Mon. March 5
Brad, Angelina, & the Marriage Doldrums
Without a doubt, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are Hollywood’s hottest couple–and after years of dating and adopting children from third-world countries into their nontraditional family arrangement, it looks like they are ready to tie the knot. The reality of family life, or some kind of reality, seems to be butting up against their political ideals:
. . . the surprisingly candid Brad says a previous promise to wait until gay marriage is legalized as a show of support might not happen ‘We’d actually like to [get married] and it seems to mean more and more to our kids. We made this declaration some time ago that we weren’t going to do it till everyone can. But I don’t think we’ll be able to hold out’.
Why the sudden change of heart? Perhaps they realized that marriage would benefit their children–there are six of them, after all. Or perhaps their children wanted them to get married. The benefits of marriage to kids are well-documented, and from the child’s perspective, they include living in a home with two loving parents rather than shuttling between two broken households, learning about how relationships work by observing their mom and dad together, and feeling secure and protected by the family unit.
Still, the recent issue of the tabloid In Touch suggests that there is trouble in pre-marital paradise:
The March 12th, 2012 issue of In Touch features the cover story ‘Angelina’s Crazy Wedding Demands.’ The magazine claims that Angelina Jolie has been guilted into getting married to Brad. Brad Pitt recently revealed that after seven years and a house full of children they will tie the knot sooner rather than later. It seems getting married is important to their children and they have been pressuring Brad and Angie to take the next step.
Now that Angelina feels pressured she is making crazy demands and acting up or so the magazine claims. She won’t let Brad pick her ring and she wants to wear a gasp . . . black wedding dress. She also bans a wedding cake. The magazine speculates on whether Angelina is secretly hoping that Brad will call the wedding off because of all her demands. They go to claim they they have the scoop on her odd behavior at the Oscars.
Notice that the very things Jolie is objecting to–if we are to believe the story–are all of the traditional symbols of both weddings (the white dress, the cake) and marriage (the ring, which represents lifelong commitment and communion). Usually, I would read this story and not think twice about it–it’s just Hollywood being Hollywood, right?–but this time, it caught my eye because I read it on the coattails of two other stories that paint a bleak picture of marriage.
The first one, from the Atlantic, asks if we are heading to a post-marriage society:
According to Pew Research statistics released in December, 51 percent of adults 18 or older in the U.S. are married, “placing them on the brink of becoming a minority,” writes Carol Morello in The Washington Post. This is a fairly significant drop from the 57 percent of U.S. adults who were married in 2000, and even further from the 1960s, when 72 percent of adults were married. But stats also show that today people are marrying later (in the ’60s, the median age for brides was 20!), and many of them are staying together longer when they do so. So it’s not that Americans aren’t marrying; it’s just that they view marriage somewhat differently, and are doing it because they choose to, not because they have to.
The other piece, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, describes the rising tide of “gray divorces” among baby boomers:
For the new generation of empty-nesters, divorce is increasingly common. Among people ages 50 and older, the divorce rate has doubled over the past two decades, according to new research by sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University, whose paper, “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” Prof. Brown will present at Ohio State University this April. The paper draws on data from the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistics Report and the 2009 American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, which asked all respondents if they’d divorced in the past 12 months.
Though overall national divorce rates have declined since spiking in the 1980s, “gray divorce” has risen to its highest level on record, according to Prof. Brown. In 1990, only one in 10 people who got divorced was 50 or older; by 2009, the number was roughly one in four. More than 600,000 people ages 50 and older got divorced in 2009.
What’s more, a 2004 national survey conducted by AARP found that women are the ones initiating most of these breakups. Among divorces by people ages 40-69, women reported seeking the split 66% of the time. And cheating doesn’t appear to be the driving force in gray divorce. The same AARP survey found that 27% of divorcés cited infidelity as one of their top three reasons for seeking a divorce—which is not out of line with estimates of infidelity as a factor in divorce in the general population.
So what is going on with these baby boomers?
Both the Journal and the Atlantic cite what I see as selfishness as part of the cause of the decline of marriage (though they call it by other names):
The trend defies any simple explanation, but it springs at least in part from boomers’ status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment. As they look around their empty nests and toward decades more of healthy life, they are increasingly deciding that they’ve done their parental duty and now want out. These decisions are changing not just the portrait of aging people in the U.S., as boomers swell the ranks of the elderly, but also the meaning of the traditional vow to stay together until “death do us part.”
. . . there’s a sense of freedom and even progress in realizing that not everyone has to be married — and that happy singledom is the choice above an unhappy marriage at any age, particularly as we live longer and with more financial independence.
These three articles–the Atlantic‘s, the Journal‘s, and the one in In Touch–all beg an important question: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it self-fulfillment, like the boomers think? Or is the purpose to have children and raise a family, which is what conservatives tend to argue?
The most basic definition of marriage is that it is a commitment, the most serious commitment, in fact, that two people can make to each other. The symbol of that union and commitment is a child. What happens when we, as a society, decide that we are no longer willing to make that commitment to someone else because we don’t need it for financial or utilitarian or selfish reasons? From a moral level, it means we are indulging our more adolescent impulses, which want the focus to be on me, me, me. We are not growing up. The act of commitment that marriage requires takes you out of your self. It must, because tying yourself to another person now means you have someone else to worry about, to look after, to consider, and to compromise with in the choices you make.
From a cultural perspective, getting married gives you a stake in society, and with that comes various benefits, like tax breaks, and various social duties, like having children. Marriage is considered the bedrock of civilization because it is how society replenishes itself. Going back to ancient Greece, societal norms said that married couples had a duty to replace themselves with fully functioning, fully contributing members of society—with responsible citizens. Children, in other words. This is why having kids and raising them well is so important and why social scientists and historians play close attention to negative and positive fertility rates among nations and civilizations.
So this modern idea of getting married for “self-fulfillment” betrays the foundation that marriage is based on–to give up part of yourself to your husband or wife and part of yourself to your children (and, therefore, society). Pitt and Jolie’s arrangement bridges the divide: they have kids and are not married. But are there consequences to that kind of relationship? Maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe the real question to ask is this: why didn’t they just get married in the first place, before kid number one came into the picture? The gay marriage objection seems too precious by a half and, even if it’s true, it just loops us back to the original problem: they were just too selfish to bring themselves to getting married. It would have affected their own images, their own political principles, their own careers, and/or their own lives in a way that, ultimately, wasn’t worth it to them.