Okay, I know the stereotype about the two high-school sweethearts who marry as quickly as is humanly possible, have two babies two years later and thus have a reassuring plan that will carry them to the grave. I know the first love’s ache and the rushing endorphins, the wonderful conquest of your mind by your lover that first makes you feel you’re going insane, then secondly lets you realize that you don’t actually care. I know the image of the perfect lovers, those two lucky fuckers who, having married young, simply “got it right the first time”. I know all these stereotypes and more.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how many people would be falling for them.
Marriage at our age (let’s say 21) carries about a 30% success rate, up to 40% if you factor in the 25-year-olds. Those are the kind of odds that can (and do) make casino executives boatloads of cash, precisely because they are so deceptively good. You see the “score” zone on the dartboard and think “Shit, that’s nearly a third. I can totally nail this”. But in the end, the house always wins.
And that analogy only holds if it’s easier to steer a relationship than a dart (make your jokes ladies; we all know men are slightly more complicated than that). In a relationship you have to deal with miscommunications and hatreds, arguments and assholery, decisions, deceptions and demons every day of the week. People are complicated, and when two come together (usually, at this age, subconsciously searching for their parents) the problems can be so deeply-rooted and so poorly analyzed that it may take years in therapy to uncover them all. The odds of you finding someone you are truly, deeply simpatico with on your first one or two serious forays into the dating field are ludicrously low, as the statistics indicate. But (as is the problem in many cases) 100% of those getting married this year think they’re in the 30%. You see the issue.
So why do people do it (and why do I care? We’ll get to that in a bit)? Here’s my theory; we were told that after high school, we were “beginning our lives”, or at the very least matriculating to higher learning. And so our lives began, and a few years of mindless hedonism interferes enough with the college (should we afford it) that we drop out, grinding away at the job we hate to make enough money to obliterate our sobriety. We do this for years, a fairly large percentage of our lifespan mind you… and a miasma sets in, a noxious cloud of disappointment in the “real world”. “Is this all there is? Bills and work, then stupor and the grave? Being an adult blows!” This is a common revelation, and I think people deal with it in different ways. Some go back to school, some quit the booze and start yoga, some travel the world (my choice), and some pick up a bridal catalogue.
It used to be de rigueur that one hires a wedding photographer, a reasonable tradition that continues to this day, much to the delight and subsequent profit of my shutterbug friends. But now we’ve moved into the phenomenon of the engagement photo session, and sometimes even a few romantic snapshots to celebrate the giving of a promise ring. Through Facebook, every detail of the wedding can be bragged about, complained about, discussed and debated and the whole while the encouraging throng will be serving up, telling you how “cute” you look and how “happy” you’ll be and how “brave” you are to “take the next step”. If marriage was never primarily about social validation, it is now, and the more explicit the display the deeper rooted the insecurities. At least, that’s my read of the scenario.
Often you’ve heard people refer to marriage as the “next step”, and I think this concept is injurious in and of itself. Real life, and real love (the existence of which you’ll notice I will never dispute), are far too complicated to boil down into a series of steps, and the more we try to make our lives fit a mold the more uncomfortable we’ll be. There are many loves we’ll have throughout our life, and I’d never trade those real relationships for a beautiful illusion (and look at the numbers; for most reading this it IS an illusion). I know a gal who’s married to a man who she only said yes to so she wouldn’t lose him. I know a gal who married a man and saw him change into a tyrant practically overnight. I know a couple who were “firmly” engaged, broke up for three months, and then were “firmly engaged” again like nothing had happened. I know a guy who married to “do right” by his pregnant girlfriend, only to work two jobs and slowly watch the fire going out of his eyes. He loves his children; he wouldn’t give them up for the world. But he wishes he’d known the world a bit better before bringing them into it.
This hints at the question I posed myself (for you) earlier, which is; why do I give a shit? People do stupid things every day. Why should marriage get my goat so particularly? Well, to be honest, part of it is personal bias. I am the child of a recent divorce, a very “trouble in paradise” sort of scenario where I realized that even the firmest-seeming commitments can disintegrate in the acid of resentment. And even though it happened during a time when I was, ostensibly, more capable of coping emotionally with a greater amount of maturity and perspective, it still shattered my world. Two people had combined to make me, yet those two people now hated (sometimes) each other. So what does this say about my ability to reconcile my oft-contradictory nature? What does this say about my chance to be happy? These thoughts tormented me long after the fact, and still nag at me in the wee hours of the morning.
Have I answered my question yet? Children.
My existentialism professor was talking about the pointlessness of existence (so I was hooked). To illustrate how life can (and, often involuntarily, is) viewed, he pointed out the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to and then contrasted this with the whine of the petulant teenager “Jesus Mom, I didn’t ASK to be born!” Then he changed the narrative on me and pointed out that this statement was logically and, perhaps, morally correct. No child picks its parents, and seeing as nobody can do more damage to a child than a parent doesn’t that make it reasonable that parents owe their child maturity? That they be pretty good at life before they try and teach someone else the ropes?
More science; the human brain (most importantly the prefrontal cortex, which contains reasoning, empathy and impulse control… basically everything you’d need for a model, or perhaps moderate, citizen) isn’t finished developing until age 30. That means that we can essentially prove that, no matter how well you’d parent at age 20, or even 25, you’ll be doing an inherently better job when that fourth decade rolls around. My parents waited until they were 30 to have me, and despite their inherent conflicts and eventual failure to hold together the family unit, I still credit this choice as the smartest they’ve ever made. Being raised by adults, as opposed to overgrown teenagers (which most of us are) gave a palpable level of security and calm to my childhood I’m not sure could have existed even 3 years prior. To me, this chain of logic leads me to the conclusion that, in the age of free birth control and abundant information, those who choose to have children before they’re done developing themselves are practicing a form of neglect at best, and abuse at worst (and you all know the cases). And this isn’t even to get into those “single parents” who bring a child into the world so they can have “something that loves them”. “Honey,” my Mom said to one such deluded soul, “children take far more than they give. Are you ready for that?” And I think, if you look at the numbers in this country for teen pregnancy, teen arrests, and in general the signs and symptoms of absent authority figures, you can see that the answer for most of those breeding is “no”.
So wait. Do yourself (and your future kids) a favor and see the world a bit, meet many prospective parents and try them out before you opt to reproduce. You have a right to get yourself a heartbreak and an alimony payment; you do NOT have a right to bring a child into a world you have not even attempted to understand, with a person you haven’t had time to understand and who, at our age, could turn on a dime. We must revisit our attitudes about monogamy and commitment, and break the spell that the marriage industry and our mass media seem only too glad to cast.
Some people will have read this as excessively negative, so let me end on a positive note; the divorce rate, minus some blips, has been steadily declining since the 1980’s. Ask any statistician why, and you know what she’ll tell you?
”People are waiting longer before they get married.”