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When It Comes To Marriage, Kansas Citians Do It Younger And More Traditionally

Cody Newill
KCUR 89.3
Tradition and economics keep the Midwest rooted in marriage as an insitution, but venues like the Vow Exchange are trying to change that.

For Rachel MacPhee, co-owner of Kansas City-based Ribbon Events, weddings are the bread and butter of her business. And she sees a lot of different clients, from older couples to a pair who are just 20 years old.

"We have someone that's still in college, we also have a couple that have two kids and two more are on the way," MacPhee says.

Though typically, she says, clients are in their late 20s.

MacPhee usually helps couples plan and coordinate their big days, but she'll soon get a taste of the otherside when she walks down the aisle next month with her fiancée, Alex.

MacPhee is younger than her own typical client —just 25-years-old, and Alex is 24, but she says it's time to show friends and family that they're both serious about their commitment to each other.

"We still felt like we were in the 'kid dating phase,' but we knew that it was so much more than that," MacPhee says. "I knew that I wanted to be with Alex and I didn't want there to be any question in anybody else's mind about that."

MacPhee is very close to the average marriage age for women in Missouri and Kansas: 26.2 and 25.7, respectively. For men, add a year and some change. 

But take a look at the coasts, and you see that the average age at first marriage has crept up to 30. And the reason for that discrepancy lies partially in economics and tradition.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
The days of the nuclear family, as popularized by the Cleavers from "Leave It to Beaver," are long gone, but tradition still remains in the Midwest.

'Marriage is a luxury now, rather than a necessity'

University of Missouri-Kansas City Sociology Chair Deborah Smith has studied family dynamics for more than 20 years. She says the higher cost of living on both coasts, particularly in the northeast, leads more couples to pursue higher education instead of getting hitched.

"On the coasts, you don't have any manufacturing, you have to get these very high level jobs if you're going to have any sort of economic experience," Smith says. "Marriage is a luxury now, rather than a necessity."

Back in the 1950s, Smith says that simply wasn't the case. 

"We talk about the 1950s as being the golden era of marriage, where 70 percent of households in the United States were what you and I would think of as a traditional family," Smith says. "One breadwinner, one homemaker, two different sexes living in one house and having children."

But starting in the 1970s, women started entering the workforce, partly because of an economic downturn and partly because of a message of independence from second-wave feminist icons like Gloria Steinem. They also started earning degrees and relying less on a single-breadwinner family dynamic.

"Up until about the 1980s and early 90s, women would marry someone with more education, but now it's expected that both husbands and wives have an education," Smith says. 

That's certainly been the case for my friends Jake and Sarah Sapp. They got married in October — I was in the wedding — and moved to Seattle, Washington, for graduate school. 

They say the sheer cost of rent, which is about twice as high as Kansas City's, is hard even with their combined income. 

"We're lucky having the relationship we have," Jake says over a recent Skype call. "We can share the load of what it costs to live out here, so we do okay. A lot of people we know either live with multiple people or live outside the city for that reason."

Credit Cody Newill / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Vow Exchange owner Kathryn Hogan hopes to change how people view smaller wedding ceremonies.

Changing the face of the wedding

But perhaps even more than the cost, the culture of the coasts just isn't as geared toward traditional marriage. Sarah says even day to day, people just aren't as concerned with the institution.

"The number one thing I've noticed more often is that people think it's interesting that I call Jake my husband rather than my partner, even though we are married," Sarah says.

MacPhee believes that there's still a strong undercurrent of tradition and reliance on marriage in the Midwest, particularly among older generations. 

"You hear a lot of families saying, 'When I got married, I got married in the church and the reception was in the basement. Then we had our kids, and that's how life goes, that's the American Dream,'" MacPhee says. 

Still, there are people in Kansas City who hope to change how marriage ceremonies look and feel. Kathryn Hogan runs the Vow Exchange, a wedding venue in the Crossroads that specifically caters to small ceremonies — less than 50 people small. And they do brisk business, with around 200 ceremonies a year.

Hogan got the idea when she renewed her vows with her husband in Las Vegas.

"What took  me by surprise was, honestly, how emotional I was over it," Hogan says. "More emotional than my actual wedding day. And I feel like maybe it had something to do with the fact that there wasn't a lot of fuss and muss over the entire experience."

Hogan feels the wedding industry's obsession with large, micro-managed weddings is distracting. 

"It's almost as if you're building a custom house every single time. And not only that, but you're personally hiring the electrician and the plumber and the dry wall guy," Hogan says. 

And it's true that the average wedding has grown more complex and expensive. Various surveys show that the average cost of a ceremony in Kansas City ranges from $15,000 to $24,000. 

But beyond the cost, Hogan hopes her business can change what people prioritize in weddings.

"Couples feel the need to ensure that their wedding is really unique. They think it'll make it really memorable," Hogan says. "Really what makes a wedding the most memorable is the people."

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when thinking about marriage in 2016 is that it's changing, but not going away. Same-sex marriage is legal, and that means millions more Americans can potentially get hitched. 

Marriage rates by state have been slowly dropping, but Smith says the divorce rate has evened out since it spiked in the 1970s. And she says marriage naysayers and doomsdayers have been around for nearly 200 years.

"You can look at this one quote in the 1850s about "Oh, marriage is going away," Smiths says. "Marriage evolves, we kind of figure it out. People have been talking about the demise of the family for the last 175 years."

So while it's become increasingly common to see news articles and opinions declaring that marriage is dead, it's not quite six feet under yet. And if Smith is right, it'll keep evolving and changing over the years.

Cody Newill is the digital editor for KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or send him an email at cody@kcur.org

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future. 

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.
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