Chances are you're going to a wedding soon. 40 percent of weddings now take place as the fall sets in and leaves change color, up from 30 percent in 2009, according to the largest industry survey of its kind. And September and October are tied for the months of the year with the most marriages.
These numbers make my wife a walking statistic: she's currently on a two week excursion to two weddings, one overseas in Croatia and one domestic in Pennsylvania.
With all the time and expense that weddings entail, as the average one nowadays tops $35,000 (without the honeymoon), it's worth thinking a bit about why we go to so much trouble. What does marriage really do for us? Why do we bother?
I'm certainly no expert on the subject. Just someone working hard at my own marriage, like many others. But I've had nearly a decade of experience at it by now, and have observed the ups and downs of many other marriages. And so I feel qualified to offer some thoughts on our curious custom of coming together.
Marriage represents the deepest emotional, spiritual, and physical bond we'll ever have with another person. That doesn't mean marriage is the only path to this connection, but it seems the surest. And if children follow, bonds intensify and multiply.
How should we describe this great bond? What might it look like? Lots of folk wisdom comes in the form of sayings. "Better half" implies a sliced-in-half silhouette, to be filled in by a different half (yet better) person. But that doesn't seem right, because relationships are rarely perfect 50-50 endeavors (besides, like two-person donkey costumes, who gets the ass's bottom?). Or the famous movie line, "you complete me," which is similarly off the mark because it assumes our failings render us incomplete, only to become "finished" when someone else fills in our flaws. Like it or not, though, every person's package contains both warts and smiles.
So maybe marriage is less about finding some marriageable mechanic to fix what's wrong with us and more about finding a partner to elevate what's actually there.
A wise family friend once said how much he appreciated cities "made to the measure of man." He meant walkable, approachable, human; a place to connect with. Applied to weddings, this observation gets us closer: Marriage embodies the discovery of one person made to measure for another. A cosmic equivalence.
And when two people decide they've found this one other person, the connection begins.
David Brooks recently pointed out that "marriage can be a school in joy," that when we initially come together we bring a party of one. But at some point your sense of self expands in the relationship and you start to find feelings of happiness that transcend anything you could have expected as an individual. Your identity shifts, and "the distinction between giving and receiving, altruism and selfishness fade(s) away because in giving to the unit you are giving to a piece of yourself."
My own theory is that a truly deep relationship is like the release of imaginary fireflies into another person's body, mind, and soul. Each little light represents a single feeling, memory, or shared thought, unique to the other person. Over time, more accumulate until it might be said both glows become indistinguishable. Two shine as one.
I notice this regularly while my wife is gone. Our three-year-old calls out in a sing-song voice to the dog, "hoo-hoo, Mic-key," because that's what her Mom does. Our six-year-old, not so much audio, but visual: she's so athletic and graceful, but when upset, she withdraws and doesn't want to talk (both traits follow her Mom). And when I packed a box to ship to my wife for the second stop on her world-wide wedding tour, I added a sweatshirt I knew she'd want to have. When I mentioned this to her, she said she was so glad, because while she hadn't packed it, she really wanted it there.
I can see my wife's fireflies flickering in our daughters and myself. She's a part of us and we're a part of her.
At a time when so many people have hundreds of "friends," yet feel so alone, the deep human bond consecrated in marriage is worth praising. Worth celebrating. Worth everything. Because to be a light that shines in another person is special. And the more fireflies there are in the world, the better.
Major ML Cavanaugh is a US Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.