Lately it seems like each celebrity couple heading down the aisle is younger than the last. But we all know that Hollywood hardly mirrors the real world. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the average age of a woman's first marriage has actually increased by over two years since just 1980. Why are we waiting so long to wear that white dress? In this excerpt from his book Urban Tribes, author Ethan Watters explores a number of theories.
"What ever happened to getting married?" I asked a carful of friends. This was half a dozen years ago while we were on our way to Burning Man. The U-Haul trailer we were pulling carried two dozen eight-foot lengths of two-by-fours, thirty bedsheets, a couple hundred yards of rope, thirty cases of beer, and all the other makings for our homegrown art project. Our plan was to string the sheets, à la Christo, along the desert, then offer other Burning Man attendees an ice-cold Sapporo beer for writing a properly constructed haiku on the sheets. Burning Man, a kind of wacky desert art festival, was a yearly event for my group of friends. Along with the makings for our interactive art installation, we had approximately 20 pounds of Gummy Bears, 15 pounds of Twizzlers, food for five days, 300 gallons of water, a variety of costumes, and 100 green glow sticks so we could keep track of each other in the desert night. A total of 25 friends were headed from San Francisco across the Sierras toward our rendezvous in the Black Rock Desert that day. Significantly absent among them was Julia, my girlfriend at the time.
It was because of that absent girlfriend that the subject of marriage had been on my mind, the issue having recently and contentiously come up between the two of us. I knew that others in the car had been thinking about it as well. We were all in our late 20s or early-to-middle 30s, yet none had found brides or husbands. Although we were all older than our parents were when they had us, the idea of having children ourselves still seemed a far-off abstraction that came up only when someone asked whether we "wanted" children. There was a growing sense among us that our post-college/pre-family life was stretching into an awfully long time ‑- five, ten, almost fifteen years for some ‑- and that maybe we had missed a turn somewhere. Our parents, having suffered through introductory dinners with a half-dozen to a dozen prospective mates, were becoming concerned. They worried for us, or, if they were less generous or more eager for grandchildren, accused us of being "slackers," a word they had come to understand from listening to public radio.
Jen, a fast-thinking criminal defense lawyer who was often first out of the block with her notions, answered first. "Women have their own careers and resources and they no longer need the institution of marriage to survive," she said. Jen had grown up in middle-income New Jersey but had managed to shake off most of the trappings of that life in her hipper, less-permed California incarnation. "It's simple economics. Most women still want to get married, but fewer women feel like they have to. Besides, we have those things to help open jars now."
"It's the breakdown of tradition in the city," said Adam, a documentary filmmaker and true child of left-wing Berkeley. "Our families can't force us to do anything anymore, and the church has even less power. We put ourselves first now. We can't get married because we're tragically selfish."
"It's simpler than that. We're not getting married because it's no longer required before having sex," offered Josh, a tall, handsome underachiever who was always pragmatic when it came to sexual issues and opportunities. "You know, if the milk is free, who's going to sell the cow?" "You mean 'buy the cow' ‑- 'no one wants to buy the cow,'" Jen said, hitting Josh on the back of the head. "It's a wonder you get any milk at all."
"I think our generation grew up with too much marital carnage," Alice offered tentatively. A graduate student in her late 30s, she was new to our group and was still getting the hang of how we talked about the world. "We spent our adolescence ducking and covering as families up and down the block went off like bombs. We get post-traumatic-stress symptoms just going home for Thanksgiving, like revisiting a combat zone."
I paused, as they waited for my theory. I could see that all their ideas had merit. But even though it was true that the idea of marriage had lost some of its traditional importance and had been grievously damaged by the ice-storm divorces of the '70s, we all claimed that we still desired it. We often talked of marriage as if it were the finish line of this leg of life's race. There seemed to be something more going on with our delay, something getting in our way.
"I've been thinking that, for me, the problem is you guys," I said, pausing to let that sink in. "I mean, how would I get the momentum up to get married when I'm always hanging around with my friends? I spend more time talking about my love life with you all than I do having one."
"And I thought Julia wasn't coming on this trip," Josh said in a stage whisper to Jen. "But look, he's channeling his girlfriend for us."
"You know what my dad was doing when he was my age?" I continued, a little riled by Josh's comment. "He had a steady job, he was married to my mom, and they were having me. I can also tell you what he wasn't doing: He wasn't driving to the desert with two dozen of his friends to build a haiku-for-beer camp."
"Worse than channeling," Jen said with mock concern. "I think Julia's possessed his body. Ethan, are you in there? Quick, someone call a priest."
As annoying as they were, my friends were right. I was speaking for Julia, who had recently, in a series of intense arguments, all but convinced me that my life was stuck. It had started because the weekend of Burning Man had conflicted with her best friend's wedding in her hometown of Athens, Georgia. I had ill-advisedly suggested that my group's yearly pilgrimage to Burning Man was equally important to me as the wedding of her friend was to her. Not only would Julia not concede this point, she found it jaw-droppingly bizarre that I would even make such a comparison.
The fights became intense because the wedding-versus-Burning Man debate was emblematic of Julia's belief that my friends were stunting my growth ‑- delaying my graduation to a more adult existence. She would list the details of my life as if that conclusion were obvious: In my early 30s, I was a freelance writer making a hand-to-mouth living. I shared a large flat with a Zen monk, a musician, a filmmaker, and three other people. I insisted on being at the Rite Spot restaurant every Tuesday night, when my group of friends would meet for dinner. I attended so religiously that I would schedule trips not to miss these Tuesday gatherings. Julia had one or two close friends, but she couldn't see the point in carrying on, as I did, with a group of two dozen. "Your life is Seinfeldian," she told me, "except with all Georges. You know what that show is about? Nothing."
Was my life about nothing? I had to admit that Julia made a convincing case, and I was vulnerable to the criticism. My life often felt like a montage of happy, often slapstick, scenes, but I couldn't make the case that it had much of a plot. There I was holding the boom microphone on the set of a friend's independent film. Cut to a scene of my group of friends lounging in the moonlight on the roof of a houseboat listening to Noah play the guitar. Cut to the shared dinners or the roommate meetings or the writing groups... It didn't matter how you strung these scenes together, they didn't add up to any narrative I knew.
I wasn't joking about the idea that my friends were the problem. It would be hard, after all, to realize that your life was off track if everybody in your frame of reference was similarly derailed. Like myself, my friends were all leading busy and upbeat post-college/pre-family lives. They lived alone or with roommates and worked along in their careers. In their love lives, they suffered through two-year cycles that went from singleness to crush to relationship to heartbreak and back to singleness. We absolved ourselves from these failures by believing that we just hadn't met the right person. Hope springs eternal with romantic desire, and that "right person" excuse was easy for us to accept as individuals. But as we stepped back and saw that everyone around us was delaying marriage, that excuse was harder to swallow. Were there no "right people" left? An unsettling Twilight Zone-ish feeling was creeping in as we were exceeding the age our parents were when we first knew them.
I had never planned to live my 20s and early 30s in this manner. After college, my girlfriend and I moved to a low-rent neighborhood of San Francisco assuming that we were in a brief transition period between college and marriage. We lived together for one year and then another. We waited as if the decision to get married would decide itself on its own. It didn't, and she eventually left me to move on to graduate school. Being young and full of hope at the time, I assumed the problem was with the timing and discontents of that particular relationship and not with me. I began searching the city for my true love, assuming that this wouldn't take too long.
I didn't know it back then, but I was a harbinger of a massive trend. Like most modern singles, I wasn't just looking for a suitable spouse; I was soul-mate searching. Although I disliked the phrase's New Age connotations, I counted myself among the 94 percent of my fellow never-marrieds who, when asked in a Gallup poll, agreed that when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate first and foremost. Along with my friends, I discovered that searching for a soul mate wasn't so easy. Although I dated smart and charming women, the soul-mate standard I tried to apply was so elusive in my own mind that any disgruntlement could become a reason for the big "What are we doing?" talk. I wasn't looking for that certain something, a friend once cruelly observed. I was looking for that certain everything.
From the book Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters, Published by Bloomsbury. © Ethan Watters, 2003. Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury.