published Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Kennedy: Not too young to marry

Fifty years ago, it was normal -- no, expected -- for people to get married by their early 20s.

In 1962, for example, the average age for first marriages was 22 for American men and 20 for women, according to the U.S. Census.

Now, people who get married before age 25 are statistical outliers. In 2011, the average age for American men to get married for the first time was nearly 29. For women, it was 26.

Now, let's pivot from raw numbers to real people.

Kendra Stickford, 21, and Andrew Donahoo, 22, of Chattanooga, are engaged to be married in October. They are aware that some people think they're too young. They know this because those people are eager to tell them. (Tellingly, close family members think it's great.)

"I've had people tell me that your brain doesn't even stop growing until you're 25," said Kendra.

For the record, both Kendra and Andrew are big-brained people. Kendra is a communications major at UTC who has an internship in the human-resources department at Volkswagen. Andrew, who attended McCallie School, is a chemical-engineering major at UTC who earned an internship at TVA.

I'm no marriage counselor, but after listening to these two levelheaded young people talk about their relationship for over an hour, I'm convinced that when it comes to getting engaged they have done their due diligence.

Their nearly five-year relationship got off to a silly start. They were introduced by a tipsy older woman who decided to play matchmaker at the Riverbend Festival in the summer of 2007. She apparently thought it would be fun to introduce two reluctant teenagers, one from McCallie and one from Boyd-Buchanan School, and watch them squirm.

"She told me, 'Andrew drives a Land Rover,''' remembers Kendra. "I was thinking, 'What the heck is a Land Rover? I don't want to talk to this guy."

But soon, the nervous conversation gave way to an exchange of phone numbers and the obligatory volley of text messages.

"She was really fun," Andrew remembers thinking. "It was clear we had matching personalities."

"Andrew was my first boyfriend, my first love," says Kendra.

The next year, when Andrew left Chattanooga to attend UT-Knoxville and Kendra finished her senior year in high school, he broke off the relationship.

Kendra was crushed.

"I was like a lost puppy," she says now. "I thought about him all day, every day."

One of their problems, they both say now, was a different viewpoint on matters of faith. Kendra grew up in the Church of Christ, and Andrew didn't attend church regularly as a child.

"I had different views," Andrew says now. "I was very immature."

Later, when they decided to get back together, the faith issue was always the elephant in the room.

Even when Andrew announced after a couple of years that he wanted to move back to Chattanooga and finish his degree at UTC, Kendra still had one matter to settle. She knew that they could never plan a future without a shared faith.

Andrew remembers that one day Kendra announced, "Either you are going to go to church with me today, Andrew, or we are going to break up."

She explains now, "I knew he was The One. And I didn't want to lose him. But I knew that if he wasn't going to have a spiritual part to our relationship, we wouldn't make it."

Andrew agreed to visit church and even began to soften his views on Christianity. Interestingly, it wasn't the theology that grabbed him first but the shining faces of the people at Clear Creek Church of Christ in Hixson.

"Everybody seemed happy and fulfilled," he said. "I realized that was what I was missing."

Late last year, Andrew said, he decided to be baptized as a Christian and to fully embrace his newfound faith.

Then, the two did something that I find astoundingly mature. They pinpointed a young married couple that they both admired and asked them to be their mentors. One night, they met the couple at a Panera Bread restaurant to chat.

"It was like looking in the mirror and seeing our future selves," says Kendra.

Two nights before Christmas, Andrew pulled over his car near a hang-gliding launch on Lookout Mountain, knelt on one knee and handed Kendra an engagement ring.

"We know it's going to be hard," Kendra says.

"I know I'm always going to love her," Andrew says.

Statistically, modern marriage is a coin flip. So, you call it.

I already know what I think.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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