When cohabiting is the norm, why bother with marriage or a wedding? Isn’t a wedding an expense that can be easily avoided by financially strapped millennials? It may be nice, but is it necessary?
There is a lot of talk today about who can get married, but not as much about why one should have a wedding or the relationship of the wedding to a marriage. This is not a topic taken up in bridal magazines.
New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that the real crisis of marriage in modern societies is the “culture of contingency.” Having learned through millions of consumer decisions to value individual choice as the highest value, many take a consumerist mindset even toward the most intimate of human relationships. We’ll shop around, try on a few sexual partners, or enter into a “starter” marriage. The culture expects people to practice a kind of “slow-motion promiscuity” as depicted in the myriad of relationship-based reality TV shows. So the first aim of a wedding is to address the problem of contingency. The opposite of contingency is permanence. But this problem is largely addressed in the legal process of getting a state-sanctioned marriage license. One can have a legal marriage—a quick trip to the courthouse—without the bother of a wedding. What else does a wedding add?
Marriage is, for better and worse, something more than the coupling of two individuals. It is the linking of two families. This is often symbolized by the hyphening of the couple’s two names. But more than a symbol, it’s an important reality. One brings all the history, traditions, and expectations of two family systems into a marriage. “Old tapes” abound. Because the current institution of marriage is so fragile having the love and support of family is an important strengthening factor. This is even more the case when the family being brought to the marriage is marred by divorce. This makes the wedding protocols a lot more complicated, but if everyone can get on the same page, the support of all the families goes a long way to papering over enduring cracks in family ties.
So the communal aspect of a wedding is critical. A marriage is not a private event but a public ceremony where friends and relatives all add their pledge to the couple as they say their vows. It is a communal affirmation of support, which is why the preacher in the traditional wedding asks the audience if there are any detractors, “...speak now or forever hold your peace.” This is the time for all to pledge their support to the couple that will inevitably go through trying times in the years ahead. We pledge together to be there for them for the sake of the marriage. This is the better part.
There is a worse part as well. All unresolved family tensions could find their way into this most intimate of family gatherings. Families are, for the sake of the dead, more willing to put on a good face at funerals than at weddings. Weddings can be another matter. Obviously, this is not the time or place to solve any residual family tensions.
But there are other challenges that families can bring to a marriage and that is the problem of enmeshment. This is when the marrying couple is not allowed to become their own new family. One does not join the extended family’s “circle of trust” as one might do in the Mafia or in Meet the Fockers; rather one creates one’s own new and separate “circle of trust.” The sacred literature describes this as “leaving and cleaving.” The extended family needs to let this happen. In enmeshed families, what looks like love is only a form of meddling and control. This is totally unhelpful to the new couple as depicted in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Parents and grandparents need to take this into advisement. Too much emotional or financial entanglement is not helpful psychologically for the new couple. A wedding is a communal event and in its emotionally healthy expression a great source of strength for the new couple.
The final reason for a wedding is cosmological. American society is torn between two contesting moral logics when it comes to sex and marriage. It’s the difference between horizontal and vertical. The horizontal view is that marriage gains its moral coherence from the interaction between the couple, from their contract with one another ...and nothing more. In contrast, the vertical view understands marriage cosmologically as something rooted deep in the nature of reality. This can be variously understood in the language of religion, natural law, or secular reason. A spiritual wedding from within any number of religious traditions seeks to underscore this cosmological dimension. Something is happening in the marriage ceremony that is beyond the couple that points to the stars. Sociologists acknowledge that this latter view is in decline. How one frames the meaning of the wedding matters and a spiritual wedding can go a long way to grounding the couple’s new life within a larger cosmic story.
Addressing the culture of contingency, celebrating the couple in a community, and rooting their story within a larger cosmology are three aspects of a wedding. Yes, weddings are an expensive fun party. But with so much at stake it is good to remember that they are so much more.