At the heart of Kim Kardashian’s grandiose wedding and wee little marriage was something meaningful. Under the guise of a celebrity spectacle, the bride was modeling something utterly ordinary about the place of matrimony in contemporary life.
For Kim Kardashian, the highlight of her married life appeared to be her wedding. All of the planning and hype built up to that. The special that E! showcased and will probably continue to run over and over again is called Kim’s Fairytale Wedding, not Kim’s Deeply Fulfilling Marriage.
Sure, most people’s marriages last more than 72 days. That brevity is unusual. What is not unusual – among the marriages of thousands of ordinary people – is to find that happiness peaks around the time of the wedding.
Twenty-some years ago, an extraordinary study was launched in Germany. Thousands of Germans were recruited into the study, starting at age 16, and asked to report their overall happiness once a year. With more than two decades of data available on the same people, researchers (such as Richard Lucas) can look at the lifelines of happiness and see how life satisfaction changes as people stay single or get married or get divorced.
One of the myths about getting married is that is transforms miserable single people into blissfully happy couples. That’s not what the results of the decades-long study have shown. (See chapter 2 of Singled Out for details.) Instead, single people are clearly on the happy end of the scale, and stay there throughout the study. People who marry and stay married do become a bit happier around the time of the wedding, but then go back to being about as happy as they were when they were single.
Note that it is only those who married and stayed that way who enjoyed that brief honeymoon effect at the start of their marriages. The people who married and later divorced actually started to become a bit less happy as the day of their wedding approached. They continued becoming more and more unhappy until the year before the divorce became official.
In this study, as in just about all social science research, the results are averages. Particular individuals may have different experiences. For example, some people may marry and stay married and become happier every year. But they are complemented by the people who marry and stay married and become less happy every year. The average result, and probably the typical one, is to get just a brief period of increased happiness around the time of the wedding – if you are among those who stay married.
Much has been made of the matrimania surrounding the Kardashian wedding. In American culture, though, matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of weddings and coupling and marriage) is the norm. It is not just on reality TV, either. Follow just about any televised drama, and you will probably watch a build-up to a wedding episode – or many such episodes. Can you think of any popular television show that begins with a wedding and continues from there? Where’s the drama in that?
I think all this matrimania illustrates not how secure we are about the place of marriage in our lives, but how insecure. Back when just about everyone got married – and at much younger ages than they do now – and when divorce was far less commonplace, there was no such word as matrimania and no Bridezilla shows. The most popular programs, such as Leave it to Beaver and M*A*S*H, did not culminate in wedding episodes. Mary Tyler Moore did not end up wed.
We just don’t need marriage the way we once did. There are more job opportunities for women than there were decades ago. That means that women are no longer tethered to husbands for economic life support. They can support themselves and maybe even some children. The legalization of the pill (which did not occur until 1960) meant that women could have sex with less chance of becoming pregnant. Advances in reproductive medicine added to women’s childbearing possibilities. In short, women could have sex without having children, and they could have children without having sex. Marriage was no longer necessary for any of it.
All of the matrimania is whipping up support for a floundering institution. The glitter and glitz of the Kardashian nuptials didn’t just distract us from emptiness of the relationship that was supposed to be at the center of the celebration. It kept us from wondering, just a little bit longer, about many of the other marriages all around us.
Wedding rings photo available from Shutterstock.