Friday, March 6, 2009
Weddings and marriage
This week I attended my sister's wedding (congratulations, Ilana and Chen!), and this made me think about the significance of wedding ceremonies and marriage as a social convention.
Human societies are usually composed of family units. A wedding denotes the formation of such a family unit. While it is possible in modern society for a couple to cohabit and start a family without any formal ceremony, it seems that most couples still choose to express their commitment to each other in public, and this tradition seems likely to continue.
Marriage is one of the most pervasive forms of human relationships, and it has developed because it suits the evolutionary needs of some people. Monogamy is one of the patterns that helps us pass on our genetic and spiritual heritage to the next generation. It is not suitable for everyone, however. I often wonder about those people who get married but sooner or later "cheat" on their partners. Do they really believe, during the ceremony when they declare their intention to have an exclusive relationship with one person for life, that they will be capable of this? Are they deluding themselves? Or do they already know that given the opportunity, they will seek other partners and break their vows? It seems to me that some people must know that monogamy is not for them, and they are deceiving their partner and possibly themselves when they agree to marry.
Wedding ceremonies are among the few ceremonies still practiced in many cultures. In some societies the birth of a child is celebrated; sometimes there is a puberty ceremony; while some people in modern society may experience no formal ceremony of any sort until their funeral!
I have attended weddings of three main types: Orthodox Jewish weddings, Church of England weddings, and civil weddings in a municipal registry office (in England). I also attended one wedding ceremony that was entirely invented by the bride and groom (who had previously been married in a civil ceremony abroad). There is a wide diversity in the details of the various ceremonies, but the common elements seem to be a declaration of intent in words, and the exchange of various symbols representing the marriage.
My sister's wedding was a Reform Jewish ceremony. This particular ceremony was much more egalitarian than the Orthodox ones I've seen. In this ceremony, there was an exchange of rings, and both bride and groom read from the Ketubah, which was phrased as an agreement between equals to form a family rather than a financial transaction where the groom purchases a wife. The ceremony also involved all the immediate family members (unlike church weddings, where the bride's father "gives her away" and after that the family is not involved). The parents of bride and groom stood beside them under the Chuppah, and the mother of the bride and father of the groom were asked to give their children the first drink of wine. In this case, for this first time in my experience, the groom's children (from a previous marriage) had a role to play, with his son acting as ring bearer and his daughter carrying a basket of rose petals to throw. They were excited to be under the Chuppah and participate in the ceremony. The ceremony ended with the traditional breaking of a glass, a symbol with many explanations.
I don't know if couples feel a great difference immediately after marriage, but knowing that they have made a public declaration of their love and commitment must mean something. Society still treats married couples differently to unmarried couples (and this is usually reflected in various laws and financial arrangements). Often, cynical people ask "why get married when the divorce rate is so high?". To this I can answer that there are no statistics on the separation rate of non-married cohabiting couples, but presumably it is similar. Couples who are of a monogamous tendency, who have chosen each other carefully and who are willing to work at their relationship, should enjoy a good chance of staying together. Divorces happen when one or both partner are not suited to monogamy and seek the excitement and variety of other partners, or when they are not compatible with each other and cannot find a way to bridge their differences.
I believe in love and I believe marriage can work, and I wish Ilana and Chen every happiness together!