From the archives:
"The Wedding Merchants" (February 2001)
Marriage is in Chapter Eleven, but the white wedding is in the black. By Caitlin Flanagan
"Wooed by Freedom" (October 2000)
Why the young distrust love and fear commitment. By Peter Berkowitz
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Truth About Love" (February 14, 2002)
A collection of Atlantic articles offers a counterpoint to fairy-tale depictions of love.
Web Citations: "Modem Bride" (March 4, 1999)
Wedding planning made so easy even your mother can handle it.
'Til Death Do Us Part?
November 20, 2003
t's a recurring nightmare among brides-to-be: arriving at the church on the wedding day to find that the groom has gone missing. Or maybe the groom got cold feet a few weeks before the big event, after deposits have been made, invitations have been mailed, and hotel rooms have been booked. In a recent review in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan looks at the emotional and economic plight of those who don't quite make it to the altar. In her review of There Goes the Bride, a new how-to guide for backing out of an engagement in contemporary America, Flanagan explains that these days, the pain of calling off the nuptials means breaking the bad news not just to friends and family, but to the dozens of contractors hired to stage the big event. Flanagan also discusses Cinderella Dreams, an examination of the history of the modern wedding, "from the development of bridal registries to the rise in popularity of the diamond engagement ring (a trend created almost entirely by a De Beers advertising campaign in the 1940s)." Flanagan writes,
Whereas a wedding once provided young people with a moment of transformation so powerful that even a modestly funded event was a momentous one, nowadays—with marriage an iffy bet and with most betrothed couples having already helped themselves to all the liberties of adulthood—the only way to underline the moment is to put on an elaborate and costly show.
From the archives:
"Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" (February 1982)
An unruly market may undo the work of a giant cartel and of an inspired, decades-long ad campaign. By Edward Jay Epstein
There's no denying that weddings have become big business. But just how did the marriage contract evolve to include man, wife, and caterer? A look back through the Atlantic archives reveals several matrimonial watersheds, in which a changing society has reshaped and reformed our hopes for happily ever after.
In "Are Americans Polygamous?" (August 1947), David L. Cohn pointed to the constantly climbing divorce rate and deemed marriage a "monumental failure." Cohn blamed the demise of marriage on changing values brought on by a changing postwar society: cars made it easier for young lovers to hide from prying eyes, contraception made it easy for said young lovers to escape the biological consequences of their premarital promiscuity, and promiscuity itself was made more socially acceptable by both world wars. Profitable "red-light districts of divorce" were popping up across the country in places like Nevada, Arkansas, Florida, California, and Wyoming, making it easy for people to obtain a quick, no-questions-asked divorce. The secularization of the West and looser divorce laws were making it easier for people to skip in and out of marriage. Magazines and newspapers began covering high-profile divorces in the gossip columns, making them seem downright fashionable. Cohn suggested that these changes in society were beginning to redefine peoples' views of marriage:
We are slowly abandoning our ancient concepts of marriage and the family as we move toward new forms whose shapes are still inchoate. It may be that Americans, subconsciously believing that marriage and the family, as they have anciently existed, no longer suit their needs, are slowly changing them for other forms.
The sexual revolution of the sixties helped push marriage even further down the path that Cohn described. In his article "Marriage as a Wretched Institution" (November 1966), Mervyn Cadwallader described a culture obsessed with sex. Cadwallader saw the increasing tendency of the advertising, entertainment, and fashion industries to sell sex as a contributing factor in society's replacing traditional marriages based on practical necessities with a new "sexualized romanticism." Cadwallader wrote that where a non-industrial society might depend on marriage to meet "specific functional needs," our own increasingly over-sexed, non-industrial society tends to see marriage as a mechanism for erotic experiences, romantic love, personal fulfillment, and recreation. But such fantasies, Cadwallader argued, are not the stuff of a lifetime commitment, and therefore marriages that have evolved to accommodate sexualized romanticism are doomed to failure.
The basic reason for this sad state of affairs is that marriage was not designed to bear the burdens now being asked of it by the urban American middle class. The Western European family was not designed to carry a lifelong load of highly romantic emotional freight. Given its present structure, it simply has to fail when asked to do so. The very idea of an irrevocable contract obliging the parties concerned to a lifetime of romantic effort is utterly absurd.
Cadwallader blamed parents and educators for perpetuating the myth of sexualized romanticism in marriage. He blamed adults for passing on unrealistic advice to young people. He blamed high schools and colleges for teaching "sentimental rubbish" in their marriage and family courses. Immersed in an over-sexed culture, and awash in romantic notions about marriage, younger and younger people were marrying in ever-greater numbers. Cadwallader blamed this trend on the fact that teens were increasingly bombarded by sexual images and aroused at an early age, and that the only societally acceptable way to satisfy their urges was to marry. "The end of most of these sentimental marriages is quite predictable," concluded Cadwallader. His solution? Cadwallader believed that with sexualized romanticism already so ingrained in the American psyche, the only real answer was to stop clinging to an outmoded structure. In fact, society was already moving away from the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment toward earlier premarital sexual intercourse, earlier first marriage, more extramarital affairs, earlier first divorce, and more frequent divorces and remarriages—a trend that Cadwallader applauded. In effect, Cadwallader was arguing for traditional marriage to be replaced with multiple marriages, or "consecutive polygamy."
By the seventies, the idea of consecutive polygamy was becoming increasingly popular. With divorce rates still on the rise, society was looking for ways to redefine the basic rules and principles governing marriage. In "Brave New Marriage" (September 1972), Melvin Maddocks described a growing new genre of literature—Brave New Marriage Lit—which began to codify new alternatives to the traditional institution. Steeped in utopian philosophy, Brave New Marriage proponents advocated open marriages—an "anything goes" type of policy:
All the options get chalked on the blackboard: traditional nuclear family; serial monogamy; communes and cooperative households; short-term contracts; ménage à trois; group marriage; swinging; even celibate marriage.
These alternatives to traditional marriage were seen as a way of liberating people from the boredom, resentment, and confinement that inevitably consumed most relationships. Maddocks saw the roots of this Brave New Marriage Lit in the sexual revolution and women's liberation. As people's attitudes became more relaxed, they embraced more liberal politics and policies. Maddocks argued that one of these new policies, "no-fault" divorce laws, came close to sanctioning serial monogamy. Maddocks saw a danger, though, that efforts to loosen the strictures of traditional marriage could be taken too far and end up changing traditional marriage into something worse:
If the Brave New Marriage-makers were dealing with tennis instead of marriage, they would listen to the curses of the players, then sympathetically solve the problem by lowering the net and stipulating "limited and temporary" baselines. They leave their players relieved of all special demands but also near that intolerable point where total freedom becomes total responsibility. You must do whatever you think you want to—this last imperative of American Puritanism is likely to prove the harshest as well as the most impossible ideal of all.
While Cohn, Cadwallader, and Maddocks argued for a re-examination of society's traditional views of marriage on a theoretical level, The Atlantic also covered an extreme example in which theory had been put into practice. In "The Russian Effort to Abolish Marriage" (July 1926), an anonymous woman living in Russia reported that "when the Bolsheviki came into power in 1917 they regarded the family, like every other 'bourgeois' institution, with fierce hatred, and set out with a will to destroy it." The question of whether to abolish marriage altogether was debated with a passion all over Russia. One of the first decrees of the new government was to abolish the term "illegitimate children," equalizing the status of all children, whether born in or out of wedlock. The government also passed a law "which made divorce a matter of a few minutes."
The author described the cumulative effect of these changes as "chaos." Men changed wives almost as easily as they changed their clothes. With the stigma of illegitimate children lifted, women had multiple children out of wedlock, who were often quickly abandoned by their fathers, and subsequently by their mothers. The breakup of the family created a situation in which hundreds of thousands of children ended up on the streets, and many developed into professional criminals. Eventually, people began to wish for a return to a more traditional family structure.
The course of the discussion indicated pretty clearly two outstanding developments in modern Russia's attitude toward the problems of marriage, sex, and the family. In the first place, there is an unmistakable reaction, both among the Communists and among the general public, against excessive loose living.... Among the general population and especially among the peasants there is a keen realization of the difficulties, material and otherwise, which have come up as a result of a too literal adoption of the 'free love' slogan, and there is a desire for more stable domestic relations.
Perhaps in today's society, we've found some sort of happy medium between the rigid, moral form of marriage that left little room for modern realities, and the opposite extreme that let go of the family unit altogether. What remains constant, though, is that the way we marry, and the way we view marriage, are direct representations of our ever-evolving social structure—for better or for worse.
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Dana Rousmaniere is a new media intern for The Atlantic Monthly
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.