What a British Royal Wedding Says About Marriage in America


Us Weekly

It seems almost too perfect: The Time/Pew poll revealing that 39 percent of Americans think marriage is obsoletehref> was released on the very week that seemingly everyone on both sides of the Atlantic went wild over an engagement.

Of course, it wasn't just any engagement: It was the engagement of Prince William, heir to the throne of Great Britain, and his lovely, soft-spoken "commoner" (to the extent that being a fabulously wealthy heiress can be "common") girlfriend, Kate Middleton. I must tell you, in the spirit of full disclosure, that Prince William and I have a special relationship; we were born ten days apart in June of 1982, which my mother felt gave us a karmic bond.

Now, reading through the countless blog posts and comments about the engagement, I find myself unreasonably shocked to learn that I wasn't the only girl whose mother told her that she might marry William when she grew up. Of course, we all thought we were going to marry him; he was a tall, blonde, handsome prince with a gleaming smile, and he looked so brave at his mother's funeral. Since he's not marrying us, however, Middleton seems like the best choice: Stunning, modest, and with hair that shines like a L'Oreal commercial viewed through a heavy Klonopin haze, she's the most winsome bride since Wedding Day Barbie.

Or since Prince William's mother, Diana Spencer. Dodai Stewart, of Jezebel, is right in noting that American reactions to royal betrothals are more informed by Walt Disney than the history of the UK: Such an engagement, she writes, "speaks of dreams, and daydreams, in which a girl could go from ordinary... to royal in the blink of an eye, and suddenly have the world—and a horse-drawn carriage—at her feet. A fantasy where love is all that matters! Where living happily ever after is inevitable." But this was precisely the sentiment in 1981, when the world tuned in to watch Diana, in a wedding dress that looked as if the Titanic had been reconstructed entirely in tulle and satin, proceeding toward her fate—a fate that was, much like the Titanic's, icy, grisly, and inevitable in retrospect.

At the back our minds, as we watch this royal engagement, is the knowledge that the groom's parents had one of the ugliest, most drawn-out public divorces in recent history. William and Kate do seem to love each other, which is heartening. But when he produced his mother's engagement ring—a genuinely sweet, if double-edged gesture—one imagines Kate had to notice, if only for a moment, that it looked vaguely like the famously accursed Hope Diamond.

Some are opining, as Christina Odone has done in the Telegraph, that the engagement of William and Kate "is wonderful news—not just for them, but for all of us who believe that there is something special about marriage." William, she continues, "is the child of divorce. He has seen what a bad marriage is like. And yet this has in no way shaken his faith in the institution as the ideal to which we should aspire."

That's a lot of projection for one brief essay. We know less about whether William perceives marriage as "the ideal" to which "we" should aspire than we do about the fact that it would, very probably, be impossible for someone in his position to live with his girlfriend indefinitely. Only one U.S. President has ever lived as a bachelor—James Buchanan—and here, we're talking about monarchy. Providing heirs is more or less the job.

But we want it to mean more. There was a reason that we cared so much about Prince Charles and Princess Diana; we projected the same mythic qualities onto their relationship, in the absence of facts about it, and were traumatized when the fairytale unraveled into familiar disappointment. About half of all marriages end in divorce; if only 39 percent of us think that marriage is on the way out, it seems we're relatively optimistic. If marriage doesn't do what it says on the tin—wed you, for good and all, to another person—what's the point?

There's another level to the marriage question: class. The wealthy and well-educated are more likely to get married, says the Time/Pew poll; they're also less likely to get divorced. Your beautiful princess wedding, in other words, is far more likely to happen if you are actually a princess. But Charles and Diana were wealthy, and privileged, and it still didn't work. Even when the statistics are in your favor, marriage is not the eternally meaningful bond it's cracked up to be.

But, says Time, "although 44% of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5% of those in that age group do not want to get married." And so, William and Kate matter. They've provided us a chance to rewrite the script, to tell the story so that it ends the right way. A beautiful, virtuous commoner is sighted by a tall, blonde, handsome prince, and they fall in love, and live happily ever after. If it can happen to her...

It still might not happen to us. But we want it to, badly. Marriage is like British royalty; its grandeur has been tarnished, its power is vastly diminished, but it still means something. The sheer age and symbolism of the institution lends it tremendous weight. Why else do conservatives oppose same-sex marriage, so specifically and with such vehemence? First comes love, then comes something you can never fully plan for or anticipate. But even if we don't "believe" in marriage, even as we see more people opting to delay or avoid it—which may be responsible for the huge overlap between people who believe marriage is on the way out and people who want to believe that their marriages are going to happen—we all know that a wedding is what is supposed to happen when two people feel tremendous love and commitment for each other.

And then there's the fact that, in many cases, we Americans under 30 were raised by baby boomers, who had one of the highest divorce rates of any generation. No one wants to make their parents' mistakes; whether we flee from the decisions they made or decide to make the same decisions but ensure better outcomes for them, marriage is something that we know, and often fear. We want no marriage, or we want a perfect marriage. But what we don't want is a nasty divorce, because lots of us have lived through one or more of those already. So the reasons behind the outpouring of seemingly genuine good feeling over the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton are, after all, not so mysterious: It's an affirmation that, at least for the moment, we all stand a chance of beating the odds.