TCNJ STUDENTS HONORING GOD’S CALL TO MARRIAGE
Jolynn and Matt Graubart, both graduating from TCNJ this spring, met and began dating when they were fourteen years old. As a hardened cynic, I was shocked, amazed, and slightly disappointed to learn that no family feuding or double suicides had occurred along the way. Imagine my further surprise, then, when I was informed that this undergrad pair had in fact been married – and happily so – for the past year and a half.
Upon meeting them, nothing seemed out of the ordinary: they walked neither with the chipper optimism of quintessential newlyweds nor with the gait of disenchanted “stay together for the kids” couples. I supposed the latter could be explained by their current lack of kids and the former by the damage a year and a half does to any “new” modifier.
But I was onto them. I have to admit, though – they played the role of regular college kids well.
Undaunted by their apparent normalcy, I rolled up my sleeves for what I hoped would be two married fish in a barrel.
It was in their freshman year of high school that the two first caught wind of one another. Matt had actually been romantically involved with a close friend of Jolynn’s at the time; a would-have-been juicy start to the relationship if kids that age didn’t trade boyfriends and girlfriends as often as they (often simultaneously) trade germs. It goes without saying, then, that things got more and more serious. Eventually they came to expect half-jesting predictions from parents about how wedding bells were ringing in the distance. Even so, Jolynn explained, her family was surprised when the couple announced their engagement. Both sets of in-laws were ultimately supportive, though – pointedly unlike the Montagues and Capulets, I noted dolefully.
I was happy to discover that their road to marriage was not entirely without bumps. “By the time we were sixteen, I was so frustrated with God,” Jolynn recalled. “You gave me this boy I can totally see myself marrying,” she would pray, “but I can’t be intimate with him.”
Indeed, perhaps what most separates Jolynn and Matt from mainstream collegiate romance is Evangelical Christianity – clearly the driving force behind their decision to marry at such a relatively young age. “God called us to marriage,” Jolynn plainly asserted; but in doing so, God also called on them to maintain a strict sexual celibacy before formally tying the knot.
Unfortunately, as Matt said, “God is very nonspecific.” The Bible does not necessarily provide a clear-cut guide by which to determine what constitutes sexual sin. Nevertheless, the couple confesses that there were times in the years before their marriage that they “went too far.”
But where do you draw the line? How do you know, as per their version of Christianity, when expressing mutual affection or intimacy becomes a violation of God’s expectations?
“The intimacy would escalate to a point that I didn’t want to stop,” Matt explained. “I’d want to go further.” And that desire to go further, Jolynn added – to rebuke the requirements apparently set forth by God – amounted to a form of idolatry. “I wanted to choose Matt over God,” she said as an admission of her sinful past. But the temptation that perpetually loomed over her, Jolynn concluded, ultimately made her a better Christian. “Sexual sin was a big part of my walk with God,” she said.
So when precisely does the physical manifestation of affection become sin? For Jolynn, answering that question comes down to a matter of conviction: “If you’re walking with God and reading your Bible every day, you trust that the spirit will convince you of things that are wrong,” she said.
Upon their engagement, finally with a tangible goal in sight, Jolynn and Matt pledged to remain as abstinent as physically possible. Barring a kiss on the forehead or a platonic peck goodbye, the two were “hands-off” until they wed in the summer of 2008.
For this couple, to begin a marriage is to begin a lifelong covenantal relationship with God, one that cannot be rescinded at the fleeting whims of either partner. “I am promising God that I am going to love this person, even if I find out things along the way that make it really hard,” Jolynn continued.
Aside from a new sexual and emotional landscape, marriage has also forced the pair to grapple with how they are perceived by their peers. “Even in the case of my two best friends,” Matt said, “once we got married there was a mass exodus.” It may have taken awhile, but his friends eventually came around. “We still go hunting,” Matt smiled.
For Jolynn, maintaining a married lifestyle has posed its challenges. “It’s strange being on campus now,” she said. Whenever possible, she avoids making references to her husband in class or social situations, because inevitably “all of a sudden that’s the topic of conversation.”
“That’s what I hate the most,” she said. “The reaction when people find out I have a husband. What do you say? Do you avoid it?”
Certainly, some raised eyebrows are not surprising; married couples are in the extreme minority on college campuses, and those who are married tend to be those who are also ardently religious. Jolynn freely acknowledges that her relationship is an anomalous one: “There are people who don’t get married and have awesome relationships. But we believe God laid down a prescription for us, and we trust that whatever’s in it is right.”
Nevertheless, the couple has drawn attention from both the genuinely curious and cynically skeptical.
Among the skeptics, some have questioned the logic behind entering into a supposedly lifelong arrangement at such an early stage – especially if a primary motivator appears to be the ability to have non-sinful sex.
Jolynn confirmed that she has observed a tendency within the Evangelical community for young people to marry in inadvisable haste: “I definitely see the danger in a ‘let’s get married and have sex’ mentality.” But she does not feel such a mentality accurately describes her relationship with Matt. “Before we got married, we had already changed so much with one another,” she said. “We were ready.”
“Sex did play some role,” Matt added, “but so did the desire to be together in everyday life.” The couple also made sure they were financially secure before making the leap. When they found an affordable place to live and Matt landed a stable job, Jolynn said it was clear that “God was opening doors for us. We don’t believe in coincidences.”
Since their marriage, Christian groups on campus have lauded the couple as a shining example of college students who have maintained successful, God-fearing relationships. In October of 2008, both Jolynn and Matt spoke before a packed house at the Spiritual Center as part of an event on sexual morality held by the Protestant Bible Fellowship. “We had no idea the number of people that would be there,” Jolynn recounted. They were put in the unique predicament of having to explain their marital ups and downs to a large crowd of strangers. Matt never thought his struggle with pornography would become such public knowledge. “Yeah – that was in The Signal,” he sighed.
Projecting both her faith and her marriage outward have sometimes left Jolynn feeling as though she is being underhandedly criticized by fellow students and faculty. She recalled several instances in which, as a devoutly religious (and married) woman, she was made uncomfortable. Especially in an academic environment where a secular mindset is the predominant one, Jolynn said she is often the subject of subtle jabs and derision.
She has taken a class with one professor who, Jolynn said, is known to publicly single out believers. “If you’re a Christian, raise your hand,” the professor is rumored to declare. Fortunately Jolynn was spared that particular discomfort, though she said “the first poem we read was all about bashing Christians.”