"Marriage used to be the first step into adulthood; now it’s often the last," said Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "You used to get married, then you got a job, then you got an apartment, then you had a child. Now people are doing those things beforehand."
This is especially true among college graduates, who are usually expected to settle into careers before marriage, Cherlin said.
"When you see that a college-educated person married in their early 20s, you wonder what their issues might be."
But often the decision to marry is a calculated one, with young couples carefully considering their futures together. Aria Hill, 23, and her husband, Jake, decided to marry before she started a five-year veterinary program at Cornell University. They had already been dating for five years, and it was the "financially responsible decision," she said. Similarly, Savvas Constantinou, a senior at Trinity College, and his wife, Meghan, wanted to enter graduate school and the workforce as a married couple so they could have the support of tax benefits — and each other. Throughout their five-year relationship they had long discussions about future plans for family and work, Constantinou said, and were happy to find they were compatible.
With all this responsible decision-making, families and close friends often understand the decision to jump from long-term relationship to marriage — but strangers are harder to convince.
"A lot of guys look at me like, ‘You’re crazy, I can’t believe you aren’t seeing what else is out there,’?" Constantinou said. To the shock of his carefree classmates, he and his wife married in February, both at the age of 22, in the chapel of his small liberal arts college.
"So many people our age jump from partner to partner," he said. "The idea of marriage is so off-putting that they’re very curious about it."
Yet young couples realize this curiosity is somewhat warranted, as they are a growing anomaly in their age group.
"A lot of my friends are in different places, still going through their first years of college and getting used to living on their own," said Allison Bautista Torrey, a student at the University of Maine. She was just 20 when she got married in November 2010, still too young to enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne. A few of her friends are jealous that she has already found "the one" — mostly because it means she no longer has to play the field.
"They tell me that they have a lot to worry about — worrying about boys along with work and studying," she said. "I just have to worry about work and studying because I already have a guy I’m happy with."
Still, the overall pressure to marry has decreased substantially in the last 50 years, especially among young educated women, who tend to wait longer for marriage than their less educated counterparts, said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Marriage is no longer necessary for women to secure financial stability, single men are better trained in cooking and cleaning, and reliable birth control has eliminated the potential stigma of out-of-wedlock children.
Additionally, Coontz said, we have higher expectations for marriage.
"Marriage is obsolete as an institution you have to enter and stay in no matter how far it falls below your expectation," Coontz said. "And our expectation for the relationship of marriage has never been higher."
Still, she says the cautious attitude toward marriage is actually well based. Recent data released by the Council on Contemporary Families show that each year an educated women delays marriage, her risk of divorce goes down.
Yet most young, college-educated newlyweds are not worried. They say they have found a soul mate, even if it was sooner than expected — and sometimes before they could legally rent a car.
"My wedding was the first wedding I’d been to!" Hill said. She never imagined herself getting married before her 30s, she said — but was happily surprised to find her husband when she did.
"Many of my friends are single by choice and are focusing on school and their future careers now, not on finding a soul mate," she said. "I would be, too, if Jake hadn’t pretty much fallen into my lap freshman year."
So for now, when strangers question their decision to tie the knot, young couples smile and politely explain that it was meant to be.
"I think that they’re shocked because they can’t see themselves marrying at this age," said Mirenzi. "But I try not to take it too personally."
She added, "I feel like I only added good things to my life, and I’m not really losing out on anything."