As I’m in the midst of my Master’s Program in Marriage and Family Therapy at USC, we took a course on Lifespan Development this past fall. Naturally one of the stages in life includes coupling, marriage, children,
conscious uncoupling–a whole process essentially. I’m fascinated by all of it and as a girl that does in fact have a Pinterest board dedicated to my someday wedding (no shame), I thought I should take time to delve into what a wedding really represents and look at the meatier and more meaningful component of all the tomfoolery: the marriage itself. Here’s what I found…
While it may be true that adults need to place more value on marriage, people are still placing ample worth on the wedding. With TLC’s “Friday Bride Day” and hopeful someday-brides posting a litany of wedding inspiration via Pinterest, the media has glamorized the fairytale wedding. It all begins when women reach the ripe old age of toddlerhood and watch Disney princesses marry men that they have known during a week-long courtship; it was not until the recent Frozen challenged this notion of shotgun engagements. In reality, while the bride is adored, the wedded woman is forgotten. The maiden becomes the matron and eyes turn to the next lovely betrothed, only to forget her the next day. With so much societal obsession over the wedding, we are forgetting to mention what marriage is all about in the first place.
We cannot be surprised when these partnerships struggle because we failed to educate couples in the first place. We did a fantastic job teaching women how to pluck, tease, and shape themselves into picturesque brides. But are we teaching couples how to be compassionate after an argument, cook a meal, and stay committed after ten years of marriage? Not quite—we did not think that far ahead. With this glaring lack of knowledge about one of the most common institutions in America, couples know more about their color scheme for the wedding than they do about buying and building a home with together. While the Millennial Generation is the most educated population, newly married couples are often entering their unions with blindfolds on.
The need for soft-glow, idyllic romance still permeates our culture. Millennials yearn for what is coined the “romantic love model” where love is eternal and romance is always in the season of spring. However, they are also aware of “confluent love,” which offers a more candid depiction of independence and authenticity in a relationship (Hull, Meier, & Ortyl, 2010). Ideally, a healthy marriage combines both types of love. Weddings tend to promote the romantic love model and if left unchecked, the wedding can be the beginning of romance gone awry.
With the romantic love model, young adults want to preserve a devoted partnership that conveniently offers societal approbation. When overdone, romantic love can be showcased in glamorized weddings and this can put more pressure than blessing on a couple because they feel they must maintain the storybook image portrayed on their wedding day. However, while some may see this model as archaic and even anti-feminist, this view of love may be what gives some couples a fighting chance. It offers them an overarching confidence in their union that may be necessary in dire times. In fact, blissful couples demonstrate an enhancement bias where they see their spouse and their relationship in an exaggeratedly positive light so that they do not feel threatened by neighboring relationships (Murray, Holmes, Dolderman, & Griffin, 2000).
The wedding industry is a full-blown enterprise that has sprinkled fairy dust on little girl’s locks and they continue to send messages that ultimate happiness cannot be had until one is engaged. With all this frivolity, are we remembering why the wedding is occurring in the first place? Of course a wedding should be a celebration but pegging your nuptials as the “happiest day of your life” often inevitably leaves the couple with a sense of dissatisfaction. If your happiest day is already behind you, what is there to look forward to in the marriage?
These messages about love, weddings, and marriage have been circulating for a long time. The Baby Boomer generation was at the peak of the divorce rate in 1980 and this may have been due to the Greatest Generation’s lack of forwardness about the challenges of marriage (W. Bradford Wilcox et al., 2011). Also, Millennials may not want to listen to any proffered advice because they are so caught up in this white veiled fantasy. In a world where constant excitement is needed, a Monday marriage might sound quite boring to young adults. The media is also responsible as it influences how people view relationships both personally and generally. With this history, I will discuss why the wedding is important and how it can benefit a marriage; however, I will also look at how obsessing over the nuptials instead of the years after being newlyweds is detrimental to a couple’s wellbeing.
First, let us take a look at what kinds of weddings lead to the most successful marriages. Contrary to the average cost of a wedding at over $28,000 (about 60% of the annual median household income), Andrew M. Francis and Hugo M. Mialon found this year that the less expensive the wedding and engagement ring, the less likely the nuptials will end in divorce. That is not to say that a couple should not celebrate—but comparing yourself to George Clooney’s recent wedding that cost over $13 million will not help average brides in their planning (Wall Street Journal, 2014). And while many couples rather cut the amount of guests than their budget, Francis and Mialon says to do the exact opposite: the happiest couples have a big guest list with a low budget on their big day. Yet ultimately, the priorities do not always align and some couples even go into debt because of their wedding. How does that fare for a down payment on a house?
Elizabeth Freeman describes it as the “Wedding Complex” where women marry to showcase social status, religious faith, and/or material worth to family and friends (Freeman, 2003). Perhaps women more than men need to listen to their instincts before they say, “I do.” One study at UCLA found that brides who had doubt before their wedding were two and a half times more likely to become divorced. While men were in fact more likely to have doubts, it is the bride’s nervousness that is a stronger predictor, even when controlling for relational satisfaction, parental divorce, and cohabitation (Lavner, Karney, & Bradbury, 2012). In particular, researchers from Boston University found that women who come from broken homes tend to enter marriage with lower commitment and confidence in the relationship, perhaps contributing to the previously mentioned effect of doubt (Rhodes, Stanley, & Markman, 2008). So with this mounting fear, how can we give Millennials confidence in their partnerships?
Premarital counseling may be a good starting place. Carroll and Doherty found in 2004 that couples that participated in this form of therapy had a more fulfilling relationship than 80% of the couples that did not engage in a premarital program. While this study was limiting in that it analyzed only short-term relational satisfaction rather than long-term quality of marriage, premarital therapy may still be a helpful opportunity. Challenging conversations may be avoided without mediation and counseling offers the chance for pairs to safely discuss concerns. If brides and grooms do not adequately prepare for the marriage because they are so busy planning the wedding, they may not be ready for a potential onset of depression. Many couples, particularly brides, feel dismay after their big day because the attention, excitement, and preparation are over within 24 hours (Prisco, 2014). This can contribute to the first year of marriage being the most difficult as couples go from such an extreme high to a more realistic day-to-day lifestyle.
Many couples see love as a fairytale and forget about the toilet bowl cleaning or the dirty socks. It is not surprising when some brides literally show up in horse drawn carriages donning the tiara and princess ball gown to match. These brides who have a “storybook fantasy” lay theory see their relationship as fixed where romance and passion are the most important components (Rusbult, Martz & Agnew, 1998). However, based on Sternberg’s Triangle Types of Love, passion is the shortest lived and without commitment and intimacy, it will be difficult for a relationship to thrive (1986). Instead, the key is that partners believe the relationship can grow over time; thus, they see the wedding as a meaningful event in the history of their relationship but not as the apex (Knee, 1998). Therefore, it might do well for princess brides to let go of destiny and instead grasp the realistic idea that every relationship will have incompatibilities.
Millennials may be at a disadvantage because they have been indoctrinated with dreamy romances like Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid before they could speak. This may set such high expectations for their partner that no mate could ever fulfill. The Ideal Standards Model suggests that the greater the discrepancy between the “perfect” mate and the “actual mate,” the more unhappy the relationship will be (Fletcher, Simpson, & Thomas, 2000). That is not to say that partners should settle: securely attached individuals tend to have higher standards for their relationships; however they can also resolve conflict more effectively (Kobak & Hazan, 1991). The key is striking the right balance between optimism and reality.
Yet with the risks, marriage is worth fighting for and the benefits are well known. Mental and physical health improves for men and women and the lifespan increases (Science Daily, 2011). 90% of people say they want to be married and the trend of marrying at a later age, at about 27 for women and 30 for men, may signal that both are taking the commitment more seriously (Thorton and Young-DeMarco, 2004), (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). This delay may especially serve college-educated women who make a substantial increase in their income when marrying after age 20 (Barkhorn, 2013). So while marriage is an ideal goal that most people want to fulfill, it is beneficial to carefully time a union to align with professional and personal goals.
Now I realize the euphoric bliss that couples display on their wedding day is bound to fade with time. Marital satisfaction naturally declines with every year (VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001). However, I think if we committed to our marriages as much as we do the wedding, we would likely see an increase in marital satisfaction. We should do our best to ensure that each spouse wants to continually say, “yes” by building vital marriages. This includes displays of compassion, tenderness, listening thoughtfully, and clearly communicating about internal and external problems (Newman and Newman, 2014).
At 23 years old, the idea of marriage is so many things to me. It is exciting, thrilling, nerve-wracking, and comforting all at once. It is exciting because I will be able to start my life with the person I love more than anything. My boyfriend, Greg, is both outstanding as an individual and as a life partner. However, it is also scary because I feel unprepared. Marriage seems to be one of the best-kept secrets that mothers do not always tell their daughters about. Sure, as children we overhear conversations and witness interactions between our parents, but there is so much we do not know. I would like to rely on more than self-help books to get me through but as for now my mom has kept mum about much of marriage.
Even though I have had plenty of that pixie dust sprinkled on me, I plan on entering marriage with a deep commitment that will not be shaken. I know I will not always feel deeply in love—in fact, there will be times when I will feel very angry, frustrated, or disappointed. Just as he will feel with me at times. I also know there will be setbacks in our lives that we will have to face that are unexpected now but will present themselves in due time. However, I know that we will endure. I know this to be true because I have the most amazing partner who communicates so well and with such calmness and patience. It is one of the things that I love most about him.
Part of the reason why I wrote this post was to understand my own fascination with weddings. For as long as I can remember, I have been the little girl “air kissing” imaginary princes and listening to love songs. My friends laugh at my romanticism and even I poke fun at myself but there is no doubt, I am a romantic. Truthfully, fantasizing about my wedding and imagining the minutia from the dinner entrée to the first dance has brought me much joy. Yet as this day draws closer, I have realized the grandiosity and impracticality of my thought process.
A wedding is one day. But that is not what the celebration is about. I want to be excited for the marriage: for the Saturday mornings, learning to cook together, and for all the Mondays in between. I used to think I wanted a lavish wedding. Okay, I still do. But more than that, I want a blissful life with the one I love. I do not think I will ever stop loving weddings. Seeing a couple so happy together, surrounded by loved ones is not a bad thing. But I have shifted my focus. This is about a partnership that I plan on keeping forever and obsessing over a short day would make for a shallow marriage. I want a deep marriage filled to the brim with laughter, thoughtful conversation, and consummate love.
I would love working with couples that are looking toward engagement. I know for my own relationship, premarital counseling is mandatory. I think every couple needs to address serious issues and the sooner the better. Topics like whether or not to have children, how spirituality may or may not be a component, and let us not forget about how the holidays will go down with the in-laws—these are things that should not be brought up for the first time at the rehearsal dinner. The wedding can be all fun and games but if a couple is not willing to learn the rules in advance, they are not giving themselves a fair chance to win.
In conclusion, if we placed as much value in marriage as we placed in weddings, couples would prioritize their relationships much more. If parents were open to sharing about their experiences with marriage, and if Millennials were willing to ask and listen, more marriages could thrive. The reality is that little girls and boys are forming schemas about what weddings and marriages are all about. We have to be highly cognizant of the messages we are conveying, both on a conscious and unconscious level. When we tell our daughters that bliss reaches its zenith on her wedding day, her first 20 years are spent dreaming about it and her next 60 are spent pining for it. We need to prioritize how love is depicted not just on a wedding day, but also throughout a marriage.
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