When I was seventeen, I was sure that I would be married by the time I turned twenty-seven. I knew the date, Saturday the 7th of July 2007, who she would be and the song we would say our vows to. That year was my first away from home at University in a different city, one in which I cut my teeth creating a budget, spending money as I chose and defending my results to my father at the end of each month – all very responsible and grown up – or at least so I thought. There was no real science – or thought for that matter – to the timing, merely a wild stab in the dark. Ten years seemed far enough into the future to feel like forever, and my big Uncle F who seemed to embody adulthood perfectly turned twenty seven that year, or maybe thirty. Reality, I would later find out, was far more intention and hard slog than hit, hope and wishful thinking.
Thursday nights at Union Square, with the milling masses of people camped out at the various eating places and shops, are perhaps the clearest confirmation of what I learned as a seventeen year old, that we as a species are wired for love and loving. If you believe the 2013 predictions, Britons splurged nearly £1bn for Valentine’s Day, with the average spend just under £120. Across the world, Japanese, Thais, Indonesians and Taiwanese splurged a tad more, the equivalent of £173 on average. A 2015 survey in America by the National Retail Federation, projected a total spend in excess of $18.9bn (£12.2bn). Valentine’s Day therefore does continue to capture the imagination as The Day to be romantic, one on which we indulge ourselves and our love interests.
That we are now busier, and more stressed out, than at any other time in the history of our species seems to have done little to dampen our enthusiasm for love. We have in the main co-opted technology to our cause. By almost every measure (size, revenue, number of service providers at least), online dating is big business – £2bn and growing; the most astonishing statistic perhaps being that one in five relationships now starts online. Social media perhaps also has had a part to play; conflating time and space into a continuum in which separation is defined by a few mouse clicks or bursts of data from any one of a plethora of messaging apps bobbing around the ether via our ubiquitous wingmen, our cell phones and tablets, rather than by physical distance .
In spite of all the love and loving we seem to gravitate towards, marriage as an institution appears to be in decline. We as a species are waiting longer to marry, and when we do, there are fewer marriages, and more divorces, across Europe. Across the pond in America, the situation is as dire, the headline number being a thirty per cent reduction in the marriage rate per 1000 between 1990 and 2011. Clearly, between hooking up and marrying there lies some sort of bottleneck, a rate limiter that constrains conversion from romantic connections into marriage.
One possible explanation for this apparent disconnect is, at least in the West, that marriage, or more specifically living together, can carry an economic penalty. The rise of the welfare state, and its ever increasing generosity, means that at least in some scenarios, it makes more economic sense to preserve separateness in the eyes of the law, as opposed to tying up and losing benefits in the process. This factor perhaps impacts more strongly on persons more likely to need welfare due to lower earnings but it is an effect reproduced in the US also, as identified by research conducted by Heritage..
Beyond the economic disincentive, there are also a number of perception issues within the wider culture. One of such is that marriage is inherently limiting, succinctly captured by The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz in the The Vartabedian Conundrum Episode:
“There’s a whole buffet of women out there, and you’re just standing in the corner, eating the same deviled egg over and over again”.
Another perception problem might be that marrying is increasingly being seen as an addendum to life, something to be progressed only after several other more critical things have been checked off. True, marrying for the heck of it, without proper preparation or thought as to how to deal with the responsibilities that come in its wake, is somewhere between foolhardy and irresponsible, but the delay trap can sometimes be self perpetuating for no real benefit. Delaying marriage to focus on getting an education, work and other critical life skills for successful adult life does correlate with lower divorce rates as research in the US by the National Marriage Project concludes. There are costs associated with this though, particularly to do with enjoying the freedoms of the single life a little too much at times. The same report concludes:
Twenty somethings who are unmarried, especially singles, are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married twenty somethings”
A third societal influence is perhaps the rise of the personality cult when it manifests itself in an overly explicit focus on looking out for oneself only. Only the best will suffice, the narrative suggests, as such the guy or girl next door can only ever be a barely passable 5.5 whilst we are rip roaring 10s on the desirability scale. Whatever glamorous attractions they had disappear forever once you’ve heard them fart five times in a row after far too much cheese or seen them wake up looking like ‘crap’.
Increasingly relaxed societal norms around cohabiting also contribute, I suspect. With relational needs – often sex, but also the emotional support and commitment an intimate relationship provides – no longer limited to the context of marriage, there is also less of an incentive to ‘buy the cow’ in a sense, seeing as the milk is often available for free.
I would be hard pressed to describe what my seventeen year old self felt as love. There was a certain element of excitement, and perhaps delirious joy, associated with what I felt, or thought I felt, but the cold hard evidence suggests that that in itself is never sufficient. Paul’s seminal chapter on love paints a picture that majors on the focus, work and intentionality that sharing life in the real world requires rather than the warm fuzzy feelings we as a species associate with love and loving. What cannot be in serious dispute on the other hand though is that a sense of duty alone, without the buzz and excitement, seems like a consignment to purgatory at best, or a living hell at worst. Where the balance is is a question I am still unable to answer. Eight years and counting after my Big Virtual Wedding which was not, it is clear that I am still none the wiser, having cycled through a few of these phases myself. Perhaps the chaps at Wait But Why put it most succinctly:
Marriage isn’t the honeymoon in Thailand—it’s day four of vacation #56 that you take together. Marriage is not celebrating the closing of the deal on the first house—it’s having dinner in that house for the 4,386th time. And it’s certainly not Valentine’s Day. Marriage is Forgettable Wednesday. Together.