Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Today’s comes from a college-aged friend of my oldest daughter Rebecca:

Should you wait until you finish college to have a relationship–or to marry?

This is a question that’s rather emotional to me, because both Rebecca and myself dated men who felt this way–and eventually ended it. Both of us were just starting relationships early in university, and those men, who genuinely liked if not loved us, decided that they didn’t want to pursue a relationship because school was more important.

In retrospect, we’re both glad, even though it hurt horribly at the time, because I got my amazing husband and Rebecca is now in a serious relationship. But that man that I would have married in a heartbeat has now been divorced at least once, and the man Rebecca would likely have married is now alone.

I am not saying that we are the ones who caused these men’s heartache–as if, had they chosen us instead, they’d be happy now. I actually think that this idea they both had that school came first was the main cause of their current predicament–not that they lost us in particular. So let me share my reader’s question, and then I’ll look at it from several angles: the young woman; the young man; and the parents of that young man.

reader question icon - Reader Question: Should You Wait Until You Finish College for a Relationship?

Reader Question

I’ve been best friends with a guy from my church for years, and lately I’ve been interested in him for an actual relationship. We went on a few dates, but then out of the blue he told me that he didn’t want to keep seeing me because he doesn’t want a relationship until he’s finished medical school–and he hasn’t even started yet! Do I let him go? And if so, how?
I’m going to answer that by talking mostly to the guy in this scenario, so here goes:

Priorities Follow You–if you prioritize work above all early, you will prioritize it later too

Rebecca and I were chatting about this question yesterday, and she said an insightful thing: “in marriage you have to deal with personality differences and family of origin differences and differences in expectations, but these can all be overcome if you share two important things: you both love God, and you both feel the relationship comes first.” And she’s right. If you both love God and you both value the relationship, you can work through anything else.

But here’s what happens to many people when they approach school: They think, I have made certain goals for my life academically and career-wise. And I can’t afford to have anything distracting me from my goals.

There’s a problem with that line of thinking, and it goes like this: If you decide that the main focus for your life will be your career, then the main focus of your life WILL BE YOUR CAREER. It will not automatically change once you graduate. Essentially you’re saying: I need to concentrate on my real life now, and when I am ready I will add a wife and children (or a husband and children, if the roles are reversed). And that’s the problem: you’re ADDING the wife to your life; she is not the central focus of it. You have compartmentalized your life, and you likely will continue to do so. It will be very difficult to all of a sudden do a 180 and then start thinking of your wife, and here’s why:

Life Does Not Get Any Easier After College is Over

This essentially is the biggest misconception people make about relationships and college. They’re so focused on reaching their goal–whether it’s becoming a doctor or getting that Ph.D. or whatever–that they think that once this is over I can start to live my real life.

But let me tell you: I have been married to a physician all during his training (including medical school and residency), and I have done postgraduate work myself. And while there is a unique kind of stress to school, there is stress at every stage of life. Every single stage. And it doesn’t get easier.

If you train yourself that your way of handling stress is to be alone and buckle down and get it done, then that is also the way you will handle stress when you are married. If you think you have no time for a relationship now, you will have no time for a relationship later, either–even if you do marry. Everything in life is about priorities. And deciding that a relationship is a lower priority now is also toxic to a marriage later. Those who prioritize school now are far more likely to become workaholic husbands (or workaholic wives) and have distant marriages later. Which leads me to this thought:

Don’t Underestimate the Asset that a Relationship Can Be During College

I grew up without my dad. I endured my mother and my step-father splitting up at a very vulnerable age for me (14). My son died.

But with all that, I can tell you that the thing that took the worst toll on me is the fact that my now-husband initially broke off our engagement. For three months I was alone, thinking that relationship wouldn’t work, until he came back and we started again.

Why do I share that? Because as terrible as the death of my son was, I could deal with it because I was in a good marriage. Being married strengthened me; being alone shattered me. I learned a lot from that period of my life; it was a spiritual turning point, and God used it for good. But looking back, I also know that one reason God gave us a marriage partner is so that we don’t have to take the storms of life alone. Having someone to walk through the hard times with you is a tremendous boon.

I was married during some of Keith’s hard struggles with school. Medical school was awful for him; he’s an outgoing, energetic, kind person, and having to do extreme bookwork for two years with professors constantly talking down to you was debilitating. He almost quit, and he often says that he would have had it not been for me encouraging him and telling him that being a doctor would be completely different from being a medical student. If he could just get through this, he could get through anything.

And the sex didn’t hurt, either.

Seriously. Sex is a great stress reliever!

So here’s the thing as a student: you’re going to go through stress anyway. It’s going to be a lot of work. So you can choose to go through it alone, or you can say, “if God brings me someone, I’ll really consider it.”

There is a degree of pride in saying “I can do it on my own better.” God made us for relationship.

God’s Agenda is Not Always Our Agenda

I’m a goal-oriented person, and so I can understand being so focused on an academic goal that you decide that relationships have to wait. But I don’t think this is a wise spiritual decision.

You may have the best plan in the world–but that’s all it is. It is a plan of your own making. Do not EVER become so wedded to your own plans that you miss out on what God has for you. Keep open to the Spirit. Keep open to new things. Keep open to changing your plans. If your plans become your life, then you are cutting God out and you are standing in His place, and that’s pride. It may seem like it’s selfless–I don’t want to get into a relationship with someone when I know how much I will have to work to get through this degree, and so I’m sacrificing my own happiness for the sake of the person I may end up hurting–but it’s really pursuing your own goals no matter what.

For some people that may be what God has for them. But in my own life, every time I have thought I had a really great plan God has changed it. The people that I see who are miserable today or not living up to their potential tend to be people who have pursued their own plans. Be careful.

A Quality, God-Fearing Spouse is Not Easy to Find

Many people who delay relationships for school figure that they will meet someone wonderful later. They may even see this as an act of faith–believing that God would bring someone else when they had made themselves ready. (And if God has honestly told you to wait, it likely is an act of faith. But save a word from God, I’d just be very careful.)

God does not work on our timetable. And if you find someone that you respect and admire and get along with easily and laugh together who also loves God–do not give that up lightly. Marrying young is not the worst thing in the world. Sometimes it can be the best.

You may have the best plan in the world- but that’s all it is. A plan of your own making. Do not EVER become so wedded to your own plans that you miss out on what God has for you.

Break Up Because the Relationship Won’t Work, Not Because the Timing Won’t Work

If you end something, it should be because God has shown you the person won’t work. Timing isn’t a deal-breaker; it’s an obstacle, that’s all. Jacob had to work fourteen years for Rachel in the Old Testament story, but he didn’t abandon her just because of timing. “A wife of noble character is hard to find”–as is a husband of noble character. Don’t shut a door that you don’t know will open again. That may feel like an act of faith, but from what I’ve seen, it’s more likely that you’re substituting your own plans for God’s plans.

But What About Money to Support a Spouse?

After all, if you marry, shouldn’t you be able to support someone? Isn’t that a legitimate reason to wait?

It may be a legitimate reason to wait to marry; but I don’t think it’s a legitimate reason to wait to have a relationship.

First, if you’re living off of student loans and part-time jobs to put yourself through school, chances are it’s cheaper to be married and live in one household anyway, so money shouldn’t really be a factor in that case. When Keith and I married we saved money, and because we were married we also qualified for more government assistance because they stopped taking our parents’ income into account.

But what if you’re going through school on your parents’ dime? Here’s where parents need to enter the conversation. With our daughters, we are paying a certain percentage of their undergraduate costs (once you’re in grad school you can earn your own way). We have always decided to do that, and it doesn’t change if they marry. So they don’t get cut off from support for school just because they marry.

Should you wait until college is over to pursue a relationship? Some thoughts on why that can backfire.

Last Words to the Young Woman:

To the woman who asked this question, you need to move on and run far away from this guy. If he can’t prioritize you now, he would not be able to prioritize you if you ever married, either. Run close to God, and God will fill the gaping hole you’re feeling right now. And God will bring someone into your life who WILL prioritize you–don’t ever settle for less.

Last Words to the Young Man:

I do understand how important school is. I understand the urge not to pursue a relationship because everything is so up in the air, and you don’t feel you have the time to dedicate to a relationship right now. If no young woman presents herself, then this may honestly be okay. But be careful of ending a potential relationship with a great young woman over timing, because the timing will never get better. And ask yourself this: in twenty years, what do I want most? A great career, or a great marriage and family? If the answer is “a great career”, then you likely should remain single always. That isn’t fair to a spouse. And if the answer is “a great marriage and family”, then that doesn’t happen automatically.

You can’t wall yourself off from people now and expect to be able to prioritize them later. Tread carefully; listen to God’s voice; and keep your eyes open.

Last Words to the Parents:

We live in an age where we value status and career almost over everything else. This is a mistake. The most important aspect of your child’s life will be the legacy he or she leaves behind. For some of us, that will be about career, but for most of us, it’s about family. And family often speaks more to character than anything else. Don’t push your child away from relationships in college, because that’s giving the wrong message about what’s really important in life.

And now, let me know: what do you think? Can and should college and relationships be combined? Leave me a comment and tell me your experiences!

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - Reader Question: Should You Wait Until You Finish College for a Relationship? Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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