“The pressure’s on.” “Time’s running out.” “I’m not getting any younger.” “I need to find a man, STAT.”
This was, give or take a few words, the sentiment confided in me by a first-cousin when I recently took a trip to Sudan, where I was born and where much of my extended family lives. The cousin in question, always having been the bookworm-y, studious type, is fresh out of med school. She’s preparing to begin a year as a medical intern, before continuing on to specialize in obstetrics, or pathology, or pediatrics, or something that is commendable either way. And, sure, she’s a little stressed about that. But her biggest concern, it turns out, is finding a husband before her life spirals out of control into a man-less fulfilling professional career.
She is, unlike most med school graduates in America, 22. A gorgeous, brilliant 22-year-old doctor with a bright future ahead of her and the pressure of marriage to carry around.
That was more or less the theme of my visit home: who recently got married, who recently became engaged, and who is desperately on the trawl. Sudan, as you may know, is a couple of weeks away from a referendum that will likely result in the South’s secession. By most accounts, the country is on the brink of war. But in the capital of Khartoum, where prices are rising as fast as the poverty rate, marriage is still the number one topic of conversation.
Things are bad, and getting married is the obvious fix, the belief seems to be. But for all that until-death-do-us-part thing implicated by a wedding, there is surprisingly little talk of what happens after the toasters and tureens are put away. The ceremony, in all its short-lived, hors-d’oeuvred, poufy-gowned glory, is more important than the partnership that’s supposed to survive decades of better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health.
And to me, that’s more anxiety-inducing than the prospects, slim or otherwise, of finding a man in the first place. I mean, I’m fairly certain I can find someone to marry. I’m even pretty sure I can find someone kind, handsome, intelligent, and moderately successful. What I’m less sure of, though, is that I’ll find someone I’llstay married to.
After all, the statistics are grim. According to recent Census figures, nearly half as many people get divorced every year as the number of people who walk down the aisle. And while that isn’t quite as bad as the 50-percent-of-all-marriages-end-in-divorce myth plaguing the conversation about American marriages, it’s still quite a fair bit. The divorce rate can be, and often is, attributed to: the crumbling of the institution of marriage and its sanctity; increasingly accepting attitudes towards divorce; the liberalization of divorce laws, etc.
But I don’t think that’s all. Above anything, the reasons we’re getting divorced are the reasons we’re getting married. In the past—and, of course, this is still the case in many parts of the world—marriage was all about practicality. People got married to protect business interests, to ally families and clans, to procreate and extend their lineage, to create viable social and economic units. Nowadays, we get married for this self-indulgent thing called love; for our emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs. And that is our downfall.
As a grade school teacher of mine, a perennial bachelor, often posited: arranged marriages are guaranteed to last. Love marriages, on the other hand, are likely to fail. In the former case, the expectations are basic and easily met: children will be had and reared, spouses will offer each other support and companionship. Simple enough.
In the case of love marriages, though, the expectations are greater and more difficult to live up to. We place far too much pressure on ourselves to be each other’s “soulmates,” to be “the one,” to be in love “until death do us part.” And in a country where the median age of first marriage is 27 and the average life expectancy hovers around 78, you’re looking at half-a-century of being together.
It’s no wonder, then, that people change, fall out of love, and get divorced. It’s barely a big deal and it certainly isn’t the end of the world. It happens all the time. People get divorced, they move on, and find happiness elsewhere. But there’s a part of me—I guess it’s the part that grew up on Disney films and eventually graduated to romantic comedies—that is terrified of the prospect of a failed marriage.
And so I find myself wondering: how realistic is it to expect to land in a marriage that lasts until death does us part? Is this a cynical perspective? Sure. But I’d like to think it’s a little on the practical side too. After all, if Oprah can’t do it…