Wedding ceremonies tend to begin with defining marriage and love. These definitions make broad statements phrased as universal truths. Despite these implicit claims to universality, definitions of marriage differ across cultures, across time, and even within the same culture and time period.
In wedding ceremonies within the United States, marriage has been defined as a commitment to “the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them” (American Catholic.org 2010), “a bond to be entered into after considerable thought and reflection,” “a way that love can conjoin the bodies, hearts, minds, and will of those who love,” etc. (Zorger 2001).
Each of these definitions reflects a wide array of values: family, responsibility, and intimacy. None of these definitions truly overlap and there are many more definitions out there. With such differing definitions of marriage within the 21st century of America, no wonder same-sex marriage is such a heated topic.
Historically, the importance of marriage was more about the social benefits that marriage provided: unifying families, gaining prestige, making political alliances, guaranteeing a man will provide for children, or even obtaining a free maid. In many cultures within and outside of America, when two people enter into a marriage, the most important aspect of that marriage is that they are also entering into each other’s families.
In modern times, marriage is more about the personal achievement it represents. Cherlin’s study demonstrated that American couples want “to make a statement through their weddings, a statement both to themselves and to their friends and family that they had passed a milestone in the development of their self-identities” (Cherlin 2004:857).
Basically, wedding ceremonies have become the embodiment of self-expression—a chance for the couple to display their joint personality. Instead of the weddings being the celebration of entering in to each other’s families, weddings are the celebration of the couple. Period.
Older generations are often hurt if they are excluded from a wedding ceremony because they may still see a marriage, to some extent, as a family event. Whereas younger couples see the wedding about them and them alone, and so are more likely to want smaller weddings or even to elope.
So what is the point of this long-winded ramble? Marriage and love are caught up in cultural values, which means that for every cultural background possible there’s another unique definition of marriage and love. And for each unique definition of marriage and love, is an opportunity for misunderstanding and tension or an opportunity to expand our minds and hearts.