On a sunny morning in a beautiful garden two years ago, Imelda Njuhi’s father walked her down a petal-strewn aisle to give her away to the man of her dreams.
This day was a culmination of a two-year romance and six months of meticulous planning. Her day went as planned. Her eyes gleam at the memory.
“It was a dream come true,” she says.
The air of sanctity, the public declaration of love, the grand ceremony and the honeymoon is the ultimate dream for most women.
We may be riding on a wave of feminism and liberation but if the average Kenyan woman could bare her heart, she still flirts with thoughts of that walk down the aisle.
However, while many women dream of a glamourous wedding ceremony, findings of a recent Kenyan study suggest that they may be backing up the wrong tree.
The Consumer Insight study which involved face-to-face interviews with 1, 300 Kenyan women revealed that the church wedding which is preferred by most women results in the least happy marriages.
While 59 per cent of those who wedded in church reported being happy in their marriages, those in common law unions, popularly known as come-we-stay, surprisingly seemed to have found the formula for marital bliss as 67 per cent of women in such unions reported happiness, the highest percentage among the women in four types of unions surveyed.
Women in customary marriages came in second, reporting 65 per cent happiness, while those who wed in the Attorney General’s Chambers came in third, with 62 per cent of women in such unions saying they were happy.
ARE WE ILL PREPARED FOR MARRIAGE?
These numbers beg the question, do they truly demonstrate the situation on the ground? Is your happiness in marriage pegged on how or where you choose to wed?
By opting for the grand church wedding, did Imelda set herself up for failure?
The experts seem to think that how you wed does have a bearing on the happiness of the subsequent marriage, but not because one type of ceremony is superior to others.
Dr Jane Wangaruro, a sociologist at Kenyatta University says that the events that happen before and after each type of wedding ceremony make all the difference.
Couples who have had religious weddings, she says, might report the lowest number of happy unions because the couple is ill-prepared for marriage before the wedding.
“Religious weddings were a communal affair in the past. Both families were involved and after the wedding, the pastor and the best couple actually followed up on the newlyweds.
Now, it is between two people who sometimes know very little about each other.
There are too many unknowns which is a poor foundation for marriage,” she explains.
Imelda agrees with the sociologist that a strong social network is crucial for marital success.
Businessmen in the wedding industry and their advertisers have done a great job of painting a very captivating picture for a bride-to-be.
They have a couple spending hundreds of thousands of shillings, which they often do not have, all in a bid to have that perfect day.
Hilda, a 32-year-old human resources professional bought into this fantasy when she and her partner were planning their wedding four years ago.
They each took on loans to cover the wedding expenses and four years in, the financial pinch can still be felt.
“We sort of lost sight of why we were wedding in the first place,” she says.
A 2014 study by the University of Virginia in the US also paints this financial tension that often follows grand religious weddings as the main contributor to unhappiness in marriage.
This study prescribes a big cheap wedding as the formula for happiness in marriage.
Dr Wangaruro, the sociologist, agrees that having a big number of friends and family in your corner when you wed, as is the case with elaborate customary weddings will count for a strong marriage.
On the flip side, it could also be that people with good relationship skills and a large social network are more likely to opt for an elaborate customary wedding.
Subsequently, they have more support and they feel more accountable for how they act in marriage. While a church wedding might have a large attendance, it is easy for a couple to get distracted by the side shows, to invest more in the ceremony than the subsequent marriage.
Dr Christopher Hart, a psychologist specialising in relationships, is quick to note that any type of wedding ceremony can lead to marital bliss.
Different ceremonies, he says, are just varying ways that lead to the same destination.
As a result of changing attitudes, there is little difference between married and cohabiting couples.
“The way cohabiting and married couples treat one another has been getting more alike.
Marriages used to be based on more traditional ideas about male and female roles within the relationship, for example, cohabitees used to be more independent. But cohabitees are starting to treat their relationships more formally; many now have ‘cohabitation contracts’, for example, and marriages are becoming less traditional,” he explains.
What can women do to stop their relationships from becoming part of the dismal statistics?
Dr Hart advises women to stop dwelling on the type of wedding ceremony they had and instead work on their relationships because it isn’t the institution of marriage that determines whether a couple is happy but the quality of the relationship itself.
“People are happy if they choose the right partner and treat each other well - regardless of the ‘legal’ arrangements between them. So long as the couple is committed to one another, have good relationship skills, and treat each other well, any type of union can work equally well,” he says.
This type of commitment can perhaps best be demonstrated by the come-we-stay union of Gerald, 30, and Emma, 33. Theirs wasn’t a case of casually living together. They wanted to make a long-term commitment to each other but they couldn’t afford a religious wedding so they just moved in together. For nine years now, the two have stuck together through pretty dark times.
“I struggled with a drug addiction and we lost our first child but we fought to emerge together on the other side,” Emma, a businesswoman says.
The two maintain that despite not having gotten papers to prove it, they feel married.
FORMULA FOR MARITAL BLISS
Experts seem to agree that how a couple decides to wed ultimately does matter. It is however not the ceremony in itself that affects a marriage but the circumstances around it and a couple’s attitude, meaning that however you choose to wed, it is possible to achieve marital bliss. Here’s how to do it:
Minimise the number of unknowns before the big day. Not knowing your significant other fairly well is a recipe for a marriage riddled with surprises and unhappiness.
Get adequate premarital counselling either religious or otherwise.
Have the type of wedding that you can afford. Don’t give in to external pressure to have a big church wedding or an expensive and elaborate customary one because the financial struggles that come thereafter will strain your marriage.
We have heard that when it comes to relationships, it is best to lean in. When you are looking to have a happy ever after, having a religious leader or a couple to be accountable to makes you work harder at your marriage.
Don’t let your actions in marriage be dictated by the presence of a marriage certificate or lack thereof.