I think the most powerful indication of the growing appeal of single life is what can’t be faked – the numbers. For decades, every big new Census report has shown that the number and percentage of unmarried Americans is growing. (The trend is not specific to the U.S.)
Clearly, marriage is no longer obligatory and more and more people are choosing not to join The Married Couples Club.
Alongside those hard numbers are some intriguing stories of how some people who do choose to marry are feeling about their decision. Apparently, they are embarrassed. They want their engagement rings, but they don’t want those rings to look too much like an engagement ring. The brides want the dress, but if it is white, they feel all apologetic about that. If they do the whole diet and workout routine before the wedding, they try to reframe their actions as not really about the wedding.
I don’t know of any scientific study of this phenomenon yet, so what I am discussing here goes into the category of a trend story that may or may not be capturing an actual growing trend.
If this really is happening – even if the trend is a modest one, in size – I think it may be significant. Ideologically, it is a huge about-face from the matrimania I have been describing for well over a decade. Matrimania, the over-the-top hyping of weddings, coupling, and marriage, has long been practiced without any apology or self-consciousness. Couples, pundits, marriage-promoters, and of course, the Marriage Industrial Complex are delighted to peddle the belief that of course getting married is grand, that those who do walk down that path should feel proud and even superior to everyone else, and that the observers of the rings and the rituals should stop in their tracks to ooh and ahh (and contribute expensive gifts).
But is that changing?
Phoebe Maltz Bovy got me thinking about attitudes about marrying with her story in the Atlantic, “An ironic, low-key, unconventional wedding is still a wedding.” The tag line: “An ethically sourced engagement ring doesn’t change the fact that you’re engaged, just like a girl who got her jewelry at Zales.”
Bovy opens her article with a nod to the new engagement rings that do not look very traditional. They are rings, she believes, “for women happy to get married…but who would rather if the significance of said accessories be kept quiet.”
The author coined the term “fauxbivalence”:
“Fauxbivalence is to be distinguished from cold feet, or a simple lack of interest in marriage. It refers exclusively to women who do want in on the institution, but who find this somehow embarrassing.”
She adds: “The competitiveness one expects women to demonstrate regarding whose ring is flashiest lives on, only in the other direction.”
Bovy believes that fauxbivalence may be especially intense among women who want not just marriage, but some of the conventional trappings of marriage. That, they believe, is really embarrassing!
The result of all this fauxbivalence, perhaps, is a spate of showy unconventionality. Hey look at my ring – it’s ruby! It’s ethically-sourced and uncut! It’s plastic! But as Bovy notes, “the pressure to be different can be its own conformity.”
Face it, the author tells the fauxbivalently engaged: No matter what jewelry you choose or what dress you wear, your wedding is not an expression of a new sentiment, and “you have not invented some radical new way for two human beings to relate to each other.”
I like Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s concluding piece of advice:
“Rather than playing up the subtle distinction between your alternative, low-key wedding and that of a suburban princess, you might be an ally to those who don’t wish to get married at all…”
Now, having positioned this fauxbivalence as a possible new trend, I want to walk that back a bit and suggest something different. That feeling has been around for a while. Maybe it comes and goes with prevailing cultural mores and conversations. In her book published back in 2001, Here comes the bride: Women, weddings, and the marriage mystique, Jaclyn Geller hilariously and insightfully critiqued all the 1990s attempts at off-beat weddings. She did not use the term fauxbivalence, but that – and more – was what she was describing.
Read Here Comes the Bride if you are interested – I think it is a great read. Maybe you will also like this three-part interview I did with Jackie Geller:
[Notes. (1) I just updated the Singles Links and Resources section of my website. Now you can find lots of new listings, such as the wonderful Flying High Solo. (2) You may also enjoy an essay by Diane Torre, The Scarlet Letter S: Getting Branded for Being Single.]
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Last reviewed: 8 Mar 2013