Friday, 6 October 2017

Outside the Frame

Every day when I log on to Instagram I’m inundated by images of brides, wedding dresses, bouquets, boutonnieres, and engagement rings− ENDLESS engagement rings propped on splayed, manicured fingers, the diamonds glinting under perfect light. And sometimes it makes me want to scream, because a lot people are impressionable, especially young women under twenty-five, and all these images do is insist that there is no bigger dream than being gifted jewelery by a man. They exclaim that a wedding is the ultimate finish line, and if you aren’t there yet, you’d better start sprinting. And not just any wedding− it has to be a flower-showered, materialistic, Instagram-worthy wedding that puts all the focus on the white dress and the sparkly ring and very little on the actually significance of this enormous commitment two people are making to each other.

And I hate it, not because I don’t believe in love (I do), not because I have anything against jewellery or beautiful gowns (I don’t), but because it cheapens and dilutes one of the biggest and bravest leaps of faith two people can make together. Culturally, it is a centuries-old rite of passage, and socially it represents a critical life change− hey, there’s a reason medieval records often list marriages alongside births and deaths as the only individual markers of the people who lived then.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for celebrations and fun. I think weddings are a glorious way to express love and joy among those you care for the most, and without those moments of light in our lives we might all drown in the dark. But marriage is not a state to be entered into frivolously, because let’s be honest, life is hard.  A long life in fact is both a blessing and a curse− it’s an opportunity to grow and thrive as we watch others fade away, and most days, it’s not Instagram friendly. Many of us will live long enough to outlive the ones we love, and between those moments, we’ll all have our own personal struggles that push us to our limits and threaten to break us completely. Things like illness, injury, death, loss, betrayal, and bankruptcy, to name a few. And amidst the whirlwind of dress shopping, decoration Pinning, engagement photo-taking, bachelorette planning, and seating chart-arranging, I think a lot of those realities get buried under layers of tulle.

I’m not judging anyone who gets married in their early twenties, or who gets wrapped up in the fairy tale− how can I when I was one of them? And in some ways, when I see all these young would-be brides online, I envy their hopefulness and still-lingering teenage sense of invincibility. I am painfully jealous of that thrill of fresh experience. But sometimes I do wish that a wiser person would step in and press the pause button for a second, and remind them that a wedding is a lot bigger than the party. It’s not about one night, it’s about a million nights spread out over countless years, during which things rarely go according to plan. There will be decades fraught with undue hardships that rock you to your core, and while you can rent tents in case it rains on your wedding day, it takes a lot more than those plastic tarps to protect a marriage.

Now, I don’t think all young people who get married are entirely ignorant to this. In fact, I have met several who appear keenly aware of these challenges and have simply found the person able to tackle those hurdles with them. And they’re lucky. But there has to be a reason that marriages are succeeding now at a lower rate than ever before, despite the fact that bridal advertising is at an all-time high. And it might lie in the way that we irresponsibly advertise weddings as some sort of glorified prom for young women, even though the two occasions sit on opposite sides of the spectrum. While graduation rightfully celebrates an ending− the conclusion of twelve years slogging through the school system− a wedding is a beginning; the first day of an eternal, arduous partnership that will test us more than all those final exams ever did.

But we don’t say this to would-be brides and grooms; instead, we encourage and celebrate their decision, regardless of how naively it was made, and we seldom candidly illuminate the trials. We enthusiastically use terms like “taking the plunge”, despite the fact that we would never actually encourage anyone to leap into the ocean without first learning to swim.

And I get it; reality isn’t always fun, and sometimes we yearn to believe in something magical− that true love conquers all. But deep down the majority of us know that most things worth having rarely come easily, and this is why I have such a problem with our modern, cultural approach: because marriage can be that rare, beautiful, indomitable gift, but it’s hard work too, and when it falls apart it is more than the couple who suffers.

Don’t believe me? Alongside all the statistics demonstrating the struggles that children of divorce face, and the impact it has on families, researchers out of Harvard, USC and Brown have written about what they call “divorce clustering” as a form of “social contagion”− or what we might colloquially label a “domino effect”. During their study of divorce among peer groups, they found that if your close friends or relatives experience such an estrangement, your own odds of meeting the same fate skyrocket to a shocking 75%. The report concludes by stating, that “divorce should be understood as a collective phenomenon that extends far beyond those directly affected.”* Needless to say, by hiding the difficulties of marriage behind a pretty lace curtain and refusing to be transparent, we do young people and our society as a whole a disservice.

And I really feel that. Perhaps not in spite of but actually because of my divorce, I have far more respect and admiration for the institution of marriage now than I ever did when I first casually approached it five years ago. Since then, I’ve decided that if I’m ever fortunate enough to wed someone again, it will be with my eyes wide open to exactly what the two of us will have to face; I don’t want my partner to have any illusions about what to expect from a life with me. While there are no guarantees for the future, the more honestly and realistically we approach it, the more successfully we’ll cope. And I hate to sound so dull and unromantic, but shouldn’t major life choices be approached with more sensibility than sentimentality?

Because of this, I wish that all these sweet, eager young women would realize that in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter what your engagement ring looks like; it doesn’t matter if you manage to have that perfect garden reception that Pinterest is always advertising. And it doesn’t matter if all your friends are getting married either, or how dreamy their proposals. Time will eventually peel those moments away like layers of clothing, leaving behind nothing but all our bare, messy limitations. The real treasure is finding someone who sees that flawed version of you, but wants to try and forge a future together anyway; that life is a roller-coaster, and if another human being decides you’re the one person they want beside them during all those twists and turns and sudden drops that make your stomach flip… well it’s tough to find a more valuable or irreplaceable gift than that. It sure trumps a fabric and jewelry.  

I’m not saying you can’t love weddings. I love weddings, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. There’s something so delicious about that collective effervescence that occurs when we watch two people stand up together and swear vows of adoration and fidelity. As a society we feed off that happiness, and that’s a beautiful thing. But like many beautiful things, it needs to be respected and valued too, approached with caution and reverence in the same way we might plan an ascension of Mount Everest. 

At the end of the day, it’s okay to love the dress, and it’s okay to love the ring. You can even love picking out those perfect table settings for your guests. But don’t forget that starry-eyed party will always be waiting; whether you get married at twenty or forty, Pinterest will still be there to tell you how to plan it. So for everyone’s sake, but especially your own, take a moment and look away from that pretty picture. After all, real life happens outside the frame. 

*McVeigh, T. (2010). "If Your Friends Get Divorced You Could Be Next". The Observer. Retrieved from: Oct. 6, 2017.