Anyone who follows my work knows I have written about the impact of out-of-wedlock births in the black community, but a new study, which you can read here (pdf), takes a wider look at the impact across racial lines. The analysis raises some interesting points worthy of consideration, namely the role society plays in deterring some young people from marriage.
And the more I think about it, it seems to me that one of the main ways we do that is by celebrating—and prioritizing—weddings. Allow me to explain.
Analyses of recent studies about marriage tell us that marriage is increasingly seen more as a “capstone”—in the same way other big-ticket, “grown-up” life items are, like buying a house. But weddings are viewed by many as an essential part of the ticket price. Just as you wouldn’t buy a house without a roof, in the eyes of many you can’t get married without a fancy wedding. In article after article on unmarried couples with children, variations of a common refrain are heard: “We can’t afford to get married.”
But it turns out that when people say they can’t afford marriage, often what they mean is they can’t afford a wedding. More specifically, an over-the-top, celebrity-style dream wedding that is no longer considered merely the birthright of celebrities but is also the right of anyone with a credit card and a copy of a bridal magazine. It’s a view described in a landmark New York Times Magazine article on poverty and marriage, in which one of the interviewees, a man named Ken, said that while he had planned to eventually marry his child’s mother, he was in no rush, partly because of their inability to have what he considered a proper wedding.
“I ain’t having a city hall wedding,” the paper quoted him as saying, and noting that “he sees himself marrying on a tropical beach, like the eponymous star of the sitcom Martin, who tied the knot with his girlfriend, Gina, amid exotic flowers, crashing waves and a cellist in black tie.”
Before anyone blames Ken or others for having an unrealistic view of what a wedding needs to be, though, we should acknowledge that there are plenty of married middle- and upper-class couples who have also bought into the idealization of weddings at the expense of marriage. After all, how many people do we all know with student-loan debt who still broke the bank on a fabulous wedding, as if it would simply not be possible to marry in a dress that was not by a celebrity designer?
In the last decade, the explosion of the bridal industrial complex in media has only made things worse, with reality shows like Bridezillas and My Fair Wedding celebrating ostentatious, over-the-top weddings. Just as Cribs made it OK for celebrities to show off houses many of us later found out they could not afford, bridal reality shows made it OK for people to show off how much they spent on the first day of their marriage, whether they could legitimately afford it or not, without ever focusing on what they were doing to make sure they actually ended up spending the rest of their lives together.
If, as a culture, we value marriage, we should get better at celebrating people who make marriage work more than we celebrate people who have big weddings. Not only is it shallow to focus on weddings over marriage, but if doing so deters those less privileged from getting married, it’s also harmful.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.