A little more than a week ago, USA Today printed a piece from its weekly column on religion written by author Henry Brinton, who is also pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia (See: "Column: Wedding Days Are Losing Their Way"). In the opinion piece, Brinton writes about how the drift toward untraditional marriage ceremonies contributes to the shrinking significance of marriage as an institution. Conversely, the pastor argues in how traditional marriage ceremonies, those which take place in a wholly religious setting and officiated by a man/person of faith, form the basis of more enduring and durable unions, and therefore strengthens traditional family units.
But given how even individuals of considerable financial and social means (i.e., celebrities, political figures, athletes, etc.), who spend envious amounts of money on (questionably) extravagant and (also questionably) newsworthy ceremonies are afflicted by the same blistering rates of divorce, domestic abuse, and relationship stress that the average job-holding, beer-drinking, anxiety-ridden everyday Joe is, “institution” is the most apt description of the state of contemporary American marriage…because anyone left in American who takes its seriously would have to be considered crazy.
More of an exercise in devil’s advocacy than an expression of my own cynicism, the institution of marriage—with respect to Brinton’s position—has lost much of its social relevance in the last generation or so. As a child of Generation X, I can remember growing up watching television sitcoms where suspected pregnancies resulting from “flings” between main characters (usually male) inevitably brought up the subject of marriage as a way of “making things right” (these sitcoms reflected the thinking of the times with regard to marriage). This consideration, under such circumstances, was usually the way of addressing the prospect of avoiding the social stigma of bastard children. Marriage was considered an honorable symbol of commitment, even among the most philandering of cads. The ethos recognizing marriage within the context of the day was such that inveterate womanizers like Three’s Company’s Larry or Happy Days’ The Fonz cringed at the prospect of having to marry women they’d somehow managed to “sully” during their romps; it was considered a fate tantamount to death because of the implied level of commitment (combined with the relatively low occurrence of the then-seeming choice to divorce) tying the knot implied.
But now, even without the likes of Brittany Spears’ or Kim Kardashian’s latest publicity-driven stunts to see which has the shortest lifespan, a mayfly or a contemporary American marriage, the modern-day marriage ceremony has become more of an attempt to cater to a woman’s sense of fantasy, fairytale, romance, or just the culmination of bad judgment. There is some anecdotal support for my position, one being that women are far more likely to be the initiates of divorce, some 66% of the time by most studies, which would imply that they are most likely to be most dissatisfied in the resulting relationship (even if you extrapolated for incidences of domestic violence and/or infidelity on the man’s part). And on the heels of this fact is another recent survey which indicated
that up to 30% of now-divorced women actually said knew that they were not marrying the right man the moment they exchanged vows during the marriage ceremony (See: “Did You Marry The Wrong Guy?”).
This would suggest that many jump headway into doomed relationships, lured by the pageantry of the ceremony, with no forethought of pre-marriage personal introspection or consideration of the dynamics or function the relationship itself (with respect to the pre-marriage counseling which people of faith like Pastor Brinton no doubt attempt to engage in couples in).
But even more than changing attitudes is the fact that men and women are simply sociologically different when it comes to perspectives of marriage. Partially driven by our “biological clocks,” many women feel more compelled to marry. It’s made apparent anytime a woman makes the statement, I’m (fill-in-the-age) years-old and I’m still not married, or words to that effect (my personal favorite however, is It’s [fill-in-the-year] and I’m not married…as if a bad decision with regard to marriage couldn’t be made in any given year). Many women are more likely to conform to social expectations and family pressure. Most women view marriage as a form of relationship security, and rely on its legal recognitions for financial peace-of-mind—especially should the spouse dies.
Many—some would say most—men one the other hand, view the commitment of marriage as merely a suggestion, no matter how attractive, accomplished or loyal the spouse, or how privileged the life they have together. Sandra Bullock, Erin Nordegren, and Eva Longoria know this all too well. For many men, the institution of marriage has little in the way of a restraining influence on our “need” to demonstrate how quickly we are able to break the trust we are lucky enough to have earned. And demonstratively, the more privileged (or fortunate) we are, the greater the opportunities and sense of entitlement to bed swap we have (of course I’m not saying it’s right…it’s just reality).
And with the exception of the rare American male who actually marries with the intention to “make it work”—despite the disheartening odds or whatever obstacle gets in the way—many men see marriage and that implied commitment thing as more of an option rather than a publicly-declared promise between two individuals. Most of us are seemingly genetically predisposed to stepping beyond so-called “bond” of marriage and sowing our seeds elsewhere (yes, I know that there are some actual studies which point to this being a fact rather than personal choice, but the jury’s still out on this). We are seemingly designed to break our vows in a vain attempt to find that one nonexistent woman who is the “prefect” blend of femininity, but without the emphasis on “feelings;” sexual, but willing to unquestionably acquiesce to our fantasies (sick or otherwise); and loyal, but not overly submissive or needlessly attitudinal (see ladies…our fantasies are just unreal are yours). Sadly though, most of us men are only as “loyal” as our options. To us, marriage is the ultimate gamble. If we “crap out,” we stand to lose our hard-earned material possessions (or have them divvied-up by "The Man") in divorce, have a portion of our incomes (in the form of alimony, palimony, or child support) garnished, or forced to accept the sometimes inequitable terms of a child custody judgment—ultimately becoming just another loser in the game that marriage has become…with the odds seemingly stacked.
Finally, and to be clear, Pastor Brinton’s opinion asserts that the traditional marriage ceremony is a tried means of reinforcing the promise—not necessarily the notion of love—within a union. That’s a good thing, since the fragility of most modern unions would seem to answer Tina Turner’s decades-old question of What’s love got to do with it...seemingly very little! Quite simply, most of us do not even know how to love...or have no idea what the concept entails. We’re simply too self-absorbed as a culture to understand that being a part of something larger than ourselves like a relationship means that we must be willing to give up some, if not most of our much-lauded “independence” (sorry ladies and gentlemen for the bubble-burst). Too many of us are culturally-programmed to measure ourselves by what others have (and what we don’t), and too focused on the illusion of time in order to determine our individual self-worth as it relates to (potential) relationships. Most of us cannot see past the self to understand that a true union is about “us,” not “me.” Women want romance, men want respect. We as men want women to do whatever we want, while women want to do what they want. Men want women to understand, while women want to be understood. Women want security, men flexibility. Women want partners who can understand their feelings…while men want partners whose feelings won’t always be the central issue in a relationship. And neither of us are willing to compromise in what we want (See: “What Is Love?” on Beyond The Political Spectrum’s sister blog on Hubpages).
The bottom line: the institution of marriage looks to be outliving both its usefulness as a means of ensuring the survival of the traditional American family, and its meaning as way of "proving" one's loyalty and devotion to a single partner. Here's to the institution of marriage...may it rest in peace!