Are "starter marriages" new?

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Feb. 4 2002 12:37 PM

Child Brides

Are "starter marriages" new?

Book cover

Apparently there is a new vogue for having brief, childless marriages in your mid-20s. Pamela Paul has chronicled the phenomenon in her new book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. The author, herself married at 27 and divorced after less than a year, bases her argument on interviews with 60 young divorced couples from around the country.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

What is shocking is not that people are having these brief marriages, but the spirit of innocence with which they seem to have entered into them. Paul describes being "mesmerized by the romantic idea of marriage and blinded to the reality." One man she interviewed said, "She wanted to get married, and I figured it would be the solution to all of our problems." But where would they come by such an unnaturally utopian view of marriage?

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It's not as if this generation lacks evidence of unhappy and difficult marriages (see, among countless other examples, The Corrections, or practically any episode of Oprah). Not to mention the fact that, as Paul points out, many of these new divorcees themselves have divorced parents. So, where is this profound naiveté coming from? On the Today show Paul explained, "Most people hadn't given the idea of marriage a great deal of thought before they got married." She tried to suggest that these unfortunate couples had been dazzled by the wedding itself: "These couples devote one year to planning the wedding, this huge party, and don't give a thought to the idea they will be with this partner for 50 years." But is that really possible? You spend a year musing about napkin colors and flower petals and somehow the fact that you are about to commit your entire life to another person manages to elude your notice?

Paul and the people she interviews (who, she assures us, have gone to the "right schools," and had the "right jobs") seem astonished and somehow cheated that their marriages don't work out. Paul takes the attitude that they were somehow duped into getting married by a "marriage culture" that promotes what she calls "matrimania." She says they were made to feel that it's "un-American" not to get married. But why are these "overachievers" so weak willed and easily influenced? Surely glossy spreads of wedding dresses are not enough to base major life decisions on.

The familiar sense of victimhood that permeates the book seems a much more telling sign of the times than Paul's argument itself. The idea is that the culture has tricked her, not that she has made a mistake. This way of thinking does seem characteristic of our generation: the desire to lose one's private sorrows in a sociological trend, to surrender all responsibility for your actions to the "culture" that shapes you like Silly Putty. I have no doubt that writing the book made the author feel better and, as she suggests, helped her to explain what happened to her divorced parents, but Paul doesn't in the end seem to come to any conclusions. She says living together may be bad for relationships. On the other hand, she says not living together and rushing to the altar may also be bad. (In her defense, she interviews an astonishingly callow group of people. There is the woman who observes, "I think my generation more than any other feels alone." There is Sam who says, "Sex was always lousy but I assumed it would get better once we married." And then there is the woman who did not want to interrupt an episode of Friends for a discussion with her husband about whether or not to get divorced.)

As Paul strains to find causes for her new phenomenon, one begins to wonder if it's new at all. Is it possible that relationships are hard no matter when one embarks on them? That losing someone is always painful, whether its 1952 or 2002? Paul's effort to write about these early, floundering marriages as a New Thing is what gives her book its tinny, dishonest feel. Young love has always been vain and arrogant. People have always made mistakes when they were young (Take poor Countess Olenksa in TheAge of Innocence …). And is the so-called starter marriage all that different from another awful experience that so many people in our generation have had—namely living with someone for years and then breaking up? These are de facto divorces and leave one jittery and jaded in similar ways.

All the generalizations Paul comes up with border on the parodic: "This generation is extremely optimistic about marriage"; "We are an extremely impatient generation in an increasingly impatient society"; "Americans have always been a very outgoing, gregarious people." What is unique and tragic and eccentric and interesting in each failed relationship defies this kind of tidy summing up. Anyone looking for solace or understanding would be better served reading Flaubert or John Updike or Richard Ford, and leaving TheStarter Marriage to the perusal of the assistant producers of Good Morning America. There is, however, one important message we can all glean from Paul's research: If someone asks you to marry them, just to be safe, you might want to give the idea some thought.