Bridezillas, Platinum Weddings, Four Weddings, the Wedding Channel and more – get married, the mythology promises, and you’ll never be lonely again.
A frenzy has swept the nation. There is no escaping it. We are awash in weddings and brides — and not just in May and June. “Matrimania,” my word for the over-the-top hyping of all things matrimonial, is everywhere. Just turn on your television. Under the banner of “reality” programming, spouse-seeking is played for sport.
On such popular shows as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, contestants lap up champagne and humiliation for the mere possibility of a marriage proposal. Turn the channel and find grooms who don’t turn back even when their beloveds transform into bridezillas. Hit the remote again and find nuptial experts delivering a “platinum wedding” that rivals a Broadway musical.
All this matrimania may leave you yearning for the commercial breaks, but there’s no respite there either, with wedding-themed ads for everything from dentistry to motor oil. I tried a little experiment to see if I could steer clear of it. When I turned on the television, I went straight to CNN Newsroom. It had been a dreary week economically, so I was braced for sad stories of citizens working two jobs but still unable to afford both gas and food. No need. CNN had a different concern — with prices soaring and budgets out of control, what’s a bride to do?
Meanwhile, at the networks, ABC was running a feature on World News called “Bridal Brilliance: Weddings Around the World.” Okay, then; what about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It’s just a glorified quiz show.
Surely that would be a matrimania-free zone. Oh, but wait — it’s “wedding week” on Millionaire! What should we make of our reigning American obsession with all things matrimonial? Could it actually be an indication of how insecure we are about the meaning of marriage in our society?
Consider a time when marriage in American life really was secure. In 1956, the median age at which people first married was about 22 for men and 20 for women. Just about everyone got married and hardly anyone got divorced.
Those who did divorce were more likely to remarry, and sooner. Americans were married for most of their adult life. There was no need for all the matrimonial hype, because marriage actually was a necessity back then because it provided the framework for economic security, sexual relations, child-rearing, homeownership and more.
In those days, the winner on Queen for a Day didn’t get a king, she got a washing machine. Leave It to Beaver didn’t build up to a climactic episode featuring Beaver’s wedding, and Lassie, the daring dog, never had to play ring bearer and trot down the church aisle. There was a time when marriage was the all-purpose membership pass. It was the ticket to adulthood, complete with a slew of benefits. No wonder so many single people were banging on the doors of the Married Couples Club and pleading to get in.
But things are different now. Although women are still paid less than men for doing the same work, many earn enough to support themselves and even their kids. With advances in birth control and reproductive medicine, women can now have sex without having children, and they can have children without having sex. Single parenting is less stigmatized than it once was, and cohabitation is ordinary and unremarkable.
Single men and women — with or without partners — are buying homes, traveling, pursuing their passions, attending to family and friends, and living their lives fully and joyfully. In fact, Americans now spend more of their adult life unmarried than married. Yet our culture’s matrimania would lead one to believe that our whole society is yearning to restore marriage to its special place, despite the fact that so much of what marriage once offered is now available without it.
I do believe that romantic coupling, whether within or apart from marriage, can be a valuable experience. But the longing, that obsession with all things bridal, comes from the mythology that marriage is exactly what it is not: a totally and uniquely transformative experience. Marriage, according to the mythology generated by our culture, transforms an immature single person into a mature husband or wife. It turns selfish singles into selfless spouses.
Matrimania says that marriage delivers, as its grand prize, the most sought-after American experience: happiness. Not just garden-variety happiness, but intense and meaningful well-being, a sense of fulfillment that a single person cannot even fathom. Marry, the mythology promises, and you will never be lonely again. There’s one problem: It’s all bunk.
Those claims about how marriage transforms miserable and selfish single people into blissful paragons of marital virtue? They are all grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. I put my Harvard Ph.D. to work and read the scientific studies in the academic journals (and not just the media summaries of the results). The matri-maniacal promises are not supported by science.
Why, then, have so many of us come to believe them? Because we never stop to challenge conventional wisdom and the social stereotypes that come along for the ride. This matri-maniacal mythology rebuts and dismisses every claim we single people have about our joyful and significant lives. When singles proudly note that they have close friends who have been in their lives for decades, they are dismissed as “just” friends. Do singles have satisfying sex lives? Then they must be promiscuous. Are they clearly not sleeping around? Oh, how sad — they are not getting any. Do singles have jobs that they love? Tsk tsk; eventually, they will realize that their jobs won’t love them back.
The trivializing of the lives of single people is only half the story. The other half is the buffing and polishing of marriage to make it seem shiny and magical. Marriage is something that most people try sooner or later. Some wed over and over again. Getting married, then, does not make people special; instead, it makes them conventional.
How can something so ordinary be made to seem so extraordinary? Enter matrimania. I love being single. I’ve been single all my life. Still, it was not until I decided to study the singular experience from my perspective as a social scientist that I discovered something startling: Marriage has never been so unnecessary to a full life nor so irrelevant to a happy one as it is today.
So stand tall, singulars, despite it all. The matri-maniacs are like the braggarts who are full of themselves on the outside but quivering deep within. Society has become matri-maniacal not because marriage has such a secure and unshakable grounding in the center of all of our lives, but because its place has never been so precarious. Single people — living joyfully, passionately and unapologetically — are here to stay.
Copyright © Bella DePaulo/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.