Why is anyone still getting married?

In an age of marriage equality, female empowerment, Facebook relationship statuses, the recognition of long-term cohabitation and a generation that can’t afford to live on their own, why are people still marrying each other?

Sure, you can sit there and pretend like you don’t want it or that you are not even interested in the idea. But if that’s the case, why do we care so deeply about others who ritualize their pair-bonding? Meghan Markle, anyone? And why do we spend unimaginable amounts of money on a single day? For your information, the worldwide wedding industry is estimated to be $300 billion(!) annually. And why do those who publically claim they will never marry, fall into it? Maybe you have heard of Cameron Diaz, Jessica Chastain, Alison Brie, or George Clooney.

My experience

In the journalistic legacy of full disclosure, your author swore never to marry, only to give in when the right person asked the right question. And in some twisted joke by the universe, I had not one, not two, but three weddings. To be clear, all to the same person.

If that wasn’t cruel enough, I now marry people for a living. To be more specific, I fake marry people for a living. Don’t worry. They know its fake and that is why they are doing it. I am a symbolic wedding celebrant with no legal power; nevertheless, couples hire me to create personalized wedding ceremonies for them.

It is this work that drove me to ask the question: “Why are people still getting married?”

“What does marriage mean to you?”

Over four years and the 50+ couples I have married, I decided early on to understand their motivation. I ask all my couples directly “What does marriage mean to you?” The response is enlightening.

Without fail they begin to talk about the day and the importance of the act of marrying. They do not speak of the institution of marriage and a lifelong desire to be a part of it. No, that is not it. Instead, they talk about standing up in front of their loved ones/family/community and saying one of the following…

“This is the one.”

“This is the one I want in my corner.”

“This is the one I want to travel the world with.”

“This is the one that means I don’t have to do online dating anymore.”

These responses are consistent across nationality, race, sexuality, and gender. Never once have I heard a couple tell me that marriage means to them…

“The opportunity to be a part of a sacred institution.”

“The tax advantages that come with marriage.”

“The reduced probability of stress and depression.”

“The desire to live longer.”

While all of these are documented benefits of marriage, at least on the surface, they are not what is driving us towards marriage.

Almost every single couple I have spoken with tells me that marrying will change nothing for them. To give you an idea about the couples I marry: 92% already live together, 60% own a home together, 35% are in their relationship for more than a decade, 25% already have a child, and 100% are already legally married on the day they stand in front of me. So why do they do it?


Marriage today

In a Pew Research Poll in 2014 of Americans, respondents were asked to choose which of the following statements most closely matches their viewpoint:

Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority,


Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.

Amongst respondents aged 50 and older, just 45% chose the second statement. Half (53%) of those aged 30 to 49 selected that statement and two-thirds (67%) of those aged 19 to 29 believe society is just as well off when we have priorities beyond marriage and children.

The conflict, however, arises when asked if it is important for couples to marry if they plan to spend the rest of their lives together. A whopping 68% of Americans believe it is somewhat or very important to marry.

So how can we rationalize this difference in responses? Simply put, marriage has lost its institutional status in society. Though still coveted, marriage today is driven by very different reason than it once was and has undergone two important transitions in the 20th century.

The first transition was from ‘‘from an institution to a companionship’’ (Burgess & Locke, 1945). In the first half of the 20th-century labor division within the household was still strict: a male breadwinner provided for his wife, who stayed home and managed the household. However, what Burgess and Locke highlighted was the rise of the “companionate marriage.” This form of marriage meant that husband and wife were not just capitalizing on their comparative advantages, but were companions, friends, and lovers. Prior to and up until the transition that came later, marriage was seen as mandatory. A history of British marriages from the 1950s to 1960s was dubbed the “era of mandatory marriage.” In the US, from the start of the century to the 1950s, the rate of marriage among young people actually rose, while the age at which they married dropped.

The next transition in marriage began in the second half of the 20th century and gave rise to what is called individualized marriage. In the late 1980’s, author Francesca M. Cancian identified the main themes underpinning the newest transition in marriage, they included: 1) self-development — we should be whole, fulfilled individuals within a marriage; 2) marriage roles are flexible; and 3) an openness to tackling problems together. No longer were we to be defined by our marriage and antiquated ideas of marriage responsibilities. A new era of married life was upon us. While we are still in the era of individualized marriage, the importance of marriage as an institution has declined.

On the one hand, the institution of marriage and the moral authority that it carries is no longer seen as essential to the fabric of society. And on the other hand, people still see it as important to marry a long-term partner. In the article entitled “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage”, by Andrew J. Cherlin, the author disentangles these seemingly contradictory ideas:

“What has happened is that although the practical importance of being married has declined, its symbolic importance has remained high, and may even have increased… It has evolved from a marker of conformity to a marker of prestige. Marriage is a status one builds up to, often by living with a partner beforehand, by attaining steady employment or starting a career, by putting away some savings, and even by having children. Marriage’s place in the life course used to come before those investments were made, but now it often comes afterward. It used to be the foundation of adult personal life; now it is sometimes the capstone. It is something to be achieved through one’s own efforts rather than something to which one routinely accedes.”

If Cherlin is correct and we now seek marriage, not to conform to societal norms, but instead to mark our success at life, why do we go continue to undertake marriage ceremonies? Could the show of achievement and wealth no be just as easily achieved through simply a party? The purchase of a home? The bearing of many children? Why are we still so drawn to this ritual?

What is a ritual?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ritual as an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.

Beyond the simple dictionary definition, an often cited definition of ritual in the realm of sociology is “the voluntary performance of appropriately patterned behavior to symbolically effect or participate in the serious life” (Rothenbuhler, 1998, p. 27).

Dense, I know. But let’s break it down because it’s important to understand it before we consider why we crave it so much.

The first portion of the definition, “voluntary performance”, presents an aspect of free will, we are choosing to undertake this activity. Yes, there may exist social pressure to act, but it is still a choice. The second word, “performance”, connotates an audience, someone or some group to witness this act. While some rituals, like prayer, are done in private, a great many have a performative element deeply ingrained in them.

Now it gets a little tricky: “appropriately patterned behavior”. Appropriate by who’s standards? The standards of the community which you find yourself a part of and in front of whom you are most likely performing this act.

Patterned behavior” indicates that this is not a one-off action; instead this is something that has occurred before and contains predefined steps within it.

The final chunk of the definition, “to symbolically effect or participate in the serious life” recognizes that there are two broad sets of circumstances under which we undertake rituals.

The first, “to symbolically effect”, recognizes the futile actions we perform. Knocking on wood will not stop something terrible from happening. Rain dances do not affect atmospheric weather patterns. Nevertheless, we undertake these actions as they give us a feeling of control over a life which has so many random elements that exist beyond our reach. We will not focus on this aspect of ritual in this article.

And finally “or participate in the serious life”, this addresses the rituals that we undertake to mark life transitions and, more generally, the passage of time. Examples of these abound: the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood called a Bar Mitzvah; graduation from educational institutions; and, most definitely, marriage.

My interpretation of Rothenbuhler’s definition goes something like “A predefined and socially-known action that we voluntarily perform in front of others to either achieve a symbolic goal or demarcate our place in society.”

*Please note, I do not have a degree in sociology, anthropology, nor psychology. My interpretation of this definition is my own, written in simple language that non-PhD students can understand.*

The loss of ritual in our life

Now that we have an understanding of rituals, why is that we so desperately crave them in our lives? One reason is that we currently have so few of them.

The School of Life presents an incredibly insightful video on the history of rituals. Beyond pointing out the numerous and varied holidays of the past, in the video, the School of Life states that we have far fewer rituals in our present day than we once had.

A quick (13 minute) history on rituals

One proxy of the importance of rituals is the number of holidays a society recognizes. Holidays are days in which work is suspended in order to allow for the celebration or commemoration of a particular moment, i.e. days comprised of various rituals such that they are rituals. The diminished importance in rituals is thought to be tied to the industrial revolution. One example includes the Bank of England which slashed its holiday calendar from 36 days in 1831 to just 4 in 1834. Rituals requiring time off became a hindrance to success in a thriving capitalist society. Still, don’t believe me that a well-functioning economy “should” do without holidays? In 2012 the government of Portugal took its austerity measures one step further by scraping 4 of its 14 public holidays. A move thought to help the economy become more competitive.

A more recent example of the decline in rituals includes that of the family dinner. That sacred hour of the day when the family would come together, share the experiences of the day, and parents would impart wisdom upon their offspring (Bossard (1943), “Family Table Talk — An Area for Sociological Study,” American Sociological Review). The result of roles changing within the family, combined with changes to work schedules and expectations, is a loss in the sanctity of the family dinner hour.

A further explanation of why we lack rituals in our present-day life includes the near monopoly that religion has in this realm. Rituals are a cornerstone for any religion. If you were raised Catholic anywhere in the world, you can walk into a Catholic church in another country and even if the priest is speaking in another language, you would know what will happen next, what to do and the role you play. It is comforting. However, more and more of us are turning away from this comfort.

Pew research, as of 2010, measured that 17% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with a religion. They predict that by 2050 the portion will rise to 25%. A similar trend is reported in Europe as well. More so than the mounting proportion of people who identify as unaffiliated with a religion, there is the question of the importance of religion in one’s life (see the graph below).

As the importance of religion declines in our society, so too does the undertaking of the associated rituals. The arena that now welcomes and provides a “safe space” for the undertaking of rituals is that of sports. As Varda Burstyn wrote, “In fact, in industrial society, sport has overtaken many of the previous functions of an established patriarchal church and organized religion.” Our stadiums are cathedrals, our gods are muscled men at the apex of masculinity and our collective bonding comes from the shared joy of victory or the shared agony of defeat.

New rituals

While sports may attempt to fill the void, as a whole, we have been left feeling lost and desperate for collective rituals. We desire a release of collective emotion as a community in a prescribed way. Presently, people are seeking to bring rituals back into their life, but not merely in the form of returning to what has been, but instead a conscious examination of what rituals currently exist and what new rituals they can choose to create.

In Scotland, the number of baby-naming ceremonies, a non-religious alternative to a baptism, tripled from 2005 to 2014. The Ethical Culture movement — ethical humanist communities that seek to foster a democratic, compassionate, just, and sustainable world — has created its own secular version of a coming of age ceremony. And in Japan divorce ceremonies are giving couples the opportunity to mark the end of a chapter in their lives before moving on. More anecdotally, a friend who recently left the Mormon Church admitted to feeling the loss in his life of the highly effective church rituals and thought it essential to create a ritual of his own to mark this crucial moment of transition in his life.

While weddings, in both its religious and secular forms, continues to live on, it is in desperate need of an update. What does that update look like? Well, based on the knowledge gained of three of my own wedding ceremonies, plus over 50 more ceremonies of other people, I can tell you exactly what it should look like:

Whatever the fuck you want it to look like.

Seriously. It is as simple as that. Stop thinking about what your sister did or what you saw at your second cousin's wedding three years ago or what you think people expect to see. Sit down with your partner and think about what is important to you, what aspects of your relationship you value, what you admire in one another, what the other does that drives you crazy, and what you want your future to look like. Only once you have answered those questions can you think about what you want your marriage ritual to be. And remember, the only wrong way to do a ritual is to do something that is without meaning to you. Anything short of that and you have got it right.

I ran away to Portugal to start a food tour and wedding celebranting business after a decade in IFIs. I adore writing, my dog, naps, and reinventing myself.

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