June is gone, and so is this year’s
exultation ostentation exhibition of June brides, gone to the Bahamas to recover from nuptial consumer fatigue, the honeymoon’s new raison d’etre. But back in December, the conscientious bride-to-be studying the Weddings section of the New York Times would have come across a list of fifteen questions to be asked and answered of her future spouse before the big day:
1) Have we discussed whether or not to have children, and if the answer is yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?
2) Do we have a clear idea of each otherâ€™s financial obligations and goals, and do our ideas about spending and saving mesh?
3) Have we discussed our expectations for how the household will be maintained, and are we in agreement on who will manage the chores?
4) Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?
5) Is my partner affectionate to the degree that I expect?
6) Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences and fears?
7) Will there be a television in the bedroom?
8) Do we truly listen to each other and fairly consider one anotherâ€™s ideas and complaints?
9) Have we reached a clear understanding of each otherâ€™s spiritual beliefs and needs, and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?
10) Do we like and respect each otherâ€™s friends?
11) Do we value and respect each otherâ€™s parents, and is either of us concerned about whether the parents will interfere with the relationship?
12) What does my family do that annoys you?
13) Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?
14) If one of us were to be offered a career opportunity in a location far from the otherâ€™s family, are we prepared to move?
15) Does each of us feel fully confident in the otherâ€™s commitment to the marriage and believe that the bond can survive whatever challenges we may face?
This list strikes me as an entirely reasonable set of questions for June ’07 brides to ask in the vestibule of their married lives, and when I read it I duly forwarded the item to all the brides-to-be in my address book. It occurred to me, though, that had my mother, a June bride in 1973, come across this list during her engagement, some of the questions—-say 1, 3, 9, 13, 14 and 15—would have seemed entirely unnecessary. She had no need to negotiate the whether and who of children, housework, career, religion, or divorce; when she said “yes,” she agreed not only to wed my father, but to marry him, as well—that is, to enter into a social institution the chief terms of which had already been negotiated. And to my grandmother in 1947, perhaps only five or six of the fifteen would have seemed remotely relevant—again, not because questions of children, sex, finances and housework were irrelevant to their marriage, but because the institution of marriage itself provided the answers. To be married was to put on a ready-made set of roles; before the gown ever glinted in the bride’s eye, in other words, the shared public meanings and practices of marriage performed the work of negotiation implied in the Times’ fifteen questions.
My grandmother’s generation sewed its own wedding gowns but got its marriages pret-a-porter; my own generation buys its wedding gowns off the rack at David’s Bridal but custom-makes each marriage. And as any bride’s father will tell you, custom-made is expensive: a made-to-order marriage, one in which every aspect of the deal must be offered, negotiated, and accepted, is far more expensive than a couture gown. It can only be purchased with cold hard relationship capital, with time and skilled communication, negotiation and re-negotiation, patience and persistence, and bottomless reservoirs of trust, commitment and goodwill. (Plenty of money sweetens the deal, as well: the secret to a successful 50-50 marriage after kids, more often than not, is that 50% of the household work is hired out.) Perhaps it’s fair to say that our stripped-down version of marriage has outsourced its social and ideological work, as well: whereas the public institution itself once did the work of sorting individuals into congruent pairs and organizing the domestic and financial affairs of the resulting household, that work is now left to private individuals—and an eager
company cache clutch of counselors and consultants.
This emaciation of the institution has been celebrated as an emancipation for individuals, and on its face this notion is difficult to refute: individuals, particularly women, now enjoy more positive freedom to initiate, negotiate, and terminate relationships nearly at will. But given the high sociological cost of marriage, and its diminishing social utility, fewer people are able to afford marriage at all—and those who don’t marry are precisely those who lack the social and personal capital to secure the human goods of marriage by other routes. The weakening of public insitutions promotes some positive personal freedom for all, but it can simultaneously erode the negative freedoms—freedom from poverty and misery, say—that ought to protect our marginal communities.
The high sociological cost of custom-made marriage may explain some aspects of the gender gaps in marriage and divorce, as well: young, childless, professional women tend to be wealthy in the sort of relationship capital necessary to favorably negotiate the terms of a marriage—perhaps, indeed, wealthier in this way than manyof their male counterparts—and thus it’s no surprise that they look forward to marriage on their own terms. But the intractably unequal distributions of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant attachment will deplete a mother’s reservoir of capital much faster than a father’s, and thus perhaps it’s no surprise that after children arrive, marriages tend to drift back into cheaper, ready-made gender-roles or else to dissolve altogether, usually initiated by the wife, who no longer has the capital favorably to negotiate the terms of the marriage.
All this is not to say that marriage is the new iPhone, expensive and faulty. Marriage still works pretty hard for those who can afford it: it efficiently installs a bundle of legal obligations and privileges, it regulates sexual behavior, and it fosters fathers’ investment in their children. And recently marriage, together with pornography, has assumed the broader cultural task of imagining what it means to be female, a set of images and meanings to which women seem drawn despite (or because of) our hopelessly vexed ideas of gender. Bridal cheesecake, the bride’s lips parted in a rictus of consumer lust, is an important picture of femininity, whatever we may feel about the rhetoric of that picture. The honeybees that pollinate the orange blossoms in the wedding bouquet are disappearing. The bouquet, for the moment, is still here.