Saying “I Do” In Unison: Taking College ‘Marriage’ Too Far

Molly Bolding 17 July 2019
L-R: Tom Hibbs, Ciara Watkins, William Catlow, the author, Zoe Maple, Nissim Chekroun. Image Credit: Ralph Jordan

‘College marriage’ is yet another of the wonderfully quirky features of the Cambridge experience; utterly ridiculous and yet somehow mostly effective as a means for students to seek advice and guidance from their peers. Molly Bolding explores her own experience of college marriage, featuring the words of Ciara Watkins and Zoe Maple.

There are a broad range of support networks available to students at Cambridge, but in the last year there has been a substantial amount of criticism aimed at their formal counterparts: the University Counselling Service, the sexual harassment reporting framework, and the lack of response from the University on the reality of the impact on students of the announcement of the slavery profit study. It is natural that this specific scrutiny should lead to a more rounded examination of the deployment of pastoral networks at Cambridge and their efficacy in supporting student well-being and mental health. After meeting several dozen American college students over the summer, comparing and contrasting their ‘Greek Life’ to our quintessentially British one led to some very enlightening conversations about how best to serve pastoral support to an increasingly broad and varied student body.

“I would say that [college marriage] has the potential to be negative, as it could make people feel isolated if they don’t have spouses, but there’s always the option of single parents…and you can opt in or out,  as everyone is given parents and siblings regardless…[so] it feels less selective than the Greek system…”

Ciara Watkins

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with Cambridge matrimonial support system, a quick overview: choose a friend you get on well with, ‘propose’ to them and ‘marry’ in Easter term, and wait for the new year of freshers to arrive at college so you can be assigned ‘children’ to mentor through the joys and fears of the first year or so of a Cambridge degree. In a nod to the nuclear family, it is usually two ‘children’, though sometimes more; ideally, one ‘child’ will share your degree subject and the other, your partner’s.

Family formal! The author is centre. Image Credit: Molly Bolding

The basic idea is that every new student at Cambridge will have someone in their year who they will be introduced to immediately, and someone in the year above in the same subject as them who has some experience with the system and faculty already. There are some expected duties on the parents, such as introductory family formal, but the rest is entirely up to the students to do as much or as little as they desire. Giving Christmas and birthday cards, leaving chocolate in their pigeon-holes in Week 5 and other gestures are encouraged! Some parents and children stay close throughout their respective degrees – I heard someone describing regular coffees with her college mum as “supervisions on life” – whereas others take a more hands-off approach.

My friends and I wholeheartedly embraced college ‘marriage’, with an enthusiasm that had to be seen to be fully appreciated. What started as a series of increasingly silly conversations about Christian nuptial conventions turned into an joint engagement dinner and photoshoot on a moonlit bridge, complete with plastic ‘goodie bag’ rings; a full-blown wedding ceremony with wedding dresses, black tie, rings and vows in the college gardens with the rest of the year group; and reached its natural conclusion with another round of pictures in the chapel before being immortalised in a set of photo albums. In short, we took it way too far.

As with any unnecessary extravagance, there was a lot of justification after the fact. Myself and the other ‘brides’ had had many personal conversations in the lead up to the event about the reality of marriage as an societal expectation on us as women, and how that idea didn’t sit comfortably with any of us. From our position of relative privilege when it comes to the marriage stakes, we were still exceptionally conscious that that was probably a step that we would be expected to take at some point in the future. As a result, this mock wedding took on a whole new level of significance for us: a kind of metaphorical and marital ‘pick-and-mix’, to be able to do all the fun bits while avoiding their historical and cultural weight – at least for now – and thus, the veils, bouquets, rings and roses.

“I really enjoyed the experience of planning and being part of a ‘cliché’ wedding – it was a surreal experience! The ‘family’ system at Cambridge is a great support system; one in which people either go all out or not at all. I feel like I am part of a multi-national ‘family’, with aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters all around the world…”

Ciara Watkins

Of course, not everyone approached it with such a philosophical motivation, but certainly for us it served as a satirical counterweight which allowed us to enjoy the rituals we had been observing around us since we were children at family weddings. The idea of the follow-up photo albums was borne out of an entertaining conversation with my mother, for whom they have become a tribute to the traditional wedding that I am unlikely ever to have.

 

More importantly, however, these ‘marriages’ form the foundation of a welfare system that connects dozens of ‘generations’ of Cambridge students. My college ‘mother’, ‘father’ and ‘grandmother’, were really supportive during my first few weeks at the university, and it was really important for me to have access to someone with a student’s experience of the English course and a genuine willingness to provide honest advice and guidance. I am excited to be a ‘mother’ to new Cambridge students too – in a way that I have never been about the thought of having real-life kids.

“The college wedding is one of the many things that makes Cambridge the quirky, ridiculous yet loveable place that it is. I think it’s great that we get to do something which is simultaneously light-hearted and silly – with a number of people attending the ‘service’ wearing wonderfully over-the-top or gender-swaped attire to listen to our college chaplain deliver a parody of traditional wedding vows – but which also provides a genuinely significant support base for new students in the form of the college family system…”

Zoe Maple

Not everyone has the good fortune of such wonderful college friends and ‘family’; as with any system that is solely reliant on student engagement, it’s not perfect or wholly self-perpetuating. Indeed, neither is it without fault. Besides the sticky business of college ‘spouses’ getting a little too close for platonic comfort (the rumour mill is rife with these stories each year), there is also the issue of college ‘divorce’. Just as with the reality of parenting actual children, the responsibility of maintaining a functioning partnership with the best interests of the ‘kids’ at heart can put too much strain on some friendships. There is also the perhaps ideologically uncomfortable notion that this system perpetuates both a cisheteronormative perspective on adult relationships and an overwhelming Anglo-Christianised one. These issues can’t and shouldn’t be avoided, and form a large part of my personal reluctance to engage in the idea of real matrimony. There are of course same-sex ‘couples’ within the system, and others who gender-swapped clothes for the ceremony, but again there is an understandable fear that this may contribute to the trivialisation of the very real issues that are still faced by many members of the LGBTQ+ community at the University and beyond. For us, much of the importance of this somewhat satirical ‘wedding’ was borne out of the idea that embodying these traditions would give us the opportunity to experience them and examine them in the emotional context of the event.

 

 

That said, the majority of students seem to have an overwhelming positive experience with a system such as this that celebrates meaningful friendships and interpersonal relationships. I love being college ‘married’ – both as a symbol of my acceptance into the intricacies of Cambridge life and as one of a connection to a close friend – but also because introducing my ‘husband’ is a fun prank to play on unsuspecting acquaintances.

“Having a couple of second years looking out for you as a fresher was very welcoming and helpful, and it was lovely to see such a level of enthusiasm at the wedding as this year’s ‘newly-weds’ prepared to pass on the same support and advice to their college children next year…”

Zoe Maple

What is your experience of college ‘marriage’? Did you get an elaborate proposal, or are you planning a single-parent college ‘family’? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk, with the subject line “Letter to the Editor”!