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.
This 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.