When I was six, my father promised to buy me a ladder when I grew up “so you can elope”. He explained that weddings were expensive and high-stress, so it would be more convenient all round if I just climbed out of my window when the time came and ran off into the sunset with whoever it was I’d fallen in love with.
In the 25 years since, the plan has changed. My wedding – the wedding I was sure I was too feminist and too modern ever to have – is four months away. And while I stuff invitations into envelopes and wonder how to cause maximum hilarity with the seating plan, people are giddily asking if I’m looking forward to it. Alas, it’s not socially acceptable to give the honest answer: I’m not sure.
I’m excited, of course, about finally being allowed a big party, assuming it can go ahead and that a new wave of Covid doesn’t scupper the whole thing. I’ve got a gorgeous dress and a very sparkly tiara; I’ve been ticking off the old rhyme (does co-opting your fiancé’s kids to be flower girls count as “something borrowed”?); and I can’t wait to get all our friends and family ceilidh-dancing – because who doesn’t love bagpipes? Planning the ceremony has also been quite fun. I worried that combining my Jewish heritage with my partner’s Christian one would cause friction, but he assures me that the Church of England is mostly about hymns, cake and awkwardly shaking hands.
But as for the prospect of “being married”, what’s the point? Not in a flippant sense, but really, what is it? Our lives won’t change in any meaningful way because we’ve got a signed piece of paper. True, splitting up will become infinitely harder (I’ve thought for a long time that any couple considering making their commitment to each other legally binding should be forced to watch a divorce up close, to see how hard and expensive it is to untangle), and I might sign up for his employer’s health insurance policy. But beyond that, I can’t help thinking life will just continue. We’ll still bicker over stacking the dishwasher, proofread each other’s emails for typos, collapse exhausted on the sofa and dote obsessively on the cat. I’m not changing my name, and the only time I can imagine wanting to use the phrase “my husband” is when I get yet another sales call (“Hold on, I don’t deal with that. You’ll have to speak to my…”).
If anything, this past year has been a lesson in the needlessness of marriage as an institution. Most of the marital milestones that are supposed to come after the big day have already been ticked off: moving in together, building a home, wrangling over childcare, encountering the joys and challenges of in-laws. We are prepping for our first proper family Christmas, complete with arguments over who’s driving where and a duck that’s been in the freezer since November in case the supply chain crisis worsens. His non-Jewish children have been appropriately initiated into the magic of Chanukah.
For all that the culture dictates I should be overwhelmed with breathless anticipation as a blushing bride-to-be, I don’t think we’re that unusual. I realise most couples don’t have stepchildren in the mix, but given most people who get married cohabit first, much of the work that goes into establishing and nurturing a long-term relationship happens long before anyone gets a ring.
People fluster themselves into a moral panic about the rising age of a first marriage (31.5 for women and 33.4 for men, up by eight years since 1976 and above the age of first-time mothers): what is wrong with these commitment-phobic millennials who want to put off “adulting” and stretch out the no-strings carelessness of their student years long into their twenties? The obvious answer is that student debt, a precarious labour market and eye-watering rental prices don’t lend themselves to a nuptial mindset. Even for those tempted to skip the cost of the wedding altogether and elope (with or without a ladder), it’s not unreasonable to want the semblance of financial stability before tying your life to someone else’s for good.
But it’s wrong to confuse delaying marriage with delaying maturity. It’s just that marriage – at least, in the West – doesn’t mean what it once did: it’s no longer a definitive marker of adulthood, a confetti-strewn doorway through which people pass from one life stage to another, like the wardrobe in Narnia. Rather, it’s an affirmation of a set-up that already exists, and a public declaration that you’d like it to continue existing for a good while longer.
Strip away the idea that marriage is a life-changing event, and much of the cultural baggage that makes it so repugnant from a feminist perspective evaporates, too. This isn’t a woman being “given away” from one man to another, or surrendering her hopes, dreams and career in exchange for the myth of feminine domestic bliss. It is two adults on an equal footing who have already built their life together in a way that works for them and quite fancy a party.
People often joke that Shakespeare’s comedies all end with a marriage, and his tragedies all start with one. But that works only if you see the moment of getting married as a profound change of state, a venture into the unknown, rather than a symbolic recognition of what you already have. I prefer to see it as the christening of a ship – finally giving a name to something that has been carefully crafted, tested and pronounced watertight. I just hope no one breaks a bottle of champagne over my head.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special