Traditional institutions are rapidly unraveling around the world, but marriage is determined to hang on by an immaculate white thread. We fiercely defend marriage even as we perpetually redefine it. And no matter how ambivalent we claim to be, marriage keeps the media wrapped around its wedding finger. This year was no exception.
For evidence, look no further than April's royal wedding, an event so momentous that it bumped coverage of southern tornadoes and a Syrian uprising for shots of Kate Middleton's wedding dress and sister Pippa's behind. Prince William and Middleton's nuptials saturated the airwaves whether we professed to care or not. Four months later, America got its own celebrity royal wedding: Reality television star Kim Kardashian netted an $18 million payday for tying the knot with basketball player Kris Humphries on a two-day special on E!, only to divorce him 72 days later. Combined, the two weddings roped in millions of viewers and spawned thousands of tweets, articles, and television segments. We were either transfixed by these "storybook weddings" or disgusted by their gaudy consumerism—perhaps a little bit of both. Either way, we were paying attention.
Famous people weren't the only ones getting hitched this year. Regular old marriages and engagements also grabbed headlines for their new spins on the age-old institution. One creative suitor proposed with the help of a flash mob. A would-be groom from the 99 Percent asked, "Will you occupy my life?" Yet another bold romantic proposed via an elaborate street mural. (When are ladies going to start proposing in viral videos?)
It's not enough for us to watch famous people get married—we want to be famous for getting married, too. And when lovebirds combine a thirst for originality with pressure-cooker wedding culture, things can go horribly awry. One pair thought it might be cute to throw a colonial-themed wedding—and it turns out they're not the only ones to ring in their day of joy by acting out the misery of others. An Etsy-fied couple wanted their wedding to nod to the Great Recession, but their "hobo wedding" just ended up channeling offensive caricatures. Some weddings were doomed from the start. No wonder we needed a GOOD flowchart to help us cope during wedding season (pro tip: All signs point to alcohol).
Amid the overblown weddings and one-knee proposals, 2011 still marked major cultural shifts in the way we see marriage—you know, the long-term legal agreement that unfolds after the party. We are increasingly separating marriage from monogamy. We're wedding more and more for the health insurance. New York became the latest and biggest state to legalize gay marriage, a coup for progressives but a bad sign for the gray zone of domestic partnership and, perhaps in the long run, a triumph for a conservative view of the institution. Some of us aren't putting a ring on it at all—cohabitation and happily single ladies are both on the rise, and in China, unhappy bachelors are a dime a dozen.
Even though marriage isn't going anywhere, it's quickly evolving and molding to modern society. Some people are scared shitless about what that means for the future of romantic relations. If you ask us, change isn't such a bad thing. Next year, let's just work on fewer white weddings dominating our news cycle.