After decades of high divorce rates, 2015 brought some relief when the number of people getting un-hitched dropped to its lowest level in 40 years.
Despite how many of our parents and parents' friends have contributed to the statistics, as a generation we still seem to hold marriage in high regard, believing – in spite of everything – that it’s possible to stay with one person for a whole lifetime. Or as Ada Calhoun puts it in her new book Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give: “To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another human being – what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.”
Ada has over 13 years of marriage behind her (she celebrates her wedding anniversary this month, and was briefly married to a Canadian boyfriend before that). As a youngish bride by New York standards, she was well over a decade into her own marriage by the time her friends started getting hitched, which came at a time when she and her husband were fighting a lot – their troubles providing an illuminating backdrop to the gloriously, hopelessly, romantic sentiments of her friends' vows.
Ada quickly turned these feelings into a New York Times Modern Love column, then a podcast, then a book. In the opening pages, she recalls asking her own mother what the secret was to staying married. “You don’t get divorced” she answered, and it's this sort of sentiment that makes Ada's unflinching reflections on marriage practical and funny instead of cynical and depressing. “I don’t think the book is negative about marriage," she says, "I love being married to my husband. But being married is hard.”
Despite this hardship it’s a tradition that has not only prevailed but continued to thrive (see your Instagram all summer for further details). So why do we still do it? Ada asked many rabbis and priests this very question during her research. And the answer? Many couples didn’t actually know. “This one priest told me that the first thing he’d do is look at a couple and ask them if they knew why they were there,” she remembers. “He thinks that it’s something people should be asking more. It’s a real source of strength to be asking that – and to be really conscious of it.” But most of the clergy Calhoun spoke to found engaged couples to be entirely unable to explain their reasons for getting married. One went as far as calling it a “cultural crisis”.
Perhaps we slightly sleepwalk into it because we see it as another of life’s stepping stones. Something that unites us and our contemporaries when the convenient chapters which define our younger lives come to an end. School, puberty, first love, first job – we navigate our tumultuous 20s, and marriage provides another reassuring benchmark in the huge stretch of time that expands before us.
And then, of course, there’s the whole fairytale thing. “When your friend gets sick or you lose your job, you assume that that’s something that’s going to come from life,” says Ada. “With marriage you think of it as some kind of happiness factory. But it's not, it's the same as life. It involves happiness and suffering in equal measure. My husband and I are happy, we love each other, but also there are times when we want to kill each other. There’s times that we’ve had arguments that have lasted months. We’ve had feelings for other people. I think that’s what marriage really looks like.”
In the book Ada deploys a George Bernard Shaw line: “I’m afraid I think this rage for happiness rather vulgar.” In 2017 that quest for happiness is something for which millennials are continuously lambasted: for wanting to experience new things, wanting to travel, wanting to spend rather than save, going on five Tinder dates a week and never being quite satisfied… We have a lot of choice. And we’re not used to making decisions that will affect us for the rest of our lives. Even in our careers – the average millennial will move jobs every 4.4 years.
“I see that with my single friends so much. They don’t understand how you ever make a choice if you have Tinder,” observes Ada. “First of all, why choose? Especially when you’re young and sexy and having a great time, it’s just like – why would you ever stop having these romantic adventures and settle down with one person?”
And yet despite this choice it’s a commitment we continue to make. And it’s not just a nice-to-have: it’s a right that many people in the world still fight for. “Marriage has lasted for thousands of years and it’s adapted to every culture it’s been in,” Ada points out. “I think that’s a testament to the flexibility of the institution of marriage too. And I think the fight for gay marriage showed straight people how special marriage is, what they were taking for granted.”
Whatever your status or views on the institution, Ada’s book offers invaluable insight into marriage: the good parts, the bad parts, and the ugly parts. I’ll toast to that.