“Seems like ppl put an awful lot of creative energy into planning their weddings and I wonder what other things that energy could create,” tweeted Emily Gould recently. I started to write a response, then realized 140 (actually, 129) characters wouldn’t cut it for this one.
It’s a good question. Why do people put such an incredible amount of energy into weddings? The oft-remarked-upon irony is that weddings have become more elaborate even as marriage itself has become less central to people’s lives. After a century-long rise, the divorce rate has plateaued at around 40%-50%. The average age of marriage is rising, and more couples are cohabiting before, or instead of, marrying.
Marriage isn’t going away any time soon, though—as the battle over gay marriage shows, marriage still means a lot both legally and symbolically. In fact, the increasing rarity and fragility of marriage is one reason why weddings have become such intense zones of focus.
Weddings have always been important, but the farther back in time you go, the more marriages were like business transactions. You don’t need a highly personal party to sign a contract, but when, after a ten-year courtship and five years of coresidence, you’re making an at-long-last public vow to forever join your life with that of your your best friend and soulmate…that’s a big deal.
It’s said that weddings aren’t for the couples, they’re for the couples’ family and friends. That was certainly true in, say, the 19th century, and to a large extent it’s still true today. Weddings are still occasions for proud parents to show off the fact that they’ve managed to raise a decent human being who’s worth the undying love of a hottie, and couples still want to show their guests a good time. Weddings, though, have also achieved a unique position as the single biggest opportunity for individuals to dramatize their individuality.
That sounds ironic—aren’t weddings supposed to be about the opposite of individuality? Well, yes and no. When the average age of marriage was lower, you became part of a permanent and legal couple much earlier in life, before you had much of a chance to live as an individual. As that age creeps ever higher, brides and grooms on average have much more single life behind them—and they’re choosing from a much wider range of partners. Just do the math: greater latitude to choose partners from different walks of life (x) more time to do the choosing (x) moving among more jobs and more places (x) living in bigger cities among more people (=) a much more meaningful choice of partner. So even though you’re getting hitched, your partner says a lot more about you than he or she used to. Publicly declaring that this is the one says more about you as an individual than it ever has before.
And then of course there’s the party. The script for weddings used to be much more tightly defined than it is now. Today, couples have an enormous amount of room to adapt and tailor the basic do-you-okay-now-do-you-great-kiss-eat-drink-dance ritual. What’s the venue? Ceremony? Music? Vows? Wedding party? Food? Cake? Music? Flowers? Photos? Even the most bare-bones wedding planning is going to involve coming up with answers to those questions—and not arbitrary answers, meaningful answers. Why are you getting married there? What does this cake say about you?
If life is a play in which you perform the role of “yourself,” you are unlikely to ever stand on a bigger stage than the altar at which you’re married. This is your big moment. This is who you are. Don’t choke. Make us believe you—and more importantly, make yourself believe you.