There was Big! Marriage! News! over the weekend — actress Anne Hathaway got married (and evidently “all we’ve been able to talk about today” is her look) and the New York Times took a crack at marriage contracts (which, as you may know, is among the ideas Susan Pease Gadoua and I are presenting in our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers). (Susan will be talking about marriage contracts on Huffington Post Live tomorrow at 1:30 PST, so please do check it out.)
NYT writer Matt Richtel pondered the “fantasy” of marriage (fantasy? haven’t we all been told marriage is work — and I plan to write about that very soon) and asked a number of experts if a marriage contract — which something more than a few have speculated was involved in the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage — would save marriage.
Among the experts Richtel spoke with was Virginia Rutter, an associate professor of sociology at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, who suggested that perhaps our obsession with weddings is hyping up our expectations of marriage itself. She will have none of it.
“Ban all performative weddings, ban all crazy expenditures. Ban the marriage pages in the New York Times. Ban those things that turn otherwise sensible people to start buying into that fantasy.”
But, can it really be that bridezillas and groomzillas (yes, I believe over-the-top-wedding expectations is genderless) are ruining the institution, fueling the romanticism of marriage? Is Kim Kardashian’s multimillion wedding and 72-day marriage just a gross exaggeration of what many are already doing — getting caught up in the hoopla of the Big Day while forgetting that there are a lot of days — make that decades if we’re talking about not parting until death — that follow? Is our celebrity-driven, narcissistic, wedding-obsessed society the reason why the divorce rate hovers around 50 percent?
Not so fast — remember, I’ve been divorced twice so I have a few thoughts about that.
I was not the kind of girl who dreamed about her wedding day. Oh, I always assumed I’d get married (and perhaps that was a bit cocky of me), but I didn’t fantasize over the Big Day.
Both my weddings were so low-key they were what we might now call Slow Weddings — a handful of friends gathered as we (he in overalls I’d embroidered, me in a beaded and feathered faux suede dress and Frye boots) exchanged vows in the Rocky Mountains (dodging snow storms the day before and after) for wedding No. 1; or wedding No. 2, in which two friends joined us under a giant balboa tree in San Diego’s Balboa Park (he in khakis and me in a white lacy off-the-rack summer dress I already owned).
I didn’t have a lot of expectations one way or the other about marriage (and obviously about weddings); still I didn’t expect I’d be divorced at 40-something after 14 years of marriage and trying to co-parent two youngish kids, either. But it happened, and I moved on. Did I, too, buy into the happily-ever-after, marriage as fantasy ideal?
Not quite, but, yes, I didn’t expect my marriage to end. If you asked me if my former hubby and I would still be married today, after 24 years, if the bad stuff didn’t happen, I would probably say, “Yes” — but, really, who knows?
I don’t think that elaborate weddings are setting up marriage to be some sort of fantasy. Many cultures have made the wedding day — or, often days — a huge event. India, China, Malaysia, Morocco — over-the-top weddings occur all over the world. So we can’t really blame “performative weddings” and “crazy expenditures” and being written about in the NYT’s Vows section as leading to unrealistic expectations of marriage.
But believing marriage will last forever seems to be something many of us idealize but are unable to live up to. Now what?
Richtel is admittedly “unnerved” by how many of the experts he spoke with believe we must rethink marriage. As he writes:
Rutter is talking about … (e)liminating the fantasy of marriage, or curtailing it sharply. On its face, it does sound like the most obvious side effect of acknowledging the reality that marriages often fail. But as I followed the logic, I found myself not wanting to.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve internalized some inherent value of marriage. Or if it’s simply because I fear that my own marriage would end if I, or, worse yet, my wife gave up the fantasy. There is too much good at stake.
Richtel unfortunately brings up the “f” word — “marriages often fail.” No, marriages end, by divorce or death, and that isn’t failure). But it’s clear he’s romanticising marriage, including his own, as many of us evidently are. “I found myself not wanting to” is well, foolish given the reality. Believing that marriage has inherent value isn’t wrong or a fantasy. Can’t we value something and still tweak it to make it work for us? Wouldn’t that be the way to make marriages last?
And we want marriages to last — some 86 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, single and married, expect their marriage to last a lifetime, according to a recent study, despite a 50 percent divorce rate and despite a different study of newlywed women in which half said they expected infidelity would be part of their marriage and 72 percent said they’d probably experience divorce.
Perhaps those newlywed women aren’t romanticising marriage, but expecting divorce and infidelity isn’t a healthy way to enter marriage! If we had new marital models, like contracts, we’d still get the longevity we seek in our marriage (whatever length the couple decides) without the stigma of a “failed marriage” when the contract ends (assuming the couple chooses not to renew). Now, that’s valuing marriage.
- Do you think we should stop romanticising marriage?