Getting hitched later in life
I've known my friend Lou since we were kids. A smart country girl with a chainsaw license, several pairs of Blundstones and a master's degree in urban design, Lou has never been one to dream of walking down the aisle in white lace and a spray tan.
Recently over dinner Lou confided that she was beginning to question her eight-year relationship with Mark. Lou and Mark have lived together for the past seven years. They have travelled, shared family dinners with the "in-laws", grocery shopped and planned renovations on the inner-city terrace they bought together. They even own a dog. In other words, they are a long-term committed couple no different from those who have made it "official" and got married.
Or are they?
Lou may have no interest in perusing wedding magazines and existing on a month-long diet of Celebrity Slim, but she does want to feel valued and appreciated. Now, at 37, she's decided that marriage counts for something. And the fact that Mark hasn't got around to proposing is a problem.
For many couples like Lou and Mark, a de facto relationship starts out as a serious commitment rather than the "try before you buy" option cohabiting is often considered to be. Women like Lou do not buy into the belief that your wedding day is supposed to be the greatest day of your life. They don't particularly care about the dress or have any religious affiliations to the institution of marriage. When in their teens and 20s many of these women probably referred to marriage as an archaic and conservative institution.
So what changes? Why does marriage become significant when a couple in their 30s or 40s, even 50s, have been living together for years?
Blogger Suzanne E. Henry coined the term "late bloomer bride" when she got engaged at 39 and struggled to find information and advice for women over 40 who were planning a wedding for the first time. Unlike Lou though, Henry's approach to marriage was as traditional as that of a 21-year-old getting married in 1957. It was about the dress and the cake and the invitations, an experience she had dreamed of all her life.
"Some decisions around our wedding just felt different than what I believed my younger counterparts might have to deal with," Suzanne writes. "I had two younger sisters who got married in their 20s, and somehow I don't think they asked themselves if a completely strapless gown was appropriate or not."
In contrast, the experience of being a "bride" has little to do with Lou's wish to get married. For Lou, and I suspect many 30-plus women in long-term relationships, marriage is about having a partner who is willing to put himself on the line and make a serious commitment. As Lou points out, "It's about saying, 'we're a family, we'll always be a family. I still think you're fabulous and exciting and I don't take you for granted. Let's get hitched."'
Katrina, an artist and mother of two, agrees. Now 39, Katrina married her long-term partner Ben, a business owner, when their daughter, Amelie, was two. The ceremony was relaxed and personal with Katrina's father acting as the celebrant. "I'd never really cared about getting married and neither did Ben. It sounds really lame but when Amelie was born I started to feel left out because I didn't have the same last name as them.
"Obviously we were living together as a family before we were married. But I was surprised that I did feel different after our wedding day. It turns out being married meant more to me than I ever thought it would."
Sydney Morning Herald