Friday, May 25, 2007
The Marriage Industrial Complex
If you've been to a wedding in the past few years (or have staged one yourself), you won't be surprised to learn that weddings are a booming business. Last year, the average American ceremony cost $27,852; the average dress, $1,025. If such figures don't shock you (and keep in mind, the numbers are far higher in pricey cities such as New York and San Francisco), maybe a few comparisons will: The median household income in the United States is $46,326 and a 5 percent down payment on a $500,000 condominium is $25,000.
Even more disturbing, perhaps, is how quickly and effortlessly the $161 billion wedding industry seems to have insinuated itself into every corner of the culture -- and how impossible it has become to escape its trappings, from diamond rings (which, before the 1930s, were not a de facto wedding accouterment) to wedding planners, bridal registries and glossy magazines that perpetuate weddings as fairy-tale fantasies. In fact, the extravagant, over-the-top gala has become such a fixture of American life that most people don't question it anymore. And why should they? If marriage is supposed to be a sacred undertaking that happens once in a lifetime, why shouldn't you do it wearing Vera Wang?
At the beginning of "One Perfect Day" you point out that marriage used to signal that you were becoming an adult or herald the start of your sex life as well as your departure from the family home. Now that we do all of these things before marriage, do you think it's the extravagant ceremony itself that has become the rite of passage?
Precisely. It's amazing the number of people who say, "If we can get through this, we can get through anything," or "This is the first challenge of our married life together." And you think, "Jeez, you have no idea what you've got coming!" It's not like it's a death in the family or anything like that.
This is sort of a psychoanalytic argument, but I think that people need for a wedding to feel traumatic. Because it used to be a traumatic transition. You left your parental home. If you look at documents -- diaries or letters from women in 19th century rural America getting married -- leaving their mother was a very, very big deal. Wrenching away from your birth family was a very big deal. Now, most of us have done that years earlier. And to some degree, even those people who are living at home are still leading more independent lives.
But I think that people still need to feel that this transition is a viscerally affecting experience. Because being married is very different from not being married. I don't mean that if you get married tomorrow, suddenly your life is going to be different the next day. But it is a different commitment, as anybody who is going through a divorce will tell you. It's much harder to break up a marriage than it is to break up a nonmarital partnership. So I think people need the sense of "Wow! Something really big has just happened."
The purpose of honeymoons has evolved in a similar way, hasn't it? You point out that they used to be a chance to visit the bride's relatives and friends, and then they were all about sexual intimacy ...
Yeah, and now, if you talk to any couples or look on the Knot.com, you see that people perceive the honeymoon as a time when they can recover from the stress of planning the wedding!
Straight to the source