Whenever bridal magazines or wedding dress ads proclaim my wedding day will be the most wonderful day of my life, I hope they’re lying.
Think about it. You find the love of your life, decide to get hitched, throw a big party to celebrate the beginning of your marital bliss, and—what? It’s all supposed to be downhill from there?
Lies, damned lies…and some statistics
Putting all the emphasis on the big day may well start a marriage off at a disadvantage. According to a study conducted by economists Andrew Francis and Hugh Mialon of Emory University, there is a negative correlation between lavish, high-cost weddings and how long a marriage lasts. “’A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration” made a big media splash in fall 2014.The authors surveyed over 3000 adults, all of whom had been or were still married. They discovered that “relatively high” spending on an engagement ring increased the odds of the marriage ending early by 1.3, and those adults who reported spending more than $20000 on their wedding were 3.5 times more likely to get divorced than those who spent between $5000 and $10000.
Overall, those who spent less on the wedding tended to stay married longer. The researchers speculated that marital stress caused by debt was a contributing factor. Couples do fight about money, but in many cases, parents pay the wedding bills. Still, the considerable gap between the world of extravagant weddings and everyday life creates unrealistic expectations, and too often, the nuptials command more devotion than the actual relationship.
The problem is that we still believe in fairy tales. We plan a wedding but act as if a marriage just happens.
“Downhill” is relative
A wedding is not representative of married life. Yes, it’s a wildly exciting day, filled with the love and affection of visiting family, hours of talking and dancing with friends, beautiful flowers, fancy cake. It’s a day full of meaning and ritual, public declarations of deep feelings (and, not incidentally, a significant outlay of cash). Every moment matters, every detail is documented.
So there is an inevitable post-wedding lull, maybe even a bit of a letdown.
Supposing I could survive an entire married life so physically, emotionally, and financially intense, if nuptials actually modeled marriage, I would still implode under the pressure of wearing white every day.
Planning a wedding together, on the other hand, is excellent practice for marriage, and, I suspect, much more representative of daily married life. Planning together requires teamwork, communication, negotiation. My fiancé Steve and I have volleyed ideas back and forth, discussed preferences, revealed our individual likes and dislikes. We’re learning, together, how to balance desire against budget, what to prioritize, where to save and when to splurge. We’re making mutual decisions and sharing burdens, discovering more about ourselves and our partnership. We’re growing our love for one another as we look forward to the future, together.
Maybe that sounds less than romantic, but love that lasts is built and sustained through the daily choice to stay present and engaged. Love is something you do as much as feel. According to Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, a philosopher who studies romantic love at the University of British Columbia, instead of buying into pre-determined ideas about romantic love as a “package deal” complete with “hearts and flowers” and “eternity,” we need to ask “what is love?” and define and shape it for ourselves. We need to do the same for marriage. Crafting a marriage that lasts requires deliberation and conscious reflection; it takes, as Arthur C. Brooks urged in a recent NY Times column, courage and mindfulness. A loving, committed marriage doesn’t just happen; even more so than a wedding, it demands thought, time, investment.
Parents of brides (and grooms) to be, take note. Traditionally, when parents foot the bill for the wedding, they maintain control of the budget and command a greater say in the decision-making. You might have paid for your child’s college, too, but did you dictate every class taken, every club joined, the chosen major, minor, and concentration? (If you did, you might consider paying for your kid’s therapy before taking on a wedding—just sayin’.) Giving your child a fairy tale wedding and worrying over every last detail of it yourself deprives your child and his or her partner the opportunity to learn to work as a team, the chance to begin learning how to budget, prioritize, negotiate. It robs them of the opportunity to reflect on what they value as a couple, to learn more about what makes their future spouse tick (or tic). Given the stats, less fairy tale and more participation from the bride and groom might be a better option.
Besides, having the support of family and friends matters more than their readiness to pay for an extravagant event; Francis and Mialon’s study showed positive correlations between marriage duration and higher numbers of people attending the wedding. Couples who went on a honeymoon were also more likely to create a lasting marriage, perhaps buoyed by their willingness to invest dedicated time in new experiences and one another.
Don’t forget the map
The wedding is the exotic island getaway: a weekend of high upon high, a romantic and sensual blitz. Marriage is a cross-country road-trip. There will be days of high adventure and exquisite beauty, days that rise above others in their pleasure and joy: watching a child walk confidently across the swinging bridge he once feared, standing sweaty and spent with your spouse atop a mountain you’d long dreamed of climbing together, dancing in the light of a fading sunset on the beach where you first fell in love. There will be days, should the fates allow, even more wonderful and wondrous than the day you walked down the aisle.
But there will be steep descents, too, and wide, flat plains of calm. With any luck, you’ll mostly travel through rolling hills and gently scenic vistas, the occasional dramatic peak rising up and surprising you, the stunning, startling beauty of a tree pushing through rock. Some days you’ll pass through valleys drizzled in rain or buried in snow; others you’ll walk the windswept dunes of sun-warmed beaches, the ocean lapping at your feet. There will be exhilaration, exhaustion, exertion, and rest.
Always, the horizon will stretch before you to a future beyond imagination. May the map of your love be your guide.