An Aging Wedding Culture

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by Betsy VanDenBerghe

We who come from a marriage-intense culture laughed a little more than others when My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘s one-liners took the box office by storm back in 2002.

Unmarried heroine Toula Portokalos narrates her saga with wry observations such as “There are three things that every Greek woman must do in life: marry Greek boys, make Greek babies, and feed everyone.” Her father tells her, “Get married, make babies! You look so…old!” And everything in her culture emphasizes certain fundamentals, including her Greek school’s “valuable lessons, such as, ‘If Nick has one goat and Maria has nine, how soon will they marry?'”

For those of us who spend, or spent, most of our twenties single while friends and relations jumped into domestic duties — leaving us adrift at family and church functions to face the perennial question “Are you dating anyone seriously?” — this culture has its definite disadvantages.

But the big fat marriage culture has its perks, too. Prime among them: continual, albeit irritating, reminders to grow up and get responsible.

Conversely, today’s zeitgeist asks “What’s the hurry?” offering reassurance that “Thirty is the new twenty,” and “Though you’d never marry this guy, it’s fine to move in with him.” But today’s cultural heirs, bewildered Millennials in their late twenties and early thirties, end up in Meg Jay’s counseling office feeling behind and trying to make up for lost time. They form the cautionary tales interspersing research in Jay’s recent book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now.

A clinical psychologist affiliated with the University of Virginia, Jay specializes in adult development and makes a strong case for not wasting a pivotal decade during which “eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place.” Jay spends less time delving into her twentysomething patients’ pasts and more time advising them on their professional and personal futures.

Her career advice is straightforward. Find and stick out annoying entry level jobs that nevertheless offer connections and resume fodder. Forge “identity capital” through volunteer or personal challenges. Explore a wide range of jobs. Oh, and about those friends who’ve become your second family? Widen your circle to avoid the myopia of thinking everyone’s taking their twenties off like your urban tribe. You’ll find out soon enough at the next reunion that others have forsworn five years as a barista and embarked on promising professional paths. And it’s actually the “weak ties” on alumni sites or through acquaintances, not the insular compatriots, who bring the greatest opportunities and likelihood of interviews.

The book’s strength, however, lies in admonitions eerily similar to, though more tactful than, the insistence from Toula’s nagging relations that marriage and family matter deeply, and there does come a point at which you’re getting too…old. Bereft of strong marriage cultures, twentysomethings today spend more time single than any generation in history.

The ones in Jay’s book confess that postponement of marriage and children, or not taking those decisions seriously, form their deepest regrets. Millennials tend to be undeliberate about “one of our most defining moments,” according to Jay-one that affects every aspect of life. Instead of participating in activities likely to involve potential spouses and avoiding relationships they wouldn’t consider making permanent, twentysomethings leave marriage up to chance like “walking over to the roulette wheel and putting all your chips on red 32.”

Unfortunately, cohabitation involves wasting irretrievable years with partners many would never consider marrying and fosters a romantic roommate scenario over a future-building, mortgage-shopping spousal one. Consequently, couples tend to slide into marriage as the next step, only to find that lack of prescience and commitment along the way sabotages their relationships. Divorce rates for those who previously live together remain higher than for those who don’t.

“And what about kids?” Jay asks women clients in their early thirties taking a year to plan an elaborate wedding and another to finish up law school. Her sobering chapters on declining rates of ovulation up to age 35 drive home Jay’s point that just because society now views thirty as the new twenty doesn’t mean women’s, and even men’s, biological clocks received the memo. Women’s fertility peaks at 28, and extraordinary costs of fertility treatments, celebrity cover stories aside, often don’t work even with a hundred thousand dollar price tag.

Fertility issues also generate a host of existential concerns: middle-aged parents raising teenagers as aging adults, longer generational spaces creating grandparents and children who barely intersect, and the postponement of the first child creating the likelihood he or she will never have a sibling, let alone several. One of Jay’s clients, a father of a young child at thirty-eight, did some soul searching during an MRI for chest pains, and only two things seemed crucial: “the way my little son’s hand feels when I hold it and how I didn’t want to leave my wife behind to do it all on her own.” He realized that losing his past didn’t matter nearly as much as losing his future because, now, “all the good stuff is still to come.”

The gift of marriage-intense cultures lies in their reminders that the best is yet to come. Granted, nudging fellow travelers in a kinder, gentler way seems preferable to brow beating, especially since marriage doesn’t happen or work out for everyone, for a variety of reasons, and its timing is notoriously unpredictable. Still, it seems that somebody needs to exhort and admonish. Instead of nagging aunts and overbearing pastors, concerned academic observers like Jay and others are quietly send up flares warning twentysomethings that the “marriage as capstone” mentality — in which a wedding caps off, rather than precedes or accompanies, educational and professional pursuits — comes with serious repercussions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to owing my wedding to a strongly worded talk a former church leader gave to the single men of my big, fat marriage culture decades ago. One young man in his early thirties took it to heart and decided to get serious about finding a wife. Fortunately, that wife turned out to be me, and I gave birth to the first of several children after my twenty-eight year fertility peak and had my last baby at forty-two.

So I’ll end on that hopeful note — from my marriage culture to yours.

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