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How have weddings changed and (arguably) been hijacked?

by | 5 March 2016 | Tradition

Weddings and marriages have changed a lot throughout history. And you could make a solid argument that the ‘institution of marriage’ is in the worst state it’s ever been.

What do you picture when you think of a wedding? If you’re from a developed Western country, you probably think of a bride in a white dress, in a church, holding a bouquet of flowers, surrounded by family and friends who’ll soon be spilling their drinks while dancing to ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. (Man, we love that song. Guaranteed goosebumps.)

But that’s not what a wedding is.

Well, it is for some people. But only in the here and now. In other cultures and other centuries, weddings and marriages were very different and, you could argue, much better.

Let’s whizz through the history real quick

We’re going to use a video from YouTube (from the excellent Alex Gendler) to summarise the history of marriage for you. Because we’re no historians. I got a D in GCSE history, probably because most of my exam answers were based on Dad’s Army, Saving Private Ryan and Blackadder Goes Forth. And my final exam was on the Cold War. So it’s best you learn from someone more informed:

Now then. When you speed through the centuries as quickly as that, a quite prominent theme appears: weddings and marriages have always reflected people’s priorities in their time, place and circumstances.

Rich, male and horny in an ancient civilisation? Have loads of wives.

Live in the Himalayas and need to keep your family tree looking like a bamboo stick? Make all your sons marry the same woman.

And that trend continues to this day

As Gendler says in the video – since the Enlightenment, marriage has been about love, commitment and finding personal happiness. We read an article in Cosmo mag that listed seven reasons to get married. Six of them were psychological reasons like ‘giving your relationship more substance’ and ‘showing how important your partner is’. The seventh one is ‘and there are practical benefits too’.

So that’s quite an about-turn from centuries of people getting married for almost exclusively practical reasons. But here’s the problem: what’s the other main priority of people living in the West in the 21st century?

Making money

In the UK, we spend an average of £20,500 on a wedding. The average Briton’s yearly salary is £26,500. Lop off a chunk of that for tax and the average wedding costs the same as the average bride or groom earns in a year.

So humans have spent most of their history using weddings to gain or preserve wealth, yet weddings are now one of life’s most effective ways to Dyson all the wealth straight out of your savings account. And yet our reasons for doing it are almost all intangible. We’re paying that money for the emotion. The romance. The feels.

Now, we promise this isn’t going to be some kind of quasi-Marxist complaint about the evils of rampant capitalism. But some say the greatest art of the past century is marketing. Mass media convinces us they can sell us happiness – that if we pay enough money we’ll have the perfect face, the perfect body, the perfect relationships.

Marketing tells us we can buy our way to feeling loved

And that’s what the ‘institution of marriage’ has become – a product to be sold. Gay marriage is one of the few examples of something that doesn’t corrupt the institution of marriage.

Mass marketing and celebrity culture all create desire by making us feel insecure. And insecurity leads us to spend money and make bad choices. So we rush into expensive weddings to feel loved and secure. Then a large percentage of those marriages fail, and we spend just as much on the next one.

And that’s how weddings have changed and been irreparably corrupted.

Vintage photo of marriage

© jaumeorpinell –

Ooooor you could look at it this way

This is a golden age of marriage. If you love someone in 2016, you can commit to them for life – no matter what their gender, class, ethnicity or bloodline.

The history of marriage sucks. Almost every society has a history of using marriage as a way to treat women like property. If you went randomly back in time, you’d be lucky to land in a place where love had anything to do with who you ended up marrying.

Sure, our brains get flooded with ads and images that tell us to spend loads on cosmetics and clothes to attract out perfect partner. And sure, it’s become common practice to spend a year’s wages to marry that person when you find them. But the key here is choice.

At the end of the day (this day, in 2016), there are plenty of negative influences, but you ultimately choose who you marry and for what reasons. That makes this era of marriage, in most parts of the world, far better than any that preceded it. Especially if you’re a woman. And super, super especially if you’re gay.

And so to conclude this… whatever it is

People (including me, back in the 200 words ago days) can knock the ‘institution of marriage’ in countless ways. But remember that golden rule:

Weddings and marriages always reflect people’s priorities in their time, place and circumstances.

And most of us today? We just want to find someone we love and spend the rest of our lives together. And we can do that.

It’s worth remembering sometimes what a rare privilege this has been throughout human history.

Would you agree? Did you draw a different conclusion from the history of marriage? Let us know in the comments.


Featured image © Anyka –

About the author

Matt Phil Carver

Matt’s a copywriter and blogger from West Sussex, England. He spends his days helping people simplify their writing and give their words more punch and personality. At weddings, Matt’s always quick to get up and dance, even when the vicar’s telling him to wait for the reception.


Tradition How have weddings changed and (arguably) been hijacked?