Saturday, January 10, 2009

How the Marriage Industry Undermines The American Marriage

Is marriage an outmoded concept too deeply-rooted in custom and tradition to abandon? More and more are beginning to subscribe to this point of view, yet few have the courage to admit it. The reasons are far more superficial than we might suspect.

It is common knowledge that the state of the modern marriage languishes in crisis. People of marrying age are pondering whether there is anything of lasting value to be gained from marriage. What has been traditionally considered a rite of passage to which all respectable people aspired, is increasingly being viewed with cynicism and apprehension. As recent as one generation ago, young people espoused (no pun intended) more healthy and realistic expectations from marriage. Often it was intertwined with one’s sense of duty to faith, family, and community. While esoteric pockets of that mentality do still exist, most are now likely to consider marriage something to be experienced until it is no longer enjoyable. What led to this socially corrosive perception? A virtual "marriage industrial complex" of contradictory interests figures prominently in the explanation.

The marriage industry encompasses the far-reaching interplay of marketing, pop- culture, and relaxed divorce laws. Specifically, it is the ubiquitous hodge-podge of bridal fashions, wedding consultants, event catering, venue rental, attorneys’ fees for pre-nuptial contracts, attorneys’ fees for divorce representation, the housing industry, etc. To make matters worse, mass media perpetuates the myth of forever marital bliss. The forces of this industry result in vicious cycles that powerfully induce individuals to marry only to pull them apart in the end. Often, the victims are so compelled by the marriage industry, they remain trapped where they repeat the same behavior again and again.

This seeds of this cyclic interplay are planted in childhood when impressionable, prepubescent children internalize the media fantasy of the huge wedding in an ultra-extravagant setting. Such ideas are reinforced with high school study of classic literature like that of Voltaire and Shakespeare, which are rife with clich├ęs of living “happily ever after.”

Prom season marks the next significant industry milestone. Proms, among other things, serve as virtual dress rehearsals of a formal wedding event and they play a huge role in a young girl’s gauging of her desirability to the opposite sex. To not be asked to a prom can be viewed as an antecedent to spinsterhood. Though such notions are absurd, the pressures they create are surprisingly pervasive.

When the early twenties come around, the influence of peers walking down the isle takes hold. All of the sudden, young people feel the need to “keep up with the Jones’s” in regard to their personal lives. Consequently, premature marriage is a common occurrence in this age group. That the twenties is still a formative time for personal growth and discovery is seldom reason enough to resist the social pressure to tie the knot at that life juncture.

Inevitably, engaged couples experience varying degrees of cold feet, uncertainty, and fear about their engagements, but this is offset by family members and friends heaping congratulations, praise and words of encouragement. Engagement events, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and even wedding preparation get-togethers all reinforce the pressures to marry without critical reflection. To opt not marry after the engagement, would be to let down all those who harbored such high hopes. In the end, all the special attention obfuscates any pre-marital misgivings, and it gives rise to the belief that marrying must be the right thing to do.

The actual wedding ritual gives official family, community and often religious sanction to the coupling. Ornate ceremonies followed by festive eating, drinking, dancing top-off months of preparation and anticipation. However, after the wedding event ends, there sets in a sudden dose of reality. All of the family and friends depart and few seem to particularly care that you are a now a wedded couple. Many newlyweds maturely handle their new reality, but for others, the abrupt end to the excitement of pre-wedding life contributes to an emotional letdown.

Clearly, our society celebrates the concepts of courtship and wedding at the expense of actual marriage. How then do we counter this trend? We certainly can’t expect changes to come from the marriage industry which profits from this duplicity. But we can expect families, schools, religious institutions, and the media to focus attention less on the bliss of pre-marriage life and to prepare couples for the practical likelihoods of post-marriage life. If this were to occur, at least two things would likely come about. First, fewer might succumb to the compulsion to enter into poorly-conceived marriages. Second, those who still chose to take on the challenge of marriage might be able to expect and be better prepared for the trials and difficulties inherent to married life.

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