Friday, August 3, 2012

Buying a Wedding or Buying Into Marriage: The Hokey-Pokey Grail

A colleague of mine noticed this upcoming convention for those in the wedding industry, called WeddingMBA, held in, you might have guessed, Las Vegas.  (Thank you Jennifer A.)  The line up of seminars is pretty interesting to look over.  Many topics are not surprising given that this is the business these folks are in, after all. The seminar line up includes some of these titles that stood out to me as pretty good [the comments in brackets are my editorials]:

- White Hot! - Bridal Trends You Need To Know [Pretty good title, really.]
- The Wedding Revolution - Join One...Start One [Perhaps these folks are onto the decline in marriage.  We could use some type of revolution and it sure would be good for planners’ businesses!]
- Mystique of the High-End Bride - Illusion vs Reality [I wonder if the mystique is that she’ like other brides, only richer.]
- Train Wreck Weddings - What To Do When Everything Goes Wrong [If you think about all the pressure on big weddings these days, I would certainly think that this business could get pretty stressful.]
- Make Her Love You - Creating an Exceptional Experience for Your Bride [Not really a bad concept for those in this business.  It’s what you need to get word of mouth, right?]

My colleague (Jennifer A.) would like to see something different, perhaps entitled more like this: “Help them love each other—through Thick and Thin.” Of course, these are wedding planners and others in the wedding industry, so they can be excused for their focus. But this focus does match our culture: more attention to weddings and divorces but not so much about marriages succeeding. It is rather difficult to make the latter into news, but the former? In just the past year, think of news related to Brad and Angelina planning to get married, or to Kim K. and TomKat. Stability doesn’t really get headlines.

Does buying a huge wedding (with the planner and the whole 9 yards) really make for a stronger marriage? The difficulty comes in with the other 70 or 80 yards.  Ironically, lavish weddings may well help some couples at the margins. This is kind of sad because buying into a huge wedding is not the same as buying into your relationship. I mean deciding that you are all in and that you will invest yourself in this thing of building a life together.

Why might huge, expensive weddings help some couples? Back to my last post from my dissertation. (I know those of you who have not read my dissertation for 25 years or more are enjoying this walk down Nostalgia Lane. What? You have not read it? Oh my.) How does that section relate? Simple. In this day and age, marriage is increasingly something the well-off do and those in poverty or at lower incomes dream about achieving one day. To be sure, most people in most income groups do get married but the trends are rapidly changing to where this is becoming an ever growing part of the economic divide.  (See two posts ago for that!) There is a steady erosion of marriage happening among those without college educations and who have poorer economic opportunities. However, in case you do not realize this, less marriage does not mean less interest in marriage among those who live in poverty.  It’s been well known for a long time that those in poverty have the highest ideals about marriage even if they are less able to realize them.  I gave a keynote address on this very point in 2006, and scholars such as Kathryn Edin, Maria Kefalas, and David Fein wrote powerfully on this in the early 2000s. The data are striking. Difficulty accessing or succeeding at something does not equate to disinterest. Those who I know well, who have been working with lower income groups to help them with their own relationship aspirations, have understood this for a long time.  There are a lot of barriers to marriage and marriages working for those with a lack of resources. But that's for another time.  Back to the main trail for today on expensive, lavish weddings and the whole industry that exists to this end.

In other words, back to the wedding industry and those with the means to party. A decade or two ago, I noticed what seemed a trend toward very expensive, lavish weddings. I cannot prove that this trend actually exists, but it feels right. I do not mean that it’s something right that feels good.  I mean it’s something that makes sense; it can be predicted from good theory and research. It fits the story in our culture of people still wanting marriage but feeling increasingly unsure about it and their own likelihood of succeeding at it. This produces all sort of other behaviors, in addition—behaviors that many people presume gives them a better chance that do not seem to actually help accomplish that goal (like cohabiting before marriage or engagement).

Based on consistency theory and cognitive dissonance, people feel an internal press or force to be consistent with their public pronouncements and prior behavior. While some politicians seem exempt from this internal pressure, research clearly shows this dynamic works within most people. Way too many, but certainly not all, politicians seem to be outliars. (For those of you who love grammar, let’s just say my spelling of that last word was sic.)

Consistency theory is one explanation for what we now see—the apparent trend toward lavish wedding spectacles.  Money, prestige, imagery.  Everything done perfectly and in front of many witnesses. What does a lavish wedding and large party buy a couple? The prediction from decades ago is right in front of us. If you spend that much and make this statement in front of many people, you must really mean it.  Right? You should feel a lot of internal pressure to follow-through.  In a culture where marriage is increasingly something the affluent do relative to other groups, yet something people feel anxious about, this trend toward bigger, larger, and more audacious weddings will continue.  It’s as if people are attempting to buy one more type of insurance for their marriage.  This standard has an unfortunate downside additional to the obvious one of placing more emphasis on the wedding than the relationship. It places bar ever higher for those who feel especially vulnerable about marriage working out—those who have very little resources.

Buying a wedding and buying into one’s marriage are two different things. The former might help some couples a tad but the latter is essential for all couples who are going to make it. For most people (and children), that’s the Hokey-Pokey holy grail.  One needs to put both the right and the left foot in.  Maybe we have to turn ourselves around, because that’s what it’s all about.