Who Needs Marriage?
"Who needs marriage?" screamed a scary headline in two-inch red letters on the cover of a TIME magazine a few years back, a question that is often being asked today, particularly by Millennials.
One of my college students at American University recently wrote an essay titled "The Predicament of Marriage," in which she stated the following: "The pressure to find a partner, get married and have children seems absurd and archaic, because we are not in the 1950s anymore."
My husband and I recently celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary, and I shared with this student that while I may have felt like she feels at the age of 20, at 61, here is my take on the ancient institution: "Marriage is a good thing. And you just may feel the same way someday."
Well past the 1950s, close to 90 percent of Americans still get married at some point in their lifetimes. Despite a divorce rate among first marriages that has dipped to 43 percent from the 50 percent figure that held steady for 30 years, the children and grandchildren of feminists who fought against male tyranny and "archaic" institutions like matrimony are still saying "I do" in big dresses in front of big crowds, harboring big dreams of children and lasting love.
Who doesn't love a beautiful wedding? Two months ago, I witnessed the hope and joy in the eyes of my niece Marissa and her groom Jared, both in their early 30s. They were married at dusk on a beach in Coronado, California.
As they exchanged vows, a shard of light broke through the clouds as the sun was setting, a spiritual nod of approval from the universe as they were enveloped by family and friends. Marissa wore a long white dress of silk and lace, and her mother's wedding veil, just as brides have done for decades before their own walks down the aisles.
Girdles and stiff bouffant hairdos have thankfully gone out of style, yet some things will never go out of style -- most importantly, the belief that love can last. Many of us baby boomers honor what lies at the core of marriage, the hope that the initial attraction that led to love that led to marriage will endure. We honor the power of tradition and family, and are willing to do the hard work necessary to rack up anniversaries.
We honor what couples have desired for centuries -- to love and be loved, by the right person, forevermore.
While surrogacy and sperm donation can produce an instant family without a partner or pomp, joining with another, officially and ceremoniously, remains a popular achievement in the human growth cycle. Some 2.5 million weddings take place in the United States every year, accounting for a wedding industry that drums up more than $72 billion annually. Even marriage skeptics become giddy and enthralled when the stars and royalty take the plunge.
Along with the tens of millions of viewers who caught the spectacle on TV, the wedding of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine Middleton that took place on April 29, 2011 at Westminster Abbey received 72 million live streams on YouTube. We are endlessly enthralled by love and lovers, their drama and upheavals and ensuing passion, from Antony and Cleopatra to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
I interviewed Millie Martini, then the executive editor of Brides Magazine, when I was working on my book "The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married." Her response to the question, "Why get married?" echoed the answer I get when I interviewed couples who had been married 40-plus years.
"People still love the idea of being committed to somebody who has your back in life, because life is tough, and it throws curves at you," Martini said. "Most people have a fundamental desire to be connected to someone else who can navigate those highs and lows with you, someone to grow up and grow old with you.
"What has changed is that people now know that a good marriage takes work ... it does take patience, and most of all, it takes a willingness to weather tough times," Martini continued. "Today's generation of brides have lived through watching their parents divorcing, and they know firsthand that divorce doesn't solve every problem either. They know that just because you get tired of one another and leave you are not guaranteed a life that is richer and better."
Another important shift in marriage trends is that those young optimists who are planning weddings are generally college-educated, more affluent and older than generations past. The average age of a first-time bride today is close to 28 and grooms are nearing 30, and they usually both hold jobs and have independent bank accounts.
This is a key reason the divorce rate has dropped. Couples are marrying older, smarter and richer -- and not right out of college when they are struggling with professional identities and falling for the fantasy that marriage is a path to instant happiness. Increasingly the brides and grooms now pay for their own weddings, which in the United States run on the average some $27,000 -- this high cost even before the honeymoon.
Feminist pioneer Germaine Greer compared marriage to being in shackles in jail. I believe a long marriage in which both partners have independent and fulfilling lives actually gives men and women the freedom to become whomever he or she wants to be. To accomplish this goal of staying married and liberated, you need the following: Tenacity, grown children, work and/or hobbies you are passionate about, a tight circle of friends and a flexible partner. (Wine helps, too.)
It's a dangerous fantasy to think marriage is the ticket to happily-ever-after. Expecting perfection in a marriage or a mate is a fast ticket to divorce. The happiest partners have a clear sense of purpose and passion outside of their relationships. Marital bliss is possible if each partner is fulfilled without the other. Then, together they have a chance of forever.
Iris Krasnow is a popular keynote speaker, a professor at American University and a bestselling author of books on relationships, described on iriskrasnow.com.