I was only in my third year of life when my grandmother gave me a tiny bridal outfit for Christmas—complete with a veil, a skirt, and a bouquet. This picture of me, in full bridal gear, was taken before I’d learned to properly pronounce my r’s.
What’s really weird about this situation is not that I was dressed as a bride, and not even that my grandmother had thought it cute to dress me as a bride, but that the miniature bridal outfit even existed in the first place. My older brother was for sure not being gifted a tiny tux, in anticipation of his big day. He was probably happily playing with Leggos, or a foam football, or some other acceptably heterosexual male gift.
The most insidious part of the tiny bridal costume was what it implied—that marriage, the legal binding to another, is a girl's greatest priority. Not a career, friendship, joy, personal growth or creative fulfillment, but marriage. Marriage, girls are taught, is a straight shot to happiness. Disney sold us this story, packaged in innumerable ways. The princess who kisses a frog that turns into a prince. The kiss to wake up Sleeping Beauty, the Beast nothing more than a misunderstood, angry man who Belle somehow learns to forgive and love. Martyrdom is an essentially feminine phenomenon.
Turns out, marriage doesn't make many women happy. In fact, it seems to have the exact opposite effect, "Ever since we started getting married and buying houses, my girlfriends and I don't laugh much anymore," wrote an anonymous woman to Post Secret. Lisa Wade, Ph.D., a professor at Occidental College, affirms that this is an almost universal truth in something called the "paradox of declining female happiness." Women have more rights and opportunities than they have had in decades, yet they are less happy than ever in their relationships with men.
Wade posits that marriage is part of the reason why. "Heterosexual marriage," she writes, "is an unequal institution. Woman on average do more of the unpaid and under-valued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationships, their children, and the careers of their husbands."
Dressing me as a bride at the tender age of three sent the message that it is “good” to be married, thereby “not good” to not be married. What nobody ever says is that marriage extends far beyond the wedding day, and the stress, frustration, and joy of building a life with another human takes work. It is hard to strike a balance, especially if both partners have incongruous expectations of the other.
Most women I've encountered want the same things men want-career fulfillment, freedom to enjoy hobbies, quality time with their partner, a sense of purpose. We don't want to be solely responsible for cooking, laundry, and child rearing duties, all of which typically fall on female shoulders.
Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld conducted a survey entitled "How Couples Meet and Stay Together" that followed a representative sample of 2,262 adults in heterosexual relationships from 2009 to early 2015. Nearly all the breakups in the research sample were initiated by women, indicating that "women may experience the institution of marriage as oppressive, in large part because it emerged from and still carries the imprint of female subjugation." On a larger scale, the U.S. divorce rate is nearly 50%, and women are responsible for initiating nearly 70% of these splits.
The numbers cannot lie. Marriage in the traditional sense is not fulfilling for many women; perhaps it never was. Michelle Obama, in her new memoir Becoming, explains that through marriage counseling, she learned to be responsible for her own happiness, "[Counseling] was about me exploring my sense of happiness. What clicked in me was that I need support and I need some from him. But I needed to figure out how to build my life in a way that works for me."
The great lesson here is that happiness must come from within. Girls are taught to look for happiness in all the wrong places. Marriage does not ensure it, in fact, it is necessary to be happy alone before we find happiness with somebody else.
The tiny bridal costume is nothing if not a sly reiteration of a Disney fairy tale: find the right man and all will be well. What Disney never showed us was life after the magical wedding day when, five years down the road, Cinderella realizes that Prince Charming expects the same things from her as her wicked stepmother.