Is Marriage Becoming A Luxury Item?

“A corvette. A home in the Hamptons. A Hermes handbag. Oh, and marriage. Because marriage, too, is fast becoming a luxury good,” writes Nancy Cook at The Atlantic.com.  

Growing financial and job insecurity due to rapid technological changes and globalization isn’t just killing the middle class –it’s killing traditional marriage, at least among the working class and the new downwardly mobile.  Many Americans simply can’t afford the financial and emotional cost associated with traditional marriage when they are worried about their own survival in the new economy.

Just a few short decades ago, marriage was a traditional rite of passage. In a largely male dominated society – where the man was the breadwinner of the family – marriage often improved economic stability for both partners and was the mark of middle-class status.

Now, in contrast, marriage is often viewed by many as just an additional source of potential insecurity.  "Working-class people with insecure work, few resources, little stability, and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others," says Sarah Corse, an associate professor of sociology in University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences.  Workers who face job insecurity implicitly face food and housing insecurity.  And, if you are concerned about your next meal or where you are going to sleep, you certainly don’t want the additional responsibility of having to provide those necessities for a spouse or family.  As one reader of balloon-juice.com commented, “I’d be married right now if my partner could find a job. But he can’t, so we’re not. It’s as simple as that.”

Changes in the labor market have made the traditional breadwinner/homemaker model of marriage essentially impossible due to the lack of jobs offering “family” wages to breadwinning men.  “Years ago, most men, even those with only a high school degree, could settle down, buy a home, support a family, and lead some semblance of a middle-class life. Such economic security is gone for lower-income, less-educated, or working-class Americans, especially if they lack a college education. It's tough for any single person, male or female, regardless of educational attainment, to be assured of supporting a family.” Adds Ms. Cook.

According to Maria Kefalas, a sociologist at St. Joseph’s University and co-author of, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, for poor women, marriage is a luxury item that they are unable to afford. Marriage is becoming a class privilege. She argues that in blue collar America, and especially low-income black communities, “a good marriage is unrealistic.”

Both men and women in large numbers are disappointed at the disappearance of the traditional model of marriage.  “What interests me is the cultural pull to reenact, over and over, traditional vows and strive for traditional gender roles in a world where living a traditional life is increasingly impossible (and even undesirable).” – Lisa Miller, nymag.com

The alternate paradigm of marriage that has emerged to replace or supplement the traditional notion of a breadwinner/homemaker is the mutual relationship/self actualization model of marriage.  In that model, each spouse is viewed as an equal partner in the marriage with the goal of achieving mutual growth and some sort of marital bliss.  This version of marriage, however, is equally unobtainable for middle and lower middle class couples because it is both time and resource intensive.  Where upper-middle class couples have the resources to invest significant amounts of time and money into their “partnership” and to buy “insurance” against martial conflict, including paid child care, paid housework, therapy, and even “date nights,” those luxuries have become unaffordable to both middle and lower class families.  

National statistics on marriage and divorce bear this out showing higher levels of marital disruption for the working class.  Upper middle class couples get married later in life, stay married more often, and have their children within their marriage more frequently than their working class counterparts.

The trend of both middle class and lower class couples eschewing marriage has become more apparent to the attorneys at Cooley & Handy, especially since the recession hit in 2008 (the economic impact of which continues to this day).  More and more of the couples that present to our office are unmarried and frequently living at home, or with the support of their parents.  Most times, one or both parties are either unemployed or significantly underemployed.  The couple did not previously commit to marriage because they were not economically able to start a life together.  It’s a slow moving tragedy.  

Lisa Miller, nymag.com, concurs with this overall assessment of marriage: “Families have always splurged on weddings. But what’s changed, say the social scientists, is that marriage itself is now a luxury good. Feminist critics have long derided the institution for encouraging fairy-princess fantasies in little girls, but now more than ever, the contract between man and wife (or man and man or wife and wife) is an aspirational commodity, like an Ivy League education or a country house — something everybody is supposed to want but fewer and fewer are actually able to attain.”

The Cost Of A Wedding

On Theweddingreport.com, they estimated the cost of an “average wedding in Bucks County, PA” as between $26,325 and $43,875. They state the average wedding cost is based on a guest list of between 137 and 157. Each additional guest can increase that total by $215 to $263.

Here’s how that total figure breaks down. And remember, these are just “average” costs:

  • Clothing & accessories – about $2,000.
  • Beauty/spa - $166.
  • Entertainment - $1,750.
  • Flowers/decorations - $2,000.
  • Gifts/favors - $860.
  • Invitations - $980.
  • Jewelry - $5,250.
  • Photography/Video - $3,650.
  • Planner/Consultant - $2,100.
  • Venue, Catering, Rentals – about $17,000.

215.345.8000 - info@cooleyhandy.com

Disclaimer: The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.

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