Friday, May 11, 2007

Marriage in the 21st Century

Extravagance. Cake. Tulle. Expensive dresses. Toasts. Dancing. These are just some of the things Americans associate with weddings and marriage, as can be seen in hundreds of Bridal magazines or a quick survey of Flickr or YouTube. Weddings can be serious or silly, casual or formal, but whatever the type, this ceremony tends to be a big crowd-pleaser whether seen on TV, on the big screen, or in RL.

But trying to determine what marriage means after all the guests have gone home is harder to determine. With my 3rd wedding anniversary coming up on the 15th, my sister's impending marriage in June, and the recent engagement of two of my peers, marriage has been on my mind a lot lately. While some people (mostly women in my experience) still view marriage as a life goal, many others in my generation tend to regard it as an outmoded institution that does more harm than good. In fact, this second p.o.v. is overwhelmingly what one tends to expect from the average unwed 20-30 y/o. Couplehood no longer needs the validation of marriage to be considered a permanent state of being for two devoted people. And yet marriages still take place all the time -- even for people who previously professed disdain for the institution (including myself) -- and those who are currently without the right to wed are lobbying fiercely for it. So why all the fuss? What does marriage mean for us today?

A Brief History of Love and Marriage
M.D. and sociologist Leonard Shlain puts forth the captivating argument that love developed in the prehistory of mankind as a natural evolutionary process that was put in motion when we stood on our hind legs and started growing massive brains. The purpose of this bond was to cause a man to willingly provide sustenance for his mate and their children. The institution of marriage also grew out of this phenomenon, as man became increasingly more conscious of the interconnectedness of death, posterity, and heirs. For the most part, marriage was a social contract enacted to ensure a woman was faithful (so men could know her children were really his), and it was also a socio-economic tool for generating wealth and making valuable connections.

People did not become self-aware about the power of love until the Middle Ages, when troubadours spread the message of its expressions and (usually harmful) effects throughout Europe. Courtly love was the product of the troubadours, a movement in which love and marriage were not compatible. This idea is evidenced in stories like those of Tristan & Iseult, Abelard & Heloise, and Troilus & Criseyde.
For a long time it was widely believed that love was more trouble than it was worth.

Love in marriage or love as the primary motivation for marriage was an unwelcome idea thrust into society by the Romantics* and ever since it has stood alongside the other reasons for marriage: economic security, connections, childbearing, companionship, etc. Many couples live together now without feeling the need to marry, and many who do marry still express their discomfort with marriage as a social institution, in general. This dichotomy of the simultaneous desire for and aversion to marriage was brilliantly expressed by one of my favorite TV shows: The Gilmore Girls (more on this at a later date):
Honor: "All of a sudden, the idea of marriage seems totally archaic and insane! Legally binding one woman with one man until they die? It's perverse! Why on earth do people do this - why am I doing this?"

Walker: "Oh! Freak-out!"

Gwen: "You love Josh, remember?"

Honor: "Oh, yeah. Josh. Okay. Okay, freak-out over!"

Love Conquers All?
So with all of the issues that come along with marriage, why do people still enter into this ancient
contract? I honestly still react with shock and dismay whenever I hear of another engagement taking place in my social group (I know this makes no sense). From personal experience, all I can say is that my hubby and I reached a certain point where we felt we'd be together forever, with or without a ceremony. However, we chose to take this step because we wanted the rest of the world to acknowledge the seriousness of our commitment. Plus, it meant more financial aid for me since I was still in college (I'm so not kidding about this incentive!).

What do you think? Why did you or your friends or anyone else you are opinionated about get hitched? Why is this something that some people want so badly? And what does marriage mean for us now? I really want to know!

*Controversial statement!

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