Because I am a huge nerd, for my wedding in September, my theme is books. Every table is named after a book, and stacked copies of that book make up most of the table’s centerpiece, and they are also the wedding favors for guests. Partly to be funny and partly because I really love it, for my friends’ table, I chose the book The Marriage Plot—its title the perfect blend of irony and appropriateness. Perhaps it’s my entire generation, or perhaps it’s just my friends specifically (bike-riding, tattoo-covered hipster types), but it seems that marriage has become very uncool. People live with their significant others for years, sometimes decades, before (if ever) tying the knot. It’s common to think of marriage as just a piece of paper, or unnecessary, or even trite. Although this seems to swing back and forth like a pendulum between the decades, generally, the average age that Americans get married seems to keep getting later and later (twenty-nine for men, twenty-seven for women). Often people are in their mid-thirties before starting families. In Israel, everyone from my fiancé’s army team got married at basically the same age. A year and a half went by between visits and when we returned this past May, everyone was married (and, strangely, all had gained the exact same amount of mid-twenties pudge). When my mother was my age, she was not only long married but already had two preschool-aged children—and I’m the first to get married out of my group of friends. (Though, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that this was in the Soviet Union, a place that was always decades behind the rest of the world.)
If you consider that in the past twenty, thirty years, life has only gotten more and more fast-paced, it’s a little strange that the tradition of marriage in America advances at the opposite rate. Sure, plenty of people still get married straight out of high school or in their early twenties, though this seems to happen mostly in smaller towns or within very religious communities. And sure, half of all marriages end in divorce, so perhaps enough people are already rushing to the altar. But is there something else, something deeper at work here?
One possibility that comes to mind is that maybe so many children grow up in broken homes they can’t even imagine what a real marriage is, or the concept of marriage is linked in their minds with only negative connotations. I grew up around the most happily married couple ever, and I can’t help but wonder if I’d be more hesitant to tie the knot if that hadn’t been the case. Because, as is often shown to us via books, movies, or, obviously, real life: children often can’t avoid duplicating what’s been done before, no matter at what age. (For an extreme case of recycling bad habits among offspring, see another one of my table-books, One Hundred Years of Solitude.) I know a couple that has been together for more than a decade—they even have a child—and they still have no interest in marriage. When asked, they say it has to do with the fact that both of their parents were divorced and they just don’t see the point.
Another possibility has to do with the lack of jobs, which has stilted the momentum of recent college grads, who often have to move back home for years before starting their careers, and, therefore, all the things that go along with it. I, for example, spent two years waitressing before deciding to get my master’s, so by the time I ended up working a job in my field, I was already twenty-six. The large amount of debt incurred by going to college probably also contributes to this delay—who would want to start a family when they owe thousands of dollars to the government? I have friends my age that are still in college, going part-time and paying for it all out of pocket, so as to avoid this burden. On the other hand, I also know people who, on top of undergraduate debt, continue on to graduate school in fields that don’t often have much available in terms of jobs (i.e. writing, theater, fine arts), so as to avoid having to enter the real world just a little longer. By then, debt can be as high as a hundred thousand dollars, and often, they are still un-hirable. And—like my future husband has often lamented—when you marry someone, you’re also marrying their debt. If one of you isn’t making a ton of money, it’s not the best way to start off a life.
There is also the possibility that beyond these economy-driven extended adolescences, there’s some rampant commitment-phobia going on (just think of all the movies out there where the basic premise is two people trying to have sex repeatedly while avoiding a relationship: Friends with Benefits, Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached—just to name a few). I know people who never go beyond casual dating, and people who have open relationships (even open marriages!) for years. I once went over to a friend’s house and asked him where his longtime girlfriend was, and he responded, with a shrug, “Oh, she’s on a date.” The only difference I really see between casual dating and open relationships is that in most cases, people in open relationships are also living together. This particular couple was in a normal relationship for years before making the switch to an open one, and it seems to work for them somehow (though I often think of them more as roommates than anything). I also know another couple that was in an open relationship for five years and then one of them wanted to “close” it—the other one didn’t, but attempted to anyway—and they broke up not much longer after that.
With that in mind, it makes sense that the next level of avoiding commitment would be trying to have a long-term relationship without the label of marriage. I can’t go more than an hour without checking my phone for new email. Is it that much of a stretch, then, that people would constantly look up, not just from their phones, but also from whatever person they’re romantically involved with, to see if something – or someone – has appeared in their absence? Something newer, more exciting, more interesting? With such a plethora of options at our fingertips, it’s no wonder people become paralyzed by those options (see the paradox of choice).
Another reason for postponing marriage (often indefinitely) that I’ve heard is that there’s no difference between being in a long-term relationship and being married. I can see how one might think that without having the experience of both to compare—however, being on the precipice of both at the moment, I have to disagree. There’s a big difference between dating and being family–for one thing, you inherit nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and generations of family sagas. You become one unit, financially and in regards to major decisions (and, obviously, you’re also committing to that person for the rest of your life–however seriously you want to take that; in Hollywood, this means at least a few months to a year). While I do think there are plenty of people who legitimately do not believe in the institution of marriage, this number is probably small. As for the majority, I really believe that it’s not that they don’t believe in marriage itself—they just know, deep down, that the person they are with is not the person they want to be with for the rest of their life, and perhaps they just can’t admit this to themselves—so they choose the cool way out of it, saying, “I don’t believe in marriage.” I’ve said this many times in my life, so I know: until you meet the right person for you, you just can’t even fathom what it’s like to want to be with someone for the rest of your life. So you could say that all that commitment-phobia is a good thing—it keeps you from marrying someone who you shouldn’t be married to. On the other hand, being with that person may be stopping you from finding the one you should be with—pushing that wedding farther and farther into the future. (But, on the up side, maybe more of those marriages will work out. Research has shown that couples who marry later are more cohesive and less likely to think about divorce.)
Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I should have put The Marriage Plot at a table of any one of my family members—most of whom have been in successful marriages for decades—just to prove that, while every day the world changes all around us, with technology creating endless possibilities and geography pulling people farther and farther away from each other, it’s still possible to make connections that last. Because one thing that will never change—regardless of what new technology is making it easier or more difficult—is that people want (and need) to be loved and they will never stop wanting that. Just because you can’t commit to an iPhone cover or Facebook status for more than a few weeks, it shouldn’t mean that you can’t pick one person and stick with them for life—whether or not you’re twenty-five or thirty-five when you find them. While there might be five hundred types of strawberry jam or a thousand different ways to send an e-mail, there is generally only one person who you can be with for an entire lifetime. And, that, really, is what marriage is all about.