Monday, November 11, 2013

Examining Marriage in the Modern Era

During my senior year of undergrad, I took a human sexuality class. I signed up to satisfy a final elective requirement for graduation. The instructor was a young, enthusiastic woman who was not much older than we were. To illustrate a point, she once asked the entire class, by a show of hands, who among us wanted to get married someday. She noted, with a smile on her face, that every single woman wanted to be married and not a single man did. My hand stayed down as well, but in my defense, I believed I was too young to even consider a thing like that.  

This may be an obvious statement, but men typically do not assign the same importance to the act of getting hitched as do women. Or at least not in the same way. Lest I overgeneralize, in my own observation it appears that only certain women place extreme importance upon every conceivable aspect of the pageantry and ritual, while others could care less. While it is true that bridal magazines and reality television shows fetishize the planning and preparation, I have learned that this ridiculous focus on wedding preparation is true only for some, rather than most.  

To use a personal example from my own family, I’ve never seen my mother apply heavy romantic gloss to what was, for her, a slightly terrifying experience. Life with my father was much more important to her and she has acted the same way ever since then. My folks got married in 1975. Dad was fairly young by today’s urban-dwelling standards, only 24. Mom was 19, barely out of high school.

She had really only just started her adulthood and yet here committed to an act of great responsibility. If asked about her youth, she would always say that she was very mature for her age, to which I respond that no nineteen year old is completely mature. I was definitely not. My two younger sisters and I were implored and admonished, from childhood forward, to never marry as young as she did. We listened to her.

White, middle class American trends have changed considerably in a short period of time. The men I know in my own life are usually close to thirty before they tie the knot. At times, their nuptials take place at ages even older than that. In a statistic I am fond of quoting, the average age of first marriage (heterosexual) for a man in the Washington, DC, area is 32. For a woman, using the same parameters, the statistical mean is 30. These trends are becoming more common even in less cosmopolitan settings.

As animals, I believe that most of us are biologically programmed to pair up with someone. And as I say this, I acknowledge that partnering up with someone may not be what is desired, wanted, or needed for everyone. If yesterday’s standards were in force today, there’d be an awful lot of old maids out there. Even in a different age, bachelorhood is thought of much differently than spinsterhood. Women who have not yet taken their marriage vows are often asked directly and often indirectly exactly what is wrong with them. Bachelorhood is not a pejorative term, but crazy cat woman (spinsterhood) mostly assuredly is.

The societal implication under which we operate state that it should be easy for a woman to find a man. Any man, really. Women are told that there must be something very flawed with them if they can't find a husband, provided it goes hand in glove with enough energetic searching for suitors. This standard implies that unmarried women past a certain age either have too many unresolved emotional issues or aren’t physically attractive enough to be anyone’s wife. The most profound fear of many women is the very thought of being alone forever, a concern they also share with men, though women may vocalize it more frequently and acknowledge more willingly.

We live in a culture where men are still expected to make the first move and to get the ball rolling. This explains the numerous errors in communication and bad judgment calls that happen constantly, errors committed with frustrating frequency. Speaking here in heterosexual terms, for the ease of the analogy, men are still to be the pursuers, women are still the pursued. When the last vestiges of that unfair expectation finally expire, then men and women really will be closer to something resembling real equality. In a fair world, we will articulate clearly what we want and share our perspectives. Gender expectations will no longer trip each of us up.

Where I grew up, it wasn’t unusual for two people to be married after both graduated college. Being betrothed after high school wasn’t entirely unheard of, either. Some of those marriages between high school sweethearts continue today and, like all marriages everywhere, some of them ended in divorce years ago. Though a few couples may have gotten an earlier start than others, their divorces all ended exactly the same.

Before he met my mother, Dad took extreme pride in being a bachelor. He was intent on staying forever single. He saw himself as a bit of a ladies man and was very successful in relationships with women. Why change? When, out of the blue, he announced he planned to marry, none of his male friends could believe it.

This was especially the case since Dad had earlier spoken so dismissively and contemptuously of the very notion of it. To his friends, my father was a kind of hero, some standard of rugged masculinity conjoined with enough hidden sensitivity to be successful in love. Even he, the Alpha male, settled down eventually.

What for some women is a dreamlike fairy tale personified is for many men a colossal sigh of relief. One of my friends was born with a severe speech impediment. Though he is an articulate and intelligent man, the speech impediment makes him sound as though he is mentally challenged. We used to use the word retarded to mean the same thing; I only include it here to make sure my point is not lost.

Many who know him well, myself included, were afraid that his disability might keep him from finding a woman willing to look past first impressions. Thankfully, this was not the case and he was quite happily married around six months ago. He adores and loves his new wife and she feels the same for him.

Alone no longer, hallelujah. No expensive wedding dress to be contemplated for an eternity and then purchased at great expense. No ornate article of clothing hanging forever in a closet, a garment that will likely be worn once, and only once. Men may keep a precious keepsake for years, but it is more likely to be the sort buried in a sock drawer. It is unlikely to be an example of good intentions unfulfilled. It will not be given to his son someday, for his own marriage. Mostly likely it will come complete with an unexpected anecdote some random day, if a full presentation of the facts will ever be forthcoming.

Should men need reminding of that sainted event and the union it celebrated, they need only to glance downward. The band of gold encircling the knuckles of one finger is usually sentimental enough and reminder enough. Simplicity has its place, as does grandiosity, though I do favor the former far above the latter. Love may not be expressed in gushy, showy terms, but it will be given its due. Men are sometimes fearful of expressing unfettered love for their partner. They needn’t worry about either emasculation or femininity and ought to express the great virtue of tenderness which is given in equal measure to every person.

What few people talk about in the midst of fantasies this ornate is just how stressful weddings can be. My father was a mess of nerves and anxieties prior to the small, tight-knit, family wedding that awaited him. There was no need for a big wedding, but neither he, nor my mother could afford one in any case. Noticing his discomfort, Dad's mother gave him a Valium. This worked well for him, but my mother couldn’t understand why her soon-to-be betrothed proceeded with great calm during the whole of an otherwise nerve-wracking ceremony. Mom was nervous enough that her voice broke during the vows, her entire body consumed with fears and anxiety.

If it were up to me, I’d ensure that everyone find the right person for him or her. How they choose to celebrate it and commemorate it for all time is entirely up to them. Love has a redemptive power, one that in our frustration we often ignore quite without meaning to do it. We are, in effect, saving ourselves, not saving someone else from themselves. Many of us, myself included, have made that mistake.

I’ve observed many men in my own life who were aimless, lonely, and downright miserable without a partner. Some men admit this constant nagging ache to others, and some can’t quite make themselves go there. Men may have been socialized to see themselves as an island, fully independent and completely self-sufficient. This pose holds up reasonably well, but after a while, it takes its toll on even the flintiest character.

Being married is not a curative to fix all that ails, but finding a best friend who loves you, hopefully for life, should not be taken lightly. The rest is just commentary and with it a whole lot of needless, misguided opulence.  

Be it opposite-sex unions or same-sex unions, I honestly believe in the promise of marriage, though I may look with suspicion at the lavish spectacle and histrionics of a few prominent offenders. The focus should be on two people who love each other, not seventeen identical bridesmaids dresses or a floor plan of where and how the floral bouquets are to be positioned throughout the chapel. These are secondary details, likely to be forgotten in the end, though hopefully everyone will remember the two people standing together before God, their friends, and their family. As it should be.

No comments: