Fairy-Tale Weddings and the Decline of Marriage

So marriage is less popular than it was 50 years ago (this may not be terribly surprising but which I am going to back up with SCIENCE): a study by the Pew Research Center (my new favorite thing) revealed that while in 1960 72% of adults were married, only 51% were in 2010. The median age of first marriages also went up like 6 years – 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women; up from 22.8 and 20.3 (respectively) in 1960.

A lot of comments on these statistics revolve around the idea that marriage is being taken less seriously, which certainly has merit: the rising divorce rate makes divorce a less socially discouraged decision and therefore diminishes the permanent sense of the commitment taken. Also, varied living options and mobile societies make the legal ramifications of marriage more public; no longer a church ceremony involving the boy down the street and a community event, marriage is for many people predominately about tax laws and the legal status, not the community proclamation.

And yeah, those things are probably true. But I suggest that there might be another factor: that, as much as marriage is becoming unimportant socially, we are taking weddings way too seriously psychologically.

For the Millenials (born between 1980 and 2000), weddings were presented to us as the Happy Ending to stories. Marriage was the denoument – the end-all-be-all – the MacGuffin. Disney movies, early romantic comedies, books, and plays all dramatize the beginning of a relationship – before commitment, when things are exciting (right?) – and a wedding at the end serves as the success. The idea of a princess wedding fascinated females (I wasn’t/am not by any means a very girly girl, for example, and even I can remember slumber party discussions of wedding colors, flower selections, and first-dance-song-choices) of our entire generation.

source: madameguillotine.comThis may have had something to with Princess Di’s wedding – or at least, that wedding didn’t hinder the fairy tale story by any rate. Kate and William’s wedding will serve a similar (if possibly less dramatic) purpose for the continuation of the happy-ending weddings portrayed in fiction.

So we, in a weird, way, take marriage way too seriously – idealistically. We fetishize it. It has to be Perfect – and so we have modest weddings costing about $10,000 and shows like Bridezillas, a half-and-half(ish) divorce rate, and the married adult population decreasing by about a third in 50 years. Fairy-tale representations of weddings may be part of the cause of marriage’s approachingly fictional status.

This increase in expectations in our generation might also affect the increase in marriage age – the tendency among young adults now is to become established (don’t get married before you own your own home!) and stable before marriage, instead of going through that scarier economic climb with your spouse. The wedding has to be perfect, and so does the relationship and your economic status – and so we wait.

Is this a bad thing? After all, 44% of Millenials think that marriage is becoming an obsolete institution. Cohabitation is increasingly popular. One possible trouble might lie in the instability of couples leading to more single, economically depressed parents, raising children and working on their own: quite the contrast to the fairy-tale weddings we grew up hearing about.

7 responses to “Fairy-Tale Weddings and the Decline of Marriage

  1. I can’t help but think of commentator Michael Medved, who routinely dismantles the narrative of marriage decline. That a smaller percentage of adults are married in 2010 only reflects the fact that people wait longer. If we could track those in the 21% gap between 1960 and 2010, we might find they are 20-somethings, the majority of whom plan to marry later in life. Medved has also cited data that a majority of people who are unmarried have expressed a desire to be married.

    • CD,
      That’s an excellent statistical point, and there is a huge gap when you narrow the age range in the 1960/2010 comparison – 59% of 18- to 29-year-olds were married in 1960, while only 20% were in 2010.

      However, I think that this is not merely the statistically dismissable result of later marriage ages. Less 18- to 29-year-old Millennials *who have had children* are married than Gen Xers who had children were when they were the same age. 51% of Millennials 18-29 have had a child out of wedlock, while only 39% of Gen Xers had a child while out of wedlock between 18 and 29.

      Most importantly, the attitude about marriage is changing among the Millennial generation. We’ll see if this attitude continues as we age, but I suspect that the attitudes towards marriage and decreasing marriage rates now will alter the patterns and systems of society.

      I get my stats here: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/03/09/for-millennials-parenthood-trumps-marriage/#i-overview

  2. I think your proposal about our socialization by media stories growing up is fascinating. More, I think it’s a good point. I also find it interesting to note that this story trend might be changing in some places: Pixar movies almost never end with a marriage, and the recently concluded tv series Chuck ended not with the beginning of a marriage, but with a decision to stick with marriage after a great deal of hardship.

    As someone who hopes to contribute to the cultural dialogue of stories, observing possible adverse (or at least adverse from my perspective) effects of certain stories is educational.

  3. Pingback: The Happy Ending Fetish | thebitchybride

  4. I’m thirty eight years old and I’m currently engaged. I agree with some points, but disagree with others. I wanted to get married when I was younger, but didn’t find the right person, or timing, until now. Not every generation-Xes wants to stay single and party like a sorority girl or fraternity boy forever. It doesn’t matter what generation you are in, you have to remember that life isn’t perfect and having an entitlement attitude isn’t going to get you anywhere. I learned a long time ago that life doesn’t owe anyone anything, you have to work hard to get what you want.

  5. Tricia,
    I’m pretty young but I think that you are absolutely right about the uselessness of an attitude of entitlement. I suspect that such an attitude might be at the core of the breakdown of all sorts of relationships.

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