Unrealistic expectations spell trouble for modern marriages
Published 31/07/2015 | 02:30
When my parents married in 1958 they got married in the morning, had a lunch-time wedding reception for a few dozen people and were gone by mid-afternoon. My mother didn't wear a wedding dress. Instead, she wore a white suit consisting of a skirt and jacket. Apparently, it was common back then not to wear a wedding dress on your wedding day.
Even if you translate what they paid for their wedding into today's money, it must have been a fraction of what is forked out nowadays.
The Irish Independent has been running a series of articles about marriage in Ireland today, which estimates that the average Irish couple now spends a little over €20,000 on their big day.
We're led to believe that marriage in Ireland is more popular than ever. It's easy to point to official figures from the CSO showing that more Irish people than ever are getting married.
But looking at the absolute numbers only is misleading. Of course, more Irish than ever are getting married because our population is the biggest it has been since the middle of the 19th century - and a big proportion of us are currently of 'marrying age', which for brides these days is around 33 and for grooms around 35.
The rate of marriage, however, is much lower than it was in the 1970s and 1980s - at around 4.5 people per thousand getting married each year. This is down about 40pc compared with 1973, when the marriage rate peaked.
Prior to the mid-1960s, Ireland had an unusually low marriage rate, one of the lowest in Europe, in fact. This can be put down to two big factors: the first is that so many Irish of marrying age emigrated, and the second is the legacy of the Famine - which resulted in people delaying getting married until they were financially secure.
As we became relatively more prosperous from the mid-1960s on, our marriage rate started to climb because emigration dipped and because people felt financially secure enough to marry at younger ages. In the 1980s, the average bride was around 24 and the average groom was around 27.
Now our marriage rate has dipped again, so much so that it has fallen below the levels seen in the early 1960s. The difference is that this time our marriage rate is not out of line with the sort of rate seen in other European countries. That's because the rate in most of Europe is now very low by historical standards.
What's driving down the marriage rate? Several things - one is the delay in getting married, another is the rise of cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, instead of being something that comes before marriage.
Cohabitation isn't a substitute for marriage on the scale it is in countries like France or Sweden, but we're getting there, especially in working class areas. The fact is that the middle class are more likely to marry than people from disadvantaged areas.
Another fact that belies the 'marriage is more popular than ever' line is the rise in divorce and separation. Again, we're nowhere near what we see in the likes of Britain or America. Nonetheless, according to Census figures there was 40,000 separated people in Ireland in 1986, but by 2011 this had risen to a quarter of a million. That is a big 'absolute' total.
Sociologists say we are moving from 'institutional marriage' to 'companionate marriage' to the 'individualised marriages' of today.
In the days of institutional marriages, when you married, the marriage was less about you and more about the social institution you had entered. Marriage meant you had entered into a contract with society as well as each other. Your job was to keep your building block of society from falling apart. Once married, you stayed married come what may.
Companionate marriage was more about the couple - and your 'contract' with society was less important.
Individualised marriage brings the whole process to its logical conclusion. Sociologist, Andrew Cherlin, explains what this means, saying: "When people evaluated how satisfied they were with their marriages, they began to think more in terms of the development of their own sense of self and the expression of their feelings, as opposed to the satisfaction they gained through building a family and playing the roles of spouse and parent.
"The result was a transition from the companionate marriage to what we might call the individualised marriage."
One wedding organiser quoted recently in this newspaper's marriage series noted how couples are now much more inclined to tailor their wedding day to their individual tastes and to come up with their own wedding vows. Going along with tradition for its own sake is out.
But the individualism that permeates the wedding day is now a lot more likely to permeate the entire marriage. Most of us now think it's a good thing that society no longer forces people to stay married no matter how unhappy they are. There is a long way from that, however, to the current situation - whereby lots of people pull the plug on their marriage, not because they are desperately unhappy, but because they are not as happy as they expected to be.
A friend once told me that a friend of hers had divorced, not because she was particularly unhappy, but because she wasn't 'happy, happy'. What marriage could possibly survive this kind of pressure and expectation?
According to recent American research, at least half of marriages that end in divorce are low-conflict marriages.
That is, the couples don't have regular heated arguments, or worse. When the couple sit their children down to tell them the bad news, the children are often blissfully unaware that their parents were headed for the divorce courts, because there were few visible signs of conflict between them.
Research also shows that couples who stick at it through the tough patches very often come out the other side again, and the marriage survives.
Here in Ireland, we seem to be at the mid-way point between institutional marriage and individualised marriage. That is, we're at the companionate stage. Hence, our fairly low marital breakdown rate.
However, if the very individualised nature of the modern Irish wedding starts to mean very individualised marriages - and we place unrealistic expectations on them - then we're in trouble.