I rarely go to weddings, but I did so just recently. The bride’s gown, even to a fashion-challenged individual like me, was just beautiful. It was simple, purest white, and as graceful as gentle snowfall. I have known both the bride and groom for many years. Seeing them presenting their vows before family and friends, it was moving to share with them the first minutes of their married lives together.
That perfect wedding dress, the symbol of beginnings, was made popular in 1840 by Queen Victoria of England, and has now become nearly ubiquitous. But regardless of lace or trains, veils or headbands, beads or diamonds, the dress is almost always new. Very few brides wear a dress that belonged to someone else and these days, one’s wedding day will most likely be the only time the dress is ever worn in public.
My children played dress-up with my mother’s wedding dress. It was stored in a box for decades until it became obvious it was just taking up space. I’m sure it was a somber moment for my mother to part with that icon of one’s beginnings. But downsizing their home, my mother had only room for essentials.
“I just don’t want to know what happens to it from here on,” she said, making it clear that even though she let it go, the emotional connection was still there.
Hence, it was relegated to our toy room. Still stored in its original box, the pure white of that gown had long since yellowed and it’s flawless pattern was fragile and worn. What an apt metaphor.
No one knows on their wedding day the challenges that lie ahead. Simple logic would lead the rational person to remain single. After all, for nearly half a century in the U.S., the divorce rate has maintained an unchanging 50%. A mere toss of a coin seemingly determines success or failure of any relationship. Would any rational person enter a relationship with the odds of failure so high?
Yet we do because love isn’t rational. Despite the dismal odds and often our own personal experience with failed relationships, we try anyway.
One of my favorite children’s stories is “The Velveteen Rabbit.” In the story, the stuffed rabbit wishes to become real and seeks advice from a skin horse. The horse’s description of “real” is what I love the most.
“When you are real,” the horse advises, “most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
So I suppose it is the same with “real” marriage. Real isn’t a clean and elegant wedding dress, but wrinkled and faded ones that have seen the passage of time and have faced many challenges.
The perfect wedding day is one where everything goes according to plan. But that is fantasy, not real life, which never goes according to plan.
So of the two — the pristine, white gown I saw at the wedding or the yellowed and moth-damaged dress my children played with — I choose the later. It is more realistic and a better case for marriage. Not perfection, but instead the reflection of life and endurance — tough times and good ones, laughter and sorrow, comfort and pain. There is no life that isn’t a mixture of these dichotomies.
As for the young couple starting their first minutes with a kiss in front of witnesses, that day was hopefully a fantastic one just like the bride may have fantasized about since childhood.
But when the last guest left the dance floor, the cake nothing but crumbs on the table, and that lovely dress is packed away, the real business of life begins.
When I look in the mirror, much of my hair has been loved off, my eyes aren’t what they were, and I’m loose in the joints and very shabby. But that’s OK. Like the wedding dress, fantasy has been packed away.
While this might seem discouraging to one who hasn’t lived through a long marriage, it really isn’t. Part of the fullness of life together is weathering the many storms one faces with a partner beside you. This fact allows one, like me, to look back on close to 40 years of marriage and proclaim without hesitation that I would do it all again.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]