For a long time, nothing is happening. You know that people get married, and imagine that one day it will happen to you and your friends, but it’s all still very far away. It’s something that your parents did, and something that you might think about in a few years. But then, all of a sudden, it feels like someone hit the jackpot on a slot machine and, one after the other, a bunch of “Congratulations on the engagement!” chips are pouring out and you can’t catch them fast enough. There are announcements everywhere, and expensive, logistically difficult ceremonies to attend in the summer, and new last names to keep track of. All at once, everyone is getting married.
And I don’t begrudge people their moment in the sun. When it is your special day — or, if we’re being honest, your special 9-to-15-month engagement period — you have every right to celebrate it in your own way, even if that way entails taking pictures of you and your fiancé standing in a corn field, holding hands and looking defiantly ahead of you. Life is short, celebrate your personal joys exactly the way you want to.
But it would be a lie if I said that seeing all of this happen around me, all at once, didn’t make me feel something. It doesn’t matter if you are single or casually dating or in a long-term relationship, when everyone around you starts solidifying their relationships in legal and religious terms, you ask questions.
As a woman, the most obvious questions have always been “Are we giving anything up to settle down with someone?” You see a woman who is marrying before establishing a career, or who is leaving her own job to be with a man, and you can’t help but feel a certain kind of frustration for her. And it’s unfair, in all honesty. It is not our individual job to bear the burden of our historical place in the world — it’s not up to each of us to choose a professional life just because our mothers did not have that option. If a woman is happy and fulfilled simply by getting married, we should be unconditionally happy for her, and not place on her the expectation of living out some clichéd working-woman ideal.
But in a broader sense, when we live as long as we do now, and our prospects for establishing financial and professional freedom are as bleak as they are, you have to wonder: Who can even get married in their mid-20s anymore? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that one thing I absolutely want when I get married is the ability to pay comfortably for a nice ceremony. I don’t want the wedding to bankrupt me, or to be the only thing I actually invest in. I want to be at a place in my life where I can enjoy myself without worrying that every last place setting is going to prevent me from buying property.
I know very few people who have a lot of financial freedom, or who are even well-established in their careers, and yet, there they go. Getting married. Somehow paying for a wedding. Having this lavish ceremony that pushes them, in many ways, into official adulthood, even when they are just as behind as everyone else. Relatives have told me that “the families help pay for the weddings, and it’s your jump-start into real life.” So maybe it’s feasible. But I can’t imagine, in this economy, not wanting to look at the family so ready to shell out for a destination wedding and saying, “Please let me invest that money elsewhere. I want to have a solid foundation of independence before I start celebrating things like my personal relationship.”
When I force myself to think about it, it seems like the judgment I make or the wave of discomfort I feel when I see so many people around me getting married so young comes from fear. It’s not a personal fear of “Oh no, why am I not invited to this club, why isn’t this happening for me?” because I truly do not feel ready to enter that part of my life. But there is a fear that we, as a generation, are still heavily tied up in the social norms and life milestones of a world that we will never live in. We carry things like heavy student debt and a tight job market and an evaporating middle class, and yet we still throw such incredible importance into spending impressive sums of money on dresses and catered food and table settings.
A friend of mine will get engaged, and her Facebook will be flooded with “likes” and comments and well-wishes. Another friend gets a job after years of searching and doing unpaid internships, and there is a moment of excitement, but it’s not nearly the same. We still feel as though marriage is the defining moment of a lot of our young lives, even with the divorce rate as it is, and even though finally getting a foothold in a career is arguably a much bigger accomplishment. We still want the pomp and circumstance and to feel like there is something to celebrate, and so we get married in our mid-20s, even when we have little else to build on.
One day, I hope to get married. I want to join families and take a name and live a life fully dedicated to the person I love. But there are many things that I want before that, things that I feel will make living with someone that much more comfortable and fulfilling. I want a wedding to be icing on the cake, not the one moment of “adulthood” I get to act out in a decade of life. And I understand its importance, and why we love it, but I suppose I wish we didn’t care about it quite as much. I wish that it wasn’t the one thing for which we really celebrate and acknowledge each other. Because, yes, getting married is a wonderful thing. But in the grand scheme of what deserves four hundred Facebook “likes,” I would say that paying off a big chunk of your loans is way higher on the list.