Did you just get engaged? Are you planning a wedding? Or are you already married or part of longstanding romantic couple? Congratulations! You are the relationship stars of contemporary American culture.
I coined a name for the relentless oohing and aahing over weddings and couples and marriage – matrimania. It is everywhere.
The prevailing worldview is matrimaniacal. It says that if you got married, you made it. Someone chose you. Someone loves you. The plots of movies and novels and TV shows are about getting where you are. You got married; you are the one who gets to live happily ever after.
Advertisements are matrimaniacal. Start paying attention. When I did, I was shocked by just how many of them use brides and other wedding themes to sell their products, as if there is something magical about just showing a picture of a bride. The products don’t even have to have any obvious connection to romance or married life.
You can also see matrimania at work when people who make public spectacles out of their marriage proposals aren’t mocked but instead fawned over. They might even find themselves on Nightline or the nightly news.
How can you not, as a married person, end up feeling better about yourself when you are treated as special in so many ways just because you are married?
But here’s the thing: People who get married do not end up any happier than they were when they were single. At best, they get a brief increase in happiness early on, starting around the time of the wedding. But then it goes away. And only the people who get married and stay married enjoy that brief “honeymoon effect.” People who eventually divorce are already becoming less happy as the day of their wedding approaches. (You can see the dramatic graphs of that in my TEDx talk.)
People who get married get valued and respected and celebrated (matrimania). People who stay single are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against (singlism). So why don’t people who get married get happier and stay happier? Considering that they continue to get all the special unearned privileges of marriage (including, even, many that are written right into our laws), why don’t they get happier and happier over time?
I’ve been writing about this for a long time, starting with my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. After I gave my most recent talk on the topic, someone suggested a very interesting possibility: Maybe expectations play a role.
Maybe all those children’s books and fairy tales that promise a happily-ever-after only for people who marry – maybe they are all a set-up. Same for all the movies and TV shows and novels for grown-ups with the same matrimaniacal themes. They set us up to expect a fairy-tale version of married life. Maybe our relatives and friends who get all excited when we get engaged, but shrug at all the other meaningful people and interests and achievements and pursuits in our lives – maybe they are at fault, too. Maybe some people really believe all this stuff. They think that if they get married, they really will live happily ever after. When that doesn’t happen, it is a let-down. They are disappointed, surprised, maybe even stunned.
I don’t know if this really does happen. To find out, we’d need a study that asked people about their expectations before they married and their happiness afterwards. If unrealistic expectations really did undermine the happiness of people who marry, that would be quite the ironic twist. All that matrimania that is meant to honor and value and celebrate people who marry – it could instead set them up for disappointment.