Marriage is not as popular as it once was. The percentage of adults who are married has been dropping for decades around the world. In the United States in 2010, about 51% of adults (over age 18) were married, compared with 72% in 1960. This means about half the adults in the country are not married! That is a big number. Part of the reason is young adults are getting married later in life, on average. Back then, 59% of people ages 18 to 29 were married; in 2010 just 20% were. In 2010, the average age at first marriage for women was over 26, and for men it was nearly 29. So, if you are reading this while in your teens, you might not get married for another 10 years or so. I think this is a good thing. In this section, I’ll tell you why.
First, our society places far too much importance on the event of the marriage ceremony itself. Many, if not most, young girls consider the act of getting married to be the wonderful accomplishment of a primary goal they have held for years among their earliest and most cherished memories. It might easily be the highlight of their lives thus far. I remember my daughters spending countless play hours dressing up as brides with their friends, and I participated in plenty of those mock ceremonies with them, typically as the groom! I recall the Disney princess movies, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and the like, that always concluded with the princess and her prince riding off to the sound of wedding bells to live happily ever after.
As our society embraced this idea of the wedding day as an accomplishment of great merit, we developed a $40 billion a year wedding industry. The average U.S. wedding costs $27,000, not counting the engagement ring, the honeymoon, and all the wedding gifts! If that sounds exorbitant, consider this over-the-top list of items needed for a typical wedding these days:
Attire & Accessories
- Dress Accessories
- Headpiece and/or Veil
- Tuxedo/suit/other Accessories
- Tuxedo/suit/other Rent/purchase
- Wedding Dress/es
- Beauty & Spa
- Hair Service
- Makeup Service
- Manicure & Pedicure
- Live Band
- Musician/s, Soloist, or Ensemble
Flowers & Decorations
- Boutonnieres, Corsages
- Bridal Bouquet
- Bridesmaid Bouquets
- Ceremony Decorations
- Ceremony Flower Arrangements
- Flower Girl Flowers
- Flower Petals
- Reception Decorations
- Reception Flower Arrangements
- Reception Table Centerpieces
- Ceremony Programs
- Engagement Announcements
- Guest Book
- Invitations & Reply Cards
- Reception Menus
- Save the Date Cards
- Table Name and Escort/place Cards
- Thank You Cards
Gifts & Favors
- Gift/s for Attendants
- Gift/s for Parents
- Tips (for all services)
- Wedding Favors
- Engagement Ring
- Wedding Bands
Photography & Video
- Digital or Photo cd/dvd
- Engagement Session
- Prints and/or Enlargements
- Traditional Leather Bound Album
- Wedding Photographer
- Wedding Videographer
- A La Carte Services
- Day of Coordinator
- For Getting Started
- Full Service
- Month of Direction
- Limo Rental
- Other Transportation
Venue, Catering & Rentals
- Ceremony Accessories
- Ceremony Location
- Ceremony Officiator
- Hotel Room for After Reception
- Reception Accessories
- Reception Bar Service
- Reception Food Service
- Reception Location
- Reception Rentals
- Rehearsal Dinner
- Wedding Cake/desert
Source: The Wedding Report, Inc.
This enormous investment and the tremendous accompanying stress and effort are being dedicated to…what? To the publicly and grandly declared intention of two people to spend their lives together! While this intention is admirable, it is not actually an accomplishment worthy of a $27,000++ celebration. The wedding cost is an upfront cash outlay to honor a relationship commitment which might not endure. Ironically, because we have about one divorce for every two marriages each year, and the divorce attorneys collect $20,000 to $40,000 per case, another $30 billion or more is spent on divorce lawyers each year and an additional $40 billion is paid by divorced spouses every year for spousal/child support. Surprisingly, two-thirds of these divorces are initiated by women.
What does this have to do with the decline of marriage, and why am I even bringing this up? Putting aside the obvious, daunting costs of marriage and divorce, I believe this emphasis on the wedding ceremony itself highlights the fact that people, especially girls, often get married for the wrong reasons. They cherish the act of getting married as the significant accomplishment, the pinnacle of their young lives, when in fact it is just the very beginning of a very challenging endeavor. The act of getting married – like the act of getting pregnant – is the easy part. In both cases, the long term consequences of the act are monumental.
A second reason it is a good idea to delay marriage is, people are living a lot longer than they used to, and a lifetime commitment stretches far longer than it once did. If you get married at 20, you potentially are committing to love and cherish the guy for 60 or 70 years. How confident do you feel about that? Believe me; people can change A LOT in 60 years. Heck, you might not even like the guy he becomes in 10 or 20 years.
A third reason not to rush into marriage just for the sake of being married is marriage is complicated and challenging. Do you remember all the issues we discussed about relationships in the last chapter? Well, marriage adds a few more to those. Here are just a few examples.
Families. Your family is now his family and his family is now your family. All the wacky relationships in his family now include you, and visa versa. Good luck with that!
Finances. Hopefully, you left home some time before getting married, and you took control of your own finances. Now, you just added another party to your financial record and reputation. I hope he is trustworthy and frugal. If not, you might end up paying his bills. In addition, every dollar you spend is subject to critical review from your mate. You might have to explain, for instance, why it is unavoidable to spend $250 getting your hair styled, dyed, and highlighted, while he spends $15 at SuperCuts. Let’s not even talk about shopping for shoes!
Decisions. All couples of all ages have to make a lot of joint decisions. After marriage, the decisions multiply and their implications can last for decades. Where shall we live; where shall we vacation; do we visit your relatives or mine; shall we buy a house; shall we have kids? Nearly every important decision in your life will be made with significant input from your partner.
Growing apart. The person you fell in love with might not have much in common with the person sharing your bed in ten or twenty years. People do change over the years, and oftentimes their spouses wonder what happened to the person they once were. Some people do change for the better, yet others gradually decline in capabilities and character. You might have committed your life’s energy and devotion to a person whom you no longer respect or even like.
I could go on and on about the challenges of marriage, but I am sure you are getting the point. Rather than just being Debbie Downer, perhaps I have some suggestions? I do, but not the kind you might expect. I’d like to see our society approach marriage in a much different manner. Here are some of my crazy ideas.
First, I think the initial wedding ceremony should be a small, simple affair. No big budget, huge parties with fancy clothes, lots of relatives, plenty of booze, and loud music. Sure, have close family members and a few friends celebrate the initial commitment of two souls to join together, but save the big celebration until the happy couple hits their fifth or even tenth anniversary. Then have a huge bash, because that is an accomplishment worthy of celebrating. Yes, it is OK to have a nice honeymoon after the initial wedding ceremony, but don’t spend a fortune on wedding rings until the five or ten year celebration. (A friend of mine spent $65,000 on an engagement ring. The engagement fell through, and his fiancée returned the ring, but he could only sell the “used” ring for about half its value. OUCH!)
Second, I’d like to see initial marriage contracts expire automatically after three years. If both parties don’t agree to renew, no problem; the marriage automatically dissolves. All the terms and conditions of the separation are spelled out, in advance. That way, folks who decide the marriage relationship is not working for them can gracefully withdraw without the guilt, shame, acrimony, and expense of a messy divorce. I understand, of course, this flies in the face of making a lifelong commitment. THAT IS THE POINT. Let’s start off with a three year commitment and see how that works. Couples can always expand their subsequent marriage contracts. Companies in business rarely make initial business commitments longer than three years, because they know circumstances will change significantly in that time. The same is true in our personal lives.
Third, I’d like to see marriage contracts look more like actual business contracts, by spelling out more specifically what each partner agrees to provide in and to the relationship. If our society put half as much effort into detailed marriage contracts as we put into today’s divorce agreements, we would all benefit (even divorce lawyers, who could rebrand themselves as marriage lawyers!). Yes, this does take a lot of the romance out of the more traditional “love, honor, and cherish,” but those vague promises are not really cutting it in today’s society, are they? As I described in the previous chapter, countless unmet expectations suck the life out of many relationships, so let’s be more specific about what each person expects and promises to contribute. The more detail the better, because it forces the participants to discuss their expectations and negotiate compromises before getting married. Boring and frustrating? Yes, but this process is just a snapshot of full length epics that play out later in marriages. As time goes by in the initial term of the contract, if people change their minds about what they are willing to contribute to the marriage, then they won’t renew their contract when it expires. I’d much rather see more nit-picky haggling on the front end and less vitriolic negotiation by divorce lawyers on the back end of marriages.
Fourth, ideally, couples would delay having children until they renew their initial marriage contracts. Instead of encouraging young girls to wait until they are married to have children, we’d advise them to wait until they renew their marriage contracts. This would save untold emotional suffering for many children and their (single) parents. Kids would be born in more stable, truly committed relationships, to more mature parents. Think a bit about the potential implications of this before you rule it out as infeasible or naïve.
Are these four ideas cure-alls for the challenges of marriage? Of course not. Human relationships are fraught with complexities that defy easy solutions. Still, I believe they are worthy of discussion and could lead to innovative approaches to marriage that reduce the number of alienated married couples and spiteful divorces. Because it will take decades (or centuries) for ideas like these to move into the mainstream, you’ll be swimming upstream if you try to implement them yourself. Let me therefore offer a few suggestions if you approach marriage in a more traditional manner.
First, find some couples whose marriage you admire and spend some time with them. Hopefully, you can find two or three relatively happy couples. Ask them to explain candidly how they have been successful. Talk to them individually and together. This is not one short conversation, either. It might take multiple visits to really understand how their marriage works. It will be worth the effort, and I promise some of their words will ring in your ears as the years go.
Second, if you cannot develop a written marriage contract, at least invest adequate time to discuss important, if touchy, subjects with your would-be spouse. Talk honestly about your desires and expectations. How will you handle difficult issues that arise regarding each topic? How will you compromise on issues where you disagree? Here is a short list, and you can add others after visiting with the happily married couples in step one, above: money, careers, sex, children, health and fitness, friends, ex-lovers, common interests, separate interests, living arrangements and location , relatives, travel, honesty, loyalty, tenderness. If you’d like a longer list, track down a copy of 1001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married by Monica Mendez Leahy.
My third suggestion is to consider living together before getting married. In a way, this concept substitutes for the short term marriage contract I suggested earlier. The idea probably evokes a big yawn, as many, many couples cohabitate today out of wedlock. While it is not an exact proxy for being married, it does give you and your intended spouse a lot of insight into how well you will make the countless, little, every-day decisions required of a married couple. Yes, I know researchers say the divorce rate is no better for couples who lived together before tying the knot, but I still recommend it strongly. It will give you a realistic sense of how your married life will be, at least in the early years.
Perhaps you’ll be afraid to cohabitate because you suspect your guy will be happy enough with the unmarried arrangement and therefore will resist making the ultimate commitment. This does happen all the time. I believe most guys are afraid to get married, and who can blame them? Few men are genetically wired to be monogamous for 50 years. Whether you live with him or not, you might find your guy resisting conversations that pin down exact marriage dates, even – believe it or not – if he already proposed! So, if you do want to be married, I suggest you set a “co-habitation term” that spells out exactly how many months or years you will live together before making the marriage decision and setting the date together. Set this time frame before you move in with your boyfriend, write it down, have both of your sign it, and put it in a safe place for later reference. Chances are, you’ll need it!
All of the relationship suggestions I gave you in the last chapter apply to married life, but I won’t repeat them all here. You can review the two sections called the Unachievable Promise and Maximizing Your Chances, especially the discussion on how unmet expectations kill relationships. The only redundant advice I’ll include here is, you cannot change another person. If you are like most of us, you’ll waste a lot of time trying to improve your mate before realizing it is hopeless. Only he can change himself, and the motivation must come from him. A classic mistake is to manipulate a Ladies Man into marrying you because you think he’ll settle down once he has the gold ring on his finger. Not likely, in most cases. (Okay, I was an exception, but I was 41 at the time!) Sure, some percentage of guys do mature significantly as they age, and turn into Truly Good Guys and respectable spouses, but I sincerely doubt it is due to the efforts of a few good woman to change their ways. Most likely, their hormone levels are dropping to manageable levels and the big brain is starting to assume dominance over the little brain. If you are thinking your guy will make a great husband after you remodel his little imperfections to fit your idealized image, put those thoughts out of your mind. Take him as you find him, and love him despite his unique imperfections, or move on to greener pastures.
A corollary to not trying to change a person is to avoid nagging, complaining, criticizing, correcting, sarcasm, and expressing frequent disapproval of your mate. This could be a lengthy topic, but I’ll summarize it by saying there is no quicker way to drive your man into the arms of another woman than by habitually calling out his shortcomings. If you want to keep your fiancée focused on you, be sure to express your appreciation for those (occasional) things he does right. For every bit of nagging you allow yourself, give him at least two or three choice morsels of verbal honey.
In keeping with my habit of offering only five suggestions per topic, here is my last thought on making the marriage decision. Play close attention to your gut, your intuition. It is natural to have fears and doubts before making such a monumental life decision. Some of those will be emotional and a lot will be mental. I believe you can sit quietly and ask your intuition, your inner guidance, what is the best course of action for you. Listen carefully to what it says, and don’t settle for a simple yes or no answer. Ask for more. If you have a bad feeling, stay with it and explore it. For example, you might come up with the following insight: “Everything about him is nearly perfect, but I just don’t like the way he treats his mom and sisters.” While it might be easy to shrug that off, your intuition might bring it up again and again. If it does, please take your intuition seriously, and explore the issues it raises before you rush into a marriage with a lot of high hopes and glowing expectations. After you work through your issues, I hope your gut gives you the green light and you can move forward with true confidence.