One way to be happy for many new years to come is to make good life decisions. Romance presents us with the opportunity to make both very good and spectacularly bad decisions. Once the first bloom of romance and the fancy wedding day festivities are over, we have to lie in the bed we made. Marriage is a fine institution, but as the comedian said, who wants to live in an institution? We should enter into marriage cautiously, carefully, and with dread fear of being able to live up to the lifelong promises that are the wedding vows. Otherwise, the specter of an ugly divorce may become a reality.
Recently I saw a blog post by a young woman who felt her entire family was pressuring her to get married—to anyone—because she was already 23 years old. She wanted to go to graduate school instead. They had found a dull young man and wanted her to marry him because they approved of him. Danger alert! If you don’t want to be with a person, don’t let anyone else convince you that you should. Love ought to be given freely.
Sure, 150 years ago, there weren’t a ton of economic or social opportunities for young women other than marriage or prostitution. (Both have always been popular, else why is prostitution nicknamed the World’s Oldest Profession?) Even 150 years ago, though, there were other paths. Women were teachers. Women were factory workers. Women were domestic servants. They went into business as seamstresses, milliners, and café owners. Miss Kitty of the Longbranch Saloon in the veteran television western, Gunsmoke, actually owned the place. She was the madam, not to put too fine a point on it. Being a madam still is not respectable, but that was Mrs. Warren’s Profession, as the world-famous George Bernard Shaw depicted in his controversial play of 1893. Shaw considered her no different morally from a man who owned a munitions factory, not that he particularly approved of either. By the turn of the 19th century, a lot of people were rethinking the old ways of forcing young girls into marriage or prostitution as an economic necessity. That’s why I was so appalled to hear that families in America still have such an old-fashioned mentality over 115 years later.
In America today, most girls are not barefoot peasants working on subsistence farms, desperate to obtain a lifelong roof over their heads. Even impoverished girls living in urban ghettos can get jobs at fast food restaurants rather than sell themselves on the corner—or in marriage. Girls do not have to marry to find economic security. The path to that is education, whether formal or informal. Parents know this. So what’s really at the bottom of this pressure to marry young?
It would be easy to blame outdated traditions from agrarian societies and various ethnic backgrounds or other cultures, but I fear that the real reason is control. In this country, girls have tremendous opportunities, even girls with no money behind them. But as they make life decisions, some opportunities may close off. Marrying young, with the implied purpose of immediately having children, is a decision that irrevocably alters a girl’s life. If parents can limit a girl’s education and then herd her into an early marriage with a handpicked spouse, they can maintain control over her for life. They might think they are doing it for the noblest of reasons, to keep her safe in a traditional life such as theirs has been, or in a particular religious community, for instance. But it’s still control. It’s the moral equivalent of the old Chinese practice of foot-binding. Outright selling a girl into marriage has dropped off as a social practice (although it may persist in some extreme religious sects). Now, families push girls instead.
Marriage can be wonderful, if you love the person you marry. How will you know that if you married him just because your parents said you should, or all your girlfriends are getting married, or your sister wants a double wedding? We all make decisions to please other people, to honor the people we respect and admire, such as our parents. But marrying to please them has fairly dire personal consequences. Having a happy, successful, lifelong marriage, and managing to steer clear of divorce is tough enough when both people start off in love and happily committed to each other. Just imagine how tough it is to stay married to someone you don’t love. What a trap marriage then becomes.
As the new year unfolds, here’s hoping that more girls make smart romantic decisions and don’t allow themselves to be pushed into marriage too soon. The white wedding gown will wait until you are ready for it.