Happily Ever After 7/25/99
Tue Jul 27 18:06:42 EDT 1999
from: Smart Marriages
New York Times
July 25, 1999
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW Happily Ever After
Americans will always love marriage -- and polls about other people's
lives. By PETER GODWIN
I still occasionally have the nightmare: I am processing down a hall of
some sort, and as I pass, the distorted faces of obscure relatives and
forgotten school friends leer up at me from under ridiculous hats and on
top of padded shoulders, mouthing fatuous congratulations. Those awful
first bars of "The Wedding March" blast out of the organ in a wheezy
fugue, and I cast around for escape. The congregation turns on me,
sneering and jeering. Then the chapel doors are thrown open in a burst of
light and an explosion of white taffeta. And I awake in a sweaty knot of
But though in my waking life I've never walked down the aisle, I consider
myself married in all but the most literal sense. For years it seemed the
only ones who disagreed with our loose interpretation of the word were
car-rental companies, who continue to charge us an extra $5 a day. That
all changed a year ago when my partner began to show signs of pregnancy.
Suddenly everyone was inquiring about our marital status. And when we
responded that we had no plans to tie the knot, we got pursed-lipped
responses where we least expected them. The word "bastard" hovered just
offstage. The more we were challenged about it, the more determined we
became not to succumb.
So it was with some relief that I seized upon "The State of Our Unions,"
a study recently published by the Rutgers University National Marriage
Project, which claimed that marriage in America was a sickly institution,
down 43 percent over the last four decades and now hovering at an
all-time low. The initial news reports presented the trend as proof of
the sorry state of American morality in general. "I'm worried most
because of the teen-agers," one of the report's authors was quoted as
saying. "With the breakdown of the family, peer culture, which includes
pop culture, has gotten stronger. Nothing could be more antimarriage than
much of popular culture." After that came a flurry of debates, in op-ed
articles and on-line chat groups and at dinner parties, about the results
and what they might mean, and many concluded that the study was all wrong
in the first place. People took a closer look at the numbers and decided
Americans aren't less likely to marry after all; they're just less likely
to marry young.
In fact, we entertain a continuing obsession with marriage. Just look
around. The wedding industry seems to expand with each fat new issue of
Brides magazine, and baroque ceremonies and lavish receptions grow ever
more common. Meanwhile, there has been a renewal of celluloid interest in
the wedding rite, from boy-gets-girl weepies to period films to gay plot
twists to the latest offering, "Runaway Bride" -- an enactment of my very
own panic dream, but from a woman's point of view. Only a statistician
could even imagine that we're through with marriage. The truth is that
Americans are nuts about the institution -- so much so that, unlike their
parents and grandparents, they enter into it three, four, five times or
Indeed, it's no coincidence that our interest in marriage's storybook
representations grows just as fast as our practical evidence of its
failures. For the American penchant for serial marriage is a perfect
testament to the repeated triumph of hope over experience. Another recent
poll claimed that the more often you've been married, the more likely you
are to say "I love you" to your latest partner -- and the less likely
your marriage is to endure. It's just one more heartwarming example of
this country's uniquely tenacious brand of optimism.
The buzz generated by the Rutgers marriage poll betrays another uniquely
American trait -- a weakness for personal comparative analysis. It's the
reason we also devour surveys about success, weight, love, family and
happiness. And why not? Political polls tell us only how one candidate is
faring relative to another. Polls about other people's personal lives let
us gauge how we're faring relative to our friends and neighbors.
Consider another recent study in The Journal of the American Medical
Association, indicating that one-third of American women and 14 percent
of men had no interest in sex. By clocking just the slightest carnal
urge, readers could confidently place themselves well above the most
unfortunate stratum of their fellow citizens. Now that's one that even
the most languid underachiever could feel good about, right?
The trouble is that as these studies get more personal, they get more
meaningless. It's easy enough to count how many people are married, but
what about how many people are happily married? Or very happily? The
Rutgers study indicated that only 38 percent of people in their first
marriages described themselves as "very happy" and contrasted that number
starkly with the 53 percent of first-time spouses who did so in the early
1970's. But how long do you have to think about that figure before this
box-ticking calculus of contentment seems faintly absurd? This obsession
with trying to gauge our own happiness (and compare it with others') is a
pointlessly self-indulgent exercise. But it is one that seems to be
wholly American -- an outgrowth, perhaps, of the Declaration of
Independence itself, which first enshrined the pursuit of happiness.
I'm not an American by birth, but living here, in the country where
marriage remains more popular than anywhere else in the world, I've even
found myself wondering how my emotional life stacks up against the
national average. But I'm afraid the answer is a private matter. It's
strictly between me and my pollster.
"Around the Coalition" shares information on marriage and divorce and on
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