…do you think we could probably get married? Are you alright with that?”
Jay laughs. “It took me a few seconds to wrap my head around it – ”
“You liar!” shouts Nikita. “You bloody cried!”
After a two-month engagement, Nikita and Jay got married at a courthouse in Adelaide.
“When we first told our friends, they were like, what are you doing? What’s wrong with you?!” says Nikita.
“You’re six months into a relationship and you’re getting married, blah blah blah, how long have you known this girl?” continues Jay. “But now they understand.”
Nikita and Jay haven’t told their families yet. Marriage is taken very seriously in Indian culture, and their parents are unlikely to approve of such spontaneity.
“We’re going to go about it the proper way, like we should have done,” says Jay. “I’m just going to wait for a bit, get a stable job, and get a bit more emotionally stable as well. Then I’ll ask her dad for permission.”
After two years of hiding their wedding rings from their parents, Nikita and Jay plan to get married, for a second time, in India. I ask if either of them had ever imagined being married so young.
“Noooo,” says Nikita. “My plan was thirty,” says Jay. “I was giving myself more time to grow, but I can be myself around her, which is something I’ve never had.”
Skype boops and blobs its alien dial tone. Annika and Brenton sit close, shoulders touching. They have been married for four days.
“We met on Tinder,” laughs Annika. “It was meant to be a hook-up, but we fell in love.”
After a month of dating, Annika gave Brenton an ultimatum: either they became an official couple, or stop having sex. He conceded, and they enjoyed a month of honeymoon bliss before Annika started feeling sick. She took a pregnancy test, and despite being on the pill, it came back positive. She was 17.
Annika had always planned to get an abortion if she ever fell pregnant, but now that the situation was upon her, she had doubts. What if a baby was exciting rather than scary? What if it didn’t ruin her life?
One day, she started bleeding – badly. Her mum rushed her to the doctor. Howling, Annika was distraught, fearing a miscarriage.
“Luckily, the ultrasound showed that everything was fine,” she says. “But the fear of losing the baby really cemented that I did want it.”
Brenton shifts backwards and forwards when I ask why he stuck around. “I didn’t want the baby, but I didn’t want to be the person to leave,” he finally says.
When Sage was six months old, Annika took Brenton engagement ring shopping. Their engagement was met with excitement by everyone except Brenton’s parents.
“They’re the kind of people who are just like, ooooh, are you sure? Make sure you’re sure!” says Brenton. “But we’d been living together and we were very much a unit. If you asked for one of us –”
“– you got both of us.”
Annika and Brenton had never pictured married life for themselves; in fact, they used to be aggressively opposed to marriage.
“It just seemed so toxic and possessive,” says Annika.
They overcame this disillusionment by replacing traditional ideas of marriage with a more flexible approach.
“I don’t see marriage as tied-down monogamy, like you’re stuck with each other for the rest of your lives even if you hate each other,” says Annika. “We’re both queer, so maybe one day we’ll want to get another boyfriend or girlfriend. It can be a little three-way love connection.”
Brenton gets up to check on the baby, and I lean closer to the camera.
“Do you regret anything?”
For the first time, Annika is quiet. She looks at her hands. “I wish I could have got pregnant later. I didn’t get to be young, and we’re still not ready. We still don’t feel like parents.”
Brenton sits back down.
“There’s nothing that I would change about our marriage, though.”
I’m looking at the young couple holding hands walking into Nando’s. I’m looking at the two men with Sydney Uni jumpers trading glances at a bus stop. I’m looking at the girl with maroon boots kissing her partner goodbye outside RPA.
We might be moving away from marriage, but it’s clear that young Australians aren’t strangers to commitment. Ring or no ring, love is still valid, and who are we to judge what brings two people closer together?
*Names have been changed