I’ve heard the phrase “Marriage is just a piece of paper” uttered by my peers more times than I can count. And still, like clockwork, as wedding season wrapped up recently my timeline was full of brides and beaus, relationship goals and bae announcements. Despite our overall reluctance and casual dismissal of the idea of marriage all together, we cannot get enough of weddings themselves. We want the picture perfect proposal, complete with semi-candid photographs and cheerful innocent bystanders. We want the elaborate bridesmaid invitations, choreographed bachelor/bachelorette dance challenges, and blog-worthy bridal party entrances. Most of us have been dreaming of our wedding days since we were young, down to the most minuet detail. Too bad few of us are that excited about what happens after the wedding.
It’s almost as if we’ve completely disassociated the two — weddings and marriage that is — with my friends speaking of marriage and weddings like the two don’t go hand in hand, already having a gown and color scheme in mind but not the slightest clue how to choose a guy worthy of seeing either one. It was after hearing an acquaintance casually comment about her future husband only needing to show up to the ceremony for the photo ops that I slowly began to accept that we have some unhealthy views of matrimony altogether. We most certainly want to get married, we just don’t want to be anyone’s spouse.
I almost can’t blame us for our aversion to spousal-hood. By all accounts, weddings are one hell of a time; marriage, on the other hand, just looks like hell. There’s an overall expectation that wedding ceremonies are filled with celebration, joy and togetherness, while marriage has taken on more of a Forest Gump reputation with neither party quite sure what they’re going to get. Generally speaking, men have come to expect marriage to symbolize a loss of freedom while women have come to expect a loss of, well, everything else. And neither is too far off in their thinking. It’s well documented that women have very little to gain from marriage; men, on the other hand, have very little to lose except their extended adolescence. Still, the idea of eternity in a society that changes by the second has most hesitant to jump the broom. And while marriage has become an unnecessary evil, weddings themselves have become the star of the show, with some women going as far as to marry themselves just for the sake of having a fanciful celebration centered around them.
With every conversation about our matrimony mistrust turning into tales of philandering grandpas and eerily devoted grandmas, it’s hard to argue any points in its defense. We would be foolish to believe that the majority of Black marriages in the 1950’s and 1960’s were riddled with infidelity, side children and pseudo-polygamy. During a time when 72% of all Black men and 81% of Black women had been married, we were bound to see some unhappy unions, but there is no actual data supporting the notion that all of our grandmothers were miserable doormats and our grandfathers were the vintage versions of T.I. Sure it helps to bypass the conversation, but it does very little to deal with the bigger issue at hand, which is that most of us have never seen marriage done right.
Think back to your childhood. Who taught you about weddings? The elaborate wedding cakes, ice fountains, delicately hand-sewn wedding gowns –where were you first introduced to these and similar images? If I had to guess I’d say television, am I right? The concept of the billowy bride gliding towards her groom accompanied by her dedicated father and surrounded by friends and family is one firmly planted into our minds by the media machine at work. Weddings aren’t just business, they’re big business. With more than 2.5 million weddings in the U.S. alone every single year, the American wedding industry weighs in at a whopping $72 billion. And as with anything that makes money in this country, big business is all over it. So it should come as no surprise that businesses, small and large alike, are in support of the mass produced narrative that has all of us planning weddings before we fully understand the symbolism of such an occasion.
If you’re not sold on the idea that the promotion of weddings but not marriages is intentional marketing, think back long and hard to your childhood. Who taught you about marriage? How many times were you offered a lesson on boundary problems or intimacy? When did you first learn the difference between talking to your spouse and communicating with your spouse? Who informed you about the importance of fidelity and compromise? We’re not talking about passive teaching or the process of picking things up through casual observation, we’re talking about active teaching, the intentional training of a child or adolescent. Who teaches us how to be spouses the way they teach us what a veil symbolizes and why an engagement ring is the most important piece of jewelry a woman will own? I almost can’t blame us for not knowing how to be husbands and wives because those lessons went untaught. The question then becomes if we don’t know how to do the job, why do we we keep applying?
Unfortunately, we can’t get the wedding without the spouse so we hesitantly oblige, but in the back of our minds, we know we’ve got options. The most enticing of them being divorce, and with a divorce rate just south of 50%, it’s safe to say we like our options. It’s typically when you bring up society’s affinity for quick fixes that people begin to chronicle all of the challenges that couples who do honor the forever in their vows face. Sure, some of the women in our lineages endured rocky relationships with men who provided financially but contributed not much else, but we could still learn a great deal from that generation. Mainly, that marriage isn’t for the faint of heart. And while marriage isn’t intended to subject lovers to meaningless long suffering, it is intended to guide two people through life’s ups and downs as a unit. There’s a reason that “for better or for worse” is written into wedding vowels, because it would be naive to think that lifelong partnerships are devoid of either one. The dilemma is that we have wedding expectations for marriage. We want everything to go as scripted, we want the music queued up and the lighting just right, we want daily lives that look like wedding still shots, and we couldn’t be more unrealistic if we tried. We look at older couples who’ve been together for decades and crave their seemingly unruffled wisdom but we fail to acknowledge all the sacrifice and dedication it took to get them there. We are a generation that celebrates the ride-or-die girlfriend and the side chick that knows her place (I’m still trying to figure out how that works) but condemns the devoted wife and we wonder why weddings seem to be the only part of matrimony that we get right.
Marriage is not just a piece of paper and anyone who believes that likely doesn’t know as much about it as they think. Marriage strengthens communities, builds wealth, and benefits children in more ways than sociologists can measure. When marriage is approached from the standpoint of what can I contribute as opposed to what can I get, it takes in a level of selflessness that few get to experience. No, marriage, particularly in the Black community, hasn’t always been used to demonstrate the effectiveness of a loving partnership but we don’t have to throw out the concept altogether simply because it’s been modeled poorly. We are intelligent enough to redefine marriage as we best see fit with our collective best interests in mind. We are not victims of circumstance if we dive head first into elaborate wedding ceremonies for marriages we have no strategy to maintain. We don’t stop trying to be appease our employers after we’re hired for a new job or get promoted and in the same fashion, we shouldn’t stop working to be supportive, well-meaning partners after we make it down the aisle. It’s true that we are not our grandparents and we may be even less like our parents, but absolutely nothing is stopping us from being better.