Partly, it's a timing thing. Our cultural expectations about the best time for marriage may be expanding, but we still have a general sense that dating itself has an expiration date. "Marry him!" Lori Gottlieb advised single ladies in the pages of The Atlantic. "Every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried."
We don't often talk about it, because it's nicer to emphasize the passion stuff over the practicality stuff, but weddings are paradoxical things. On the one hand—the hand that tends to be highlighted by the literature of religion, and of rom-coms, and of the commercial Wedding Industrial Complex—marriage represents potential: potential for family, potential for the continuity of companionship, potential for, generally, The Future. "'Til death do us part." "For the rest of our lives." "Forever." Wedding bands are circular not just because of the shape of our fingers, but because of the shape of infinity.
On the other hand, of course, weddings represent the exact opposite of potential. They are, as traditionally imagined, about the foreclosure of possibilities—and, particularly, of the possibility of romance with other people. "The one." "Forsaking all others." Etc. This is the subtext of the marriage vow, whether it follows a time-honored script or a unique one: "I am choosing you above everyone else."
And the additional subtext is about timing rather than timelessness: "I am choosing you, now, no matter who else comes along later."
* * *
The Brangelina romance forced us to consider what happens when this time-bound aspect of the marriage vow is broken. And it forced us, by extension, to consider how we see affairs, morally, when the soul mate is also the other woman. As a culture, at this point, many people accept divorce as a potential outcome of marriage. And while Brad and Jen may have had a dog, they didn't have kids. What would you have done, if you had been in Brad's position?
The US Weekly contingent—the self-appointed arbiter of celebrity morality—generally forgave him. It also, generally, forgave Angelina. Team Aniston is still out there, but its vitriol has faded as Jen has moved on and as Angelina and Brad have gone on to build their own team—with six children, both adopted and biological, among its members. The couple, together, created what advocates of traditional marriage say marriage is for: family.
Which brings us back to that weird photo essay in US Weekly—the one that came after Brad and Angelina were engaged, but before they were actually married. The one that, in retrospect, proved that celebrities' meta-cultural status can only be taken so far. You could argue that what the magazine's readers really wanted, in their ongoing interest in the couple's marriage, was a kind of penance from Brangelina. They had forgiven them for what they had done to Jen. They had given them permission to do something they may not have been able to do themselves: to prioritize love over marriage.
But they wanted something in return. They wanted the pair, having found each other—having built a family based on each other—to make the same come-what-may commitments the rest of us do. They wanted Brad and Angelina to stand up in front of their family, their friends, and the world to say, "I am choosing you, now. No matter who else comes along later."