The gleam of a sparkly new ring, the rustle of satin and lace, promises made in tender budding love, and the glistening eyes of the groom as he beholds his bride are what make up the wedding dream. It’s the archetypal story of the princess who finally found her prince charming, and it all feels so perfectly magical. Weddings have long been a symbol of covenant relationship, but they seem to have morphed into something different, something more of an obsession. The dream wedding has become the utopia we all long for. It’s become the mirage we all envision and long for in this dry desert of a world—we think surely this will make me happy; surely now I will be complete. But as we walk through to the other side, we find ourselves still in the desert. We find ourselves still battling feelings of being incomplete, undone, and unsettled. Was it the wedding that failed to deliver? Was it the wrong bride/groom match-up? Was it the wrong timing? Nagging doubts demolish the fantasy of the dream wedding once real life resumes. The whole thing sets us up for a very disappointing post-wedding reality, scattering around us the casualties of disillusionment in the form of divorce.
What we are looking for on our wedding day, and what can seem elusive in marriage, is a sense of being complete and full.But that sad reality is not what we think about, often because that’s not what the culture-at-large focuses upon. Our cultural wedding obsession is evident in the vast amount of reality shows dedicated to the big day. According to psychotherapist and divorce coach Micki Wade, “Shows like ‘Bridezillas’ and ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ have encouraged a cultural fascination with weddings, but it is our own entitlement that causes us to obsess over a one-day event…There is a much more materialistic emphasis today on the wedding.”
If you’ve ever planned your own wedding, or helped someone planned one, you know the cost is high. Each year in the United States, about 2.5 million people get married, and the industry is estimated to be $60 billion ($300 billion globally). The average wedding cost in the United States is $26,645. Couples typically spend between $19,984 and $33,306, but most couples spend less than $10,000. Money is where it’s at in the wedding industry. A quick scroll through Pinterest will help you find anything and everything wedding related: centerpieces, dresses, bouquet arrangements, photo booth ideas, favor ideas, themed cakes, table settings, and the perfect candy and dessert table spreads. Weddings are no small affairs and become the focal point for a couple once they decide to commit.
“The wedding is, on the one hand, a healthy way of making a public commitment to each other and acknowledging that you’re part of a web of family and friends that helps to nourish the relationship,” says Stephen Fabick, a consulting psychologist who specializes in conflict resolution. Planning the big day together can also build teamwork as a couple, preparing for a unified life. But when the main focus is the wedding, and not growing together as a couple, then the couple is set up for disillusionment, just like Fabick continues to say, “But on the other hand, it preps like a cancer, where the focus is on the show and not the long-term or reality of the relationship.”
In addition to the burgeoning wedding industry, we can also see this wedding obsession play out in the tabloids littering store checkout lanes. Personally obsessing over our own weddings isn’t enough; we also obsess over the preparation and planning of countless celebrity weddings, even those across the pond. Remember Prince William and Kate Middleton’s royal wedding? They literally embodied the archetypal story of Prince and commoner-turned-Princess; hopeless romantics everywhere swooned. And then there was the highly publicized wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries the same year as Kate and William. Although Kim and Kris are far from royal status, their following is just as grand. Both weddings were major media events, with coverage on everything from the dresses to the guest lists to the receptions. Sadly, it only took 72 days for the Kardashian–Humphries marriage to end in an equally publicized divorce. And here we have the cultural dichotomy of wedding obsession and the common reality of painful divorce.
You’ve probably heard the disconcerting statistic that half of marriages end in divorce. This is a misconception. Research by social scientists has been covered in The New York Times and Time magazine dispelling this myth of rising divorce rates. Both publications have shown data that supports the steady decrease of divorce from its peak years in the 1970s and ’80s. Granted, fewer people are getting married. This, amongst other factors, plays into the steady decline of divorce rates. Jennifer Baker, director of the marriage-and family-therapy programs at Forest Institute says:
“It’s a very murky statistic. Figuring out divorce rates is tricky. Not all states collect marital data, and the numbers change dramatically depending on the methods and sources that are used. In the end, the best that researchers can do is look for trends within a specific group or cohort (say, all people who married in the 1980’s) and project what will happen.”
And according to Claire Cane Miller from the The New York Times, the decline in divorce is concentrated among those with college degrees. Miller says, “For the less educated, divorce rates are closer to those of the peak divorce years.” While it may be true that divorce rates are not as severe as we thought, we can know it is common. How many of us have been part of a broken family structure or know someone who is? We don’t have to figure out all the new and old research on divorce data to see the facts around us. Yet, somehow, the wedding is still the object of our hopes for happiness and the culmination of our greatest planning efforts.
A psychology professor from Northwestern University, Eli J. Finkel, gives some insight here. Finkel explains, in a New York Times piece, that our expectations of marriage have increased. Perhaps we believe our marriages will retain some of the fairy tale quality of the wedding? Finkel assures that if we invest enough time and energy we can achieve satisfaction in marriage. But if we do not invest, many marriages will fall short of these new unrealistic expectations. To help us understand today’s expectations of marriage, Finkel unearths U.S. history. The era of institutional marriage existed from our nation’s founding until 1850. During this time emotional connection was an added bonus, but not a central purpose of marriage. Couples in this era were more concerned with meeting basic necessities like food, shelter, and protection. The era of companionate marriage from 1850 to 1965 centered around the need to love and be loved and have a fulfilling sex life. The shift from rural to urban life gave U.S. couples the luxury of looking to marriage primarily as a means for love and companionship. Since 1965, we have been living in the era of self-expressive marriage, where we are looking to marriage as a means for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.
Finkel notices a psychological pattern in this historical narrative: Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” According to this pattern, our personal needs in marriage—and accordingly, our expectations—have soared to new heights. “As the expectations of marriage have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy, the potential psychological payoffs have increased—but achieving those results has become more demanding,” which is why, Finkle explains, “Here lie both the great successes and great disappointments of modern marriage.” Finkel also points out that the average married couple is investing less time and energy in their relationship. He proposes we either do the hard work of marriage or lower our expectations—perhaps then our marriages won’t end in divorce. I personally propose we do both—have realistic expectations and do the hard work.
Perhaps Finkel is providing a middle ground for us between the hyper-romanticized wedding days—that can possibly set us up for disappointment—and the disillusioning reality of marriage, which can lead to divorce. We need to arrive at a place where the spectrum even out and closes the gap between these two sides. The middle ground does seem to lend itself well to balance, and balance produces shalom. This Hebrew word for peace speaks to the presence of wholeness. So what we are looking for on our wedding day, and what can seem elusive in marriage, is a sense of being complete and full. Shalom is the answer found between the utopian yearning of the wedding and the dystopian disillusionment of marriage. The wedding day is like the virtue and innocence of young love, but the reality of sin corrupts the flowering leaf. And how we ultimately find shalom between the two sides of sin and virtue is by receiving and giving grace.
The Painted Veil is a film starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts that displays shalom through grace. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who falls in love with Kitty (Watts), but when he proposes marriage to her, she tells him she cannot reciprocate the feelings. Walter conveys that he is fine with her lack of emotional connection toward him and believes she will come around once they marry. Ultimately, Kitty agrees to settle down because she wants to get away from her nagging mother. Once married, they take root in Shanghai for Walter’s career. It is here that Kitty meets and falls in love with a witty and charming diplomat named Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Once Walter discovers Kitty’s infidelity, she blames Walter for marrying her when he knew she was not in love with him. Kitty says, “If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.” Walter blames her for being selfish and spoiled. In spite of her errors, Walter said he had loved her anyway, but in light of her newfound unfaithfulness he says, “I hate myself for loving you once.”
When Kitty realizes the shallowness of Charlie’s perceived love for her, she concedes to Walter’s wishes to come with him to a Chinese village as he aids in a cholera epidemic. They suffer in pain and silence alone, but together. As they each branch out of their isolation to help the Chinese people in different ways, anger and bitterness melt away and their view of each other changes. At one point Walter says, “It was silly of us to look for qualities in each other that we never had.” And as Kitty begins to see the virtue that was in her husband all along, love begins to pump the valves of her heart. Walter too notices Kitty’s new selflessness and sacrificing servitude and the love he once regretted feeling found its place again.
Both Walter and Kitty found shalom through grace. They could no longer deny the dystopian reality of their marriage situation in the midst of their utopian yearnings, but they broke free of the chains of cynicism and found grace in each other in such a way that they could embrace virtue and error. As Kitty’s friend, Mother Superior, tells her: “When love and duty are one, grace is within you.” This is profound, yet nobody in the film accounts for the source of this amazing grace. And this is what we need to discover, whether married or longing to be.
The film reflects our very real and regular lives. The mundane nature of marriage will have miscommunications, lofty expectations, ugly discoveries, and hurt feelings. These things eat away at the perfect life we thought would come after the dream wedding and leave us disenchanted. This is why we need grace given and received. Marriage would be hopeless if it weren’t for grace. And yet this grace is impossible to muster in our own strength; it is something supernatural that comes to us and works in us.
Ultimately, grace comes down to us from God in the form of his Son. The Spirit helps us to believe and trust in this grace come down to us, so we can spread it around our lives and extend it to others. This work is a free gift given to God’s children and extends itself outward in generosity to others. This is the place where shalom resides. God is shalom because he is the only complete and whole being in and of himself. As we draw near to the Son, who makes us complete in the Father by his sacrifice on the cross, we experience wholeness ourselves.
In his book A Loving Life, Paul Miller addresses the centrality of Jesus to our wholeness amidst our culture’s marital expectations. He says,
“The promise—marriage happily ever after—dominates the popular mind of our age. It is a good but unrealistic dream. When God is removed from the dream, the story turns out badly. Christianity without Jesus just doesn’t work. The Disney dream raises unrealistic expectations and then dashes them on the rocks of human frailty.”
We shouldn’t be blind in our romanticism and see only virtue, but because of Jesus, we don’t have to despair of the sin we see either. Here is where true happiness is found well beyond the wedding day and also a stable ground for the winds of disillusionment. We don’t have to be afraid of the ugly truth or live for a dream of a false reality, we can rest in grace and find shalom. There is freedom in realizing we weren’t saved for a wedding day here on earth, but a wedding day in heaven where our union with Christ is consummated, where we will be fully whole. Shalom is what our hearts need and long for. Grace is the means of finding it.