Christopher and Katlyn marry as part of an afternoon of dress-up play. Was their action part of their biological hardwiring or societal pressure?
Who is pushing you to the altar?
By Faye Bayko
What is it that prompts us, as humans, to move from the flush of sexual attraction to the commitment of a formal union such as marriage? Who, or what, is leading us down the aisle to the altar?
With the month of June strongly associated with brides, I discussed this question recently with Carrie Jenkins, a professor at the University of British Columbia.
The K-I-S-S-I-N-G trigger
For those who grew up in Canada memories of chanting the K-I-S-S-I-N-G rhyme on the playground is a familiar part of their childhood. Whether sung to the beat of a skipping rope or as a gentle tease of a friend who confessed an attraction for a fellow playmate, the rhyme instilled a guide to our future role in society. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby carriage.
“That’s the order of the rhyme,” agreed Jenkins. “It’s really an efficient delivery mechanism for a whole theory of love.”
The popular children’s rhyme was used in Jenkins’ soon to be released book, What Love Is And What It Could Be, as an example of how expectations can have unexpected origins.
“I wanted to talk about the function of romantic love, what it does socially, how it’s supposed to bring two people together and they’re supposed to form this kind of unit and that’s supposed to lead to maybe reproduction, or setting up home together, and then staying together forever. The sort of story we expect. The K-I-S-S-I-N-G rhyme pretty much sums it up.”
The problem with societal expectations, though, is that they tend to provide only one path to follow. What if your life experiences, or personal preferences, take you along a different path? Where does that put you in the societal story?
“We learn this K-I-S-S-I-N-G rhyme when we’re like three years old on the playground,” said Jenkins. “Then everything else that you see is sort of framed by, or in comparison to, that. It’s sort of like that’s the default model and anything else is a deviation or an exception.”
With such strong societal support of one model, she says, the pressure can be destructive. “We begin to treat creativity, or originality, as a failure.”
She cautions that even though the default model may not fit everyone, it still manages to retain its power as an ideal by which we measure success or failure in relationships. “There’s a difference between something being statistically normal and what people think of as being normal.”
So, it seems, the behavioural path described in a simple kissing rhyme, while common enough to be considered normal in the 1940’s and 50s, in the new Millennium the numbers no longer support it being considered normal.
Statistics vs Expectations
According to Statistics Canada, marriage rates have been on a consistent slide over the last four decades to a low of 4.4 marriages per 1,000 people in 2008. This rate was half what it was in 1972 (9.2. marriages per 1,000 people). In 2011, Statistics Canada announced it would no longer be tracking marriage and divorce rates, which means there will no longer be comparable data to see if the trend away from marriage continues.
However, Wedding Bells, a Canadian magazine publication focused on the ceremonial beginning of marriage, claims there were an expected 160,324 weddings planned in 2015, with an average expected cost, including honeymoon, of $30,717. That’s an annual $5 billion motivator for a society to encourage the introduction of a K-I-S-S-I-N-G rhyme path of behaviour to its children.
Let’s get creative!
“When we feel that pressure and those expectations we have to think, to understand, where they come from, and what the nature of those expectations are,” advises Jenkins. “Where did you learn that this is what you were supposed to do, and if you don’t you’re a failure?”
The time taken for this analysis will pay off, she said. “Once you see where it comes from, that, I think, empowers you to push back, up against the feeling that you’ve failed. ‘Cause you can say, ‘Hang on a second. By whose standards did I fail?’”
The answer to that question will open opportunities for choice and self-direction that will change feeling of failure in to feeling of being creative and original. “This is how love evolves. It changes over time because people define their narratives.”
She encourages the taking of time to consider what love should look like. “We change what counts as romantic by people doing something differently, by deciding ‘I don’t want this version of this, I want that version.’ And, that’s not necessarily failure. That can be changing the world. Literally changing the nature of this phenomenon (love).”
If the type of relationship path you want doesn’t exist, she says, you have to create it. “That’s Amelia Earhart deciding that she’s going to fly an airplane. Those acts might look like rebellion, or failure to conform to someone else’s standards, society’s standards, but they’re actually the process of redefining womanhood, from what it is to what it could be.”
This process of looking toward what could be is part of Jenkins’ goal of getting people to appreciate that there is the capacity to change. “We’re changing it all the time. We just don’t notice that we’re doing it. It’s not always undertaken deliberately, but with more collective awareness of the process the possibilities are expanded.”
Changing the world
So, a playground rhyme can set the tone for a lifetime of expectation but can also be used to affect change. What if the words were changed to reflect the relationship options that have become more common in our society? What if Jimmy and Robby want to sit in the tree kissing, or Suzy and Libby, or Suzy, Libby and Jimmy?
Acronyms such as LGBT have become so much a part of our language we no longer have to spell them out for people to understand what we’re talking about, and wedding planning companies, such as Canada Gay Weddings, have branched out to reflect this.
But, for Jenkins, it doesn’t matter who is doing the kissing, her is looking to the reasons behind why they’re kissing. Is there a biological push or a societal one?
“I think there’re some really interesting passages in Bertrand Russell’s work on love. In some ways he’s quite challenging to perceived wisdom about love, but not this one. He still says love is the thing. You have to experience it. If you don’t then your life is lacking and you’ll probably end up disappointed and bitter. So, even he, with all his attempts to be quite radical, still believes that you should end up there some way or other.”