Marriage is Now a Luxury Good

I am sometimes aghast at how much money I spent on my wedding dress. Four figures, more than I’d ever spent on any item of clothing before or since — enough, ten years on and one kid in, to cover one monthly mortgage payment, a family vacation to Cancun, six weeks of summer day camp, a high-end cooking range, a used car, or five years of swimming lessons. But, at the time, closer to 40 than to 30 and earning a good salary, I wanted what I wanted, which is to say a forties glam custom-made floor-length dress in upholstery-weight oyster-colored satin with a ruched waist, a plunging back, and a fishtail train. (pictured here). At a moment that, one might argue, most determined my future, it turns out I wasn’t thinking about the future (or at least the future cost of my present expenditures) at all.

photo by Carrie Levy
photo by Carrie Levy

Families have always splurged on weddings. But what’s changed, say the social scientists, is that marriage itself is now a luxury good.

Feminist critics have long derided the institution for encouraging fairy-princess fantasies in little girls, but now more than ever, the contract between man and wife (or man and man or wife and wife) is an aspirational commodity, like an Ivy League education or a country house — something everybody is supposed to want but fewer and fewer are actually able to attain. “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, told the New York Times last month (in its umpteenth front-page feature on the changing nature of marriage). The data have been much parsed. According to a Brookings Institute study published in February, the more money a person earns, the likelier he or she is to be married — a reversal of decades-old trends that showed marriage to be for everybody. Stephanie Coontz, the marriage historian, says that the educated elites are also likeliest to marry for reasons other than economic stability: romance, companionship, friendship. My fancy dress ushered me into a modern tribe: those who can afford to marry for love.

In the olden days, when marriage was a contract between families and a way to keep money and property in the right hands, marriage may have sometimes punished the parties involved, but no one had very high expectations of the institution anyway. Even when a women who came to marriage with her own money and own stuff, she relinquished her rights to all of it once she wed (the plot of the series Downton Abbey turns on this sad fact); once in, she had very little chance of getting out. Compare this to a world in which people marry later in life, when each partner has a measure of disposable income and has spent four or five (or ten or fifteen) post-college years going out for sushi, taking taxis, and buying clothes and gadgets and sports equipment. Imagining a “fun” marriage becomes so much more possible — a lifetime of date nights and adventure travel; choosing, together, the blue for the nursery walls. Perhaps this is why so many younger people and those with relatively few economic advantages marry less today: They can see the centuries of economic bondage behind the modern illusion. Why marry in a recessionary environment and an unstable job market? Your partner is very likely to be laid off or be working half-time; you won’t be jetting off to Paris —  you’ll be working for two.

The more reality diverges from impossible aspirations — the more a wife or husband realizes that marriage is not, in fact, a perpetual, companionable spa-vacation-honest-conversation-sex-fest — the more room there is for those who can still afford to be married to suffer disappointment. In nearly half of American married couples, both partners work. About 70 percent of married women with children work. More than half of married mothers with infants work. Everyone, in other words, works. And in the kinds of challenging, fulfilling jobs that draw the people who are most likely to get married, everyone works all the time. How many two-career couples resemble an urban-arch cartoon at bedtime, laptops propped upon the coverlet, sending or receiving that last e-mail before anxious sleep? Tomorrow, chores will need to be done, kids will need to be raised and sent to school and cared for, money will need to be saved and spent and argued about. The stargazing, the empathic explorations of each other’s feelings, the afternoon naps — all must be put off until an age when the naps are not a treat, but a necessity.

It is this distance — between the haute expectations and lived experience of the new marriage — that I hope to explore in posts here over the next two weeks. I have no particular agenda. I am happily married and am not, except occasionally, a matrimonial crank, nor do I insist it’s for everyone (although I do believe that any two people who desire marriage should be able to obtain it, in any state in which they live). I think kids do better with two parents, but many do fine with one. Or three. What interests me is the cultural pull to reenact, over and over, traditional vows and strive for traditional gender roles in a world where living a traditional life is increasingly impossible (and even undesirable). Why are we supposed to be relieved that Brad and Angie (and Jen and Justin) have finally decided to tie the knot when life and Louis C.K. are all the evidence anyone needs that most marriages are a matter of just muddling through? Are we asking too much of ourselves and our spouses? Were things somehow easier when people married more or less within their neighborhood or social circle and men knew that their job was to pull a paycheck and take out the garbage, and women waxed the floors and raised the kids? I hope that readers of this column weigh in here, with their own theories, stories, and views.

Marriage is not a death sentence, but nor is it necessarily always bliss. As Holly Brubach wrote in a prescient essay about wedding dresses in The New Yorker back in 1989, “If weddings reflected all the ambiguities of married life, the bride would wear grey.”