Thursday, March 17, 2011

Marriage, Part II -- Getting Married Ain't No Merit Badge

"Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. "It's like the ultimate merit badge."
-- from the Time Magazine article I blogged about on Thursday, "Marriage: A Changing Institution"

My husband was working late this Monday night, and on the nights when I have the house to myself, I sometimes use the opportunity to do something completely self indulgent. Like sew something frivolous, watch a chick flick, talk on the phone with my mom for an hour, or drink a beer and eat six Peanut Butter Patty Girl Scout Cookies (that had been a really long day). This particular Monday, I watched the two-hour finale of "The Bachelor." As my husband said when he got home, that's two hours of my life that I'll never get back.

Several of my best friends watch the show (one friend even tried out for it years ago, but more as a lark than actually thinking she'd be a contestant and find the man of her dreams). So though I generally find this desperately painful to watch, I tuned in for the sake of being in on the hot gossip for the next day (I'm not proud of myself here).

I find the whole premise of this show truly offensive -- and I know I'm not saying anything unique. The whole idea of a group of gorgeous women all jockeying for the right to date and hopefully marry the same man is ridiculous at best and sick at worst. He gets both of them worked up to the point where he might propose a life-time commitment, and then the whole nation watches as the two women, dressed up like pageant queens, walk down the aisle to what could be the most magical moment of their lives or the most public humiliation.

Yet, God help me, I cried! Both for the spunky brunette who sobbed all the way home in the limo, and for the "happy" couple, who kept saying "I love you, I love you," over and over again with apparent sincerity, while the cameras zoomed in. Hurray for the poised and perfect blond! She has won herself a man! Cue happily ever after (until the after-show when it's revealed they've already pushed the wedding date back once, at which point my husband came home and switched off my TV).

The next day I had an emotional hangover. What the heck was I getting so worked up about? And then I thought of the quotation from this Johns Hopkins sociologist in Time. It said, essentially, that getting married is like the ultimate merit badge.

Even though, according to Time's survey, many Americans think marriage is becoming an anachronistic institution, people still keep getting married in America, and weddings are big, big business. Even though culturally we don't necessarily value lifetime commitments, we still love weddings, we love to see celebrities get engaged (though most of us don't really believe it will last), and we treat our friends who are getting married like girls who have just been crowned homecoming queen.

When I was in college, I was part of a co-ed Christian fraternity, a wonderful group of grounded young men and women who were very devoted to each other. To this day, they remain in my mind as one of the best examples of community I have ever experienced. Being a pious group of kids, we didn't drink, we didn't have sex. Doesn't sound like college in America, I know, but we had a great, great time. One of the things unique to our particular subculture, is that a large portion of us -- about a third I would guess -- got married to our college sweethearts right after graduation.

Being of traditional mindset, most of us gals really wanted to get married and have a family, and there was no more exciting day than when one of us announced we had just gotten engaged. (This is my own perspective, though. Perhaps not every girl felt like this.) The night I told the girls Jeff had proposed, they presented me with flowers, a homemade veil, and a bridal magazine with all their faces pasted over the models in the bridesmaids ads.

Looking back on my life, though, when I think of how I met my husband at the age of 18 and married him at 21, I thank God that I didn't make a colossal mistake. So much did I dream of being proposed to, planning a wedding, going on a honeymoon, etc, that it's a miracle I didn't pick the wrong guy just to get a guy.
I will say that I believed at the time that Jeff was a responsible, honest, caring, and smart man of integrity, which are wise criteria on which to pick a spouse (thanks Mom and Dad for teaching me that). But at 21, the prefrontal cortex of my brain -- the area that controls risk assessment and decision-making -- wasn't fully formed, which is one of the reasons why teenagers do such stupid things. So it doesn't seem like I was old enough to get married.

If I believed in luck, I'd say I was lucky, lucky, lucky to find a man who turned out to be more solid and awesome than he even appeared to me when I was 20. And though I believe finding Jeff had everything to do with God's hand in my life and His purposes for our family, I almost have trouble saying that, because why should He bless me with a good husband and make so many other more deserving women who want to get married wait so long?

Getting married ain't no merit badge, friends. Some of the most intelligent, kind, talented and beautiful women I know aren't married, and are still thinking it would be nice to find Mr. Right. And we all know married men and women who aren't very nice at all. There doesn't seem to me to be any correlation between being a person of value and how quickly you can find yourself a mate. I think a single woman holding out for the right guy (and vice versa) is much more admirable than someone who gets married in a hurry because she or he has bought into the hype. I wonder if our marriages would be better and our commitments last longer if we would stop treating engagements and weddings as social status symbols and more like the desperately serious commitments they are. If brides weren't seen as glorified prom queens, maybe we would take our time and get married more for the right reasons.

My old friend Jeremy commented on my last blog that too many people get married because it's what they're "supposed" to do. He's absolutely right. But wouldn't it be better if Americans refined our decision making about when and to whom to get married, rather than throw out the whole institution?

And, sorry my friends and fans of the show, but we'd all be better off if "The Bachelor" went off the air.


  1. LOVE your last 2 sentences. Totally agree with both. "Refining our decision making" as you're suggesting has to happen within a framework, ideally one based on absolute truth. And sadly, that's one framework many people don't have.