When I was a teenager, my family attended a wedding which broadened my horizons quite a bit. I hadn’t attended many wedding before then, but the ones that I did took place in a gossamer haze, having as much to do with Cinderella and Barbie as real life. The brides looked like princesses, the grooms, if I paid attention to them at all, were handsome. Happily ever after was a foregone conclusion.
On this occasion I had a rude awakening. Even to my immature eyes it was clear that all was not right. The tension was palpable as the bride’s warm and affectionate parents (close friends of my family) were greeted with icy demeanors by the groom’s side. The groom himself exuded none of the amiability that was always found in his own home. I have no idea what the background story was, but the wedding was less fairy tale and more of a gauntlet. Nobody was surprised when a divorce followed a few years later.
This week marks the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s second book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. Like millions of others, I heartily enjoyed her bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. The account of her around the world post-divorce adventures was insightful, poignant, and humorous. While I wouldn’t recommend some of her life choices and the book undoubtedly reveals a self-preoccupation too often seen nowadays, she is an undeniably talented writer. I read quite a few passages more than once for the sheer pleasure of the language.
In an interview presented in the Wall Street Journal just before her second book launches, Ms. Gilbert makes the point that marriage requires maturity and as such isn’t for the young. But age does not automatically confer maturity. If, for example, we decreed thirty-two as the minimum legal age for marriage, I don’t think we would see a much greater success rate. Don’t we all know extremely immature “seasoned citizens”? I also know very young couples who understand the concept of commitment better than those double their age. Ms. Gilbert’s conviction that she is not interested in having children also allows her to extol the virtues of marrying at a later age. Additionally she is comfortable with sex outside of marriage, which makes her assertion less useful for society in general.
The question I would ask is why our society seems to be doing such a poor job of producing adults with a mature understanding of marriage.
It seems to me that encouraging the establishment of stable, life-long marriages and families at a relatively young age is more beneficial to a culture than advocating years filled with either loneliness or sequential relationships outside of marriage. If I could recommend anything it would not be the delaying of marriage but rather the acknowledgement that marriage should be treated with no less seriousness than a career.
When a five year old tells us that he or she is going to be a fireman, astronaut, ballerina or store owner, we are supportive. But as the child grows we, and the world, help them discover that each of these requires a great deal of work, study, and preparation. Not only that, but the learning and effort don’t end with a degree or certification. Lifelong, ongoing work is required to succeed. We also openly discuss the different realities of each choice, economically, emotionally as well as socially. If a child never expresses an interest in work, we inform him of the serious downside of not working. Yet we often allow our children to remain in a childlike state of fantasy about marriage or to ignore it altogether. What a different society we would live in if marriage and family life stopped being seen as what one simply does if one feels like it and instead were granted the dedication, training, and commitment they deserve.