Wednesday, March 21, 2007

customs and culture - snug as a bug in a rug.

so during my Contrarian™ kick last month, i said that i was going to post about the marriage as ritual, and i never did. my delinquency is deeply regrettable. but i read something yesterday that reminded me of the topic, and thought i’d share it with you all and see what you thought.

the impetus for this little musing was an interview with kamy wicoff, author of i do but i don’t: walking down the aisle without losing your mind. i highly, highly, highly recommend that you read the whole thing, because the woman is just firing on all cylinders here. as i was explaining it to BoyCat on the metro ride home last night, ‘it’s like, she takes all these ideas and qualms and confusing contradictions that normally make me go ‘ you’s like’ and just nails them.”

so, anyway, it’s good. but this particular part really struck me:

One of the things I came to see is that there's a reason why society, at these watershed moments, steps in with a program. On the one hand it's because people want it and need it and ask for it and on the other hand it's because it's the ideal time to impose a set of values on people.

Society always steps in when people feel insecure or under pressure and says: "This is how you do it. This is who you are. This is what we expect you to be." I felt [during my engagement] I needed that guidance and support and I was willing to take it under any conditions. I was unable to say: "Do I believe this?"

This makes social progress hard. It is asking the individual to take on a real revolt alone and that's very difficult. One of the things that my generation struggles with is tearing down old rules without coming up with a new system of traditions and rituals that really describes our experience.

this is what i was talking about in the comment thread where i noted that rituals are a two way street: they provide people with a sense of security, comfort, understanding and belonging, but they also exact a price for that comfort in return. as twisty noted recently, “customs are the currency of culture: the more you absorb, the greater the rewards.” (that post, by the way? also fantastic. also worth reading. like right now.) i think it’s entirely fair – nay, entirely necessary – to try to understand the full weight of the cultural transactions in which you take part. i say this not just to be a cynical sourpuss, but in the hope that big life decisions can start to be based less in glorified peer pressure and fear of non-conformity, and more in a confidence that whatever we are giving up is worth what we are gaining.

hey, that doesn’t seem so contrarian at all, does it?

thoughts (on this, or any aspect of the wicoff interview, because seriously people, it is good stuff) most welcome.


Toast said...

i say this not just to be a cynical sourpuss

("Although that's certainly part of it" he mentally added on her behalf...)


Toast said...

OK, now this is good stuff. I can sink my figurative teeth into this.

It begins with being in the position of wanting to get married but feeling like you're not allowed to propose yourself, and how that contradicts how you've handled other decisions in your life and relationships.

OK, theoretically this is true, but in practice I'd bet there's almost never a case where the man proposes out of a clear blue sky, without both parties having discussed the question in depth beforehand. The actual "proposal" is typically a ritual formality - a question whose answer is already known.

She shouldn't wonder whether someone wants to marry her, but whether or not she wants to get married.

Both questions have their place, and for both sexes. Men, too, believe it or not, spend time pondering the Big Question: Is there someone out there for me?

Men, in turn, are pressured not to get "caught" or "trapped". Men come at it from this point of view of having to agonize and drag their feet

Good grief. Yes, if we were all living in a cliche-drenched Sitcom World this would be a serious concern.

Toast said...

Kristen Armstrong, Lance Armstrong's ex-wife, wrote in Glamour recently that the greatest conspiracy in modern history is marriage. She describes how she felt erased by her marriage and that the wedding process is identity stripping.

(Hold on... hard to type with my eyes rolling...)

Look, I'm sorry, but the mere capacity to perceive yourself as being "erased" -- by marriage or anything else -- speaks to deep psychological issues. If you're that weak, you don't belong in a relationship of any kind, period.

Toast said...

Bachelorette parties really force women to confront this virgin/whore duality.

Yes, I'm sure that's what those brides-to-be are thinking. It's surely not about confronting that next round of shots that just arrived at the table.

Gods do I miss academia. I truly do. I forgot how fun it can be to truly abandon oneself to the pleasures of abstract theorizing.

Toast said...

A groom doesn't have that sort of relationship with his friends. He doesn't say: "This is the most important day of my life and I'm going to tell you what shoes to wear."

I most certainly did pick out what my groomsmen wore. Spent a couple hours at the tux place noodling over the decision.

kate.d. said...

wow, toast on a roll. thanks for all the thoughts. i can't respond to everything substantively, but i'll say overall that i think you might be looking at your own experience and extrapolating a bit too much.

for instance, i actually think there are probably myriad cases where a proposal comes out of the clear blue sky. i think a shockingly low number of couples actually ask each other the hard and/or long-range questions before an engagement. remember how long that NYT article "Questions Couples Should Ask, or Wish They Had, Before Marrying" was on the most e-mailed list? i think an openly discussed and mutually considered movement from dating to engagement is still not the norm.

and i think a lot of women, especially in generations past, felt erased by their marriage. you underestimate the way the western incarnation of marriage - man as breadwinner, woman as domestic caretaker - had the ability to do that. "the feminine mystique" was a blockbuster for a reason!

so i dunno, i just think you dismiss some of these things too easily here, maybe just because you yourself haven't experienced them or seen them in your day to day life. that doesn't mean they're not there...