The Marriage Report -10/16/02
cmfce at smartmarriages.com
Wed Oct 16 13:24:13 EDT 2002
subject: The Marriage Report -10/16/02
from: Smart Marriages®
The marriage report
Why do we do it?
It was thought to be an institution in terminal decline. But marriage
refuses to go away - in fact it's getting more and more fashionable. This
week, in a five-part Guardian Women special, we will examine every aspect
of the married state, from adultery to the in-laws. Today, Blake Morrison
asks why we bother:
Monday October 14, 2002
"Why did we get married?" I asked my wife. "How do you mean?" she said,
suspicious. I understood the suspicion. Variants of the question are
sometimes put accusingly, in heated moments. But I meant it benignly, in
a spirit of inquiry. I had been reading a book called The Bankruptcy of
Marriage which, having surveyed a number of contemporary trends - rising
divorce rates, breakdown of the nuclear family, growth of feminism,
improved birth control methods, widespread promiscuity etc - concluded
that the institution was on its last legs. The book was published in
1929. Yet 50 years later, we had bought into this ailing company. I
couldn't remember why exactly. I couldn't even remember who proposed.
"What was the rationale?" I said. "The deciding factor."
"It wasn't a business decision."
She offered some answers: because we had been living together for five
years; because we already had a house in common; because she had finished
her professional training and it seemed a propitious moment; because she
wanted this settled so she could think about something else ("Sorry if
that sounds unromantic"). There was love, too, of course: that went
without saying. But the rings and the bridesmaids and the marriage
certificate - she too found them hard to explain. It wasn't that we
regretted marrying. But wouldn't we have stayed together anyway? Why the
need for a wedding?
Even at the time, it had seemed unfashionable. The books we had grown up
on were against marriage. Marx and Engels said it was bourgeois. The
Beats said it was uncool. Birkin in DH Lawrence's Women in Love said it
was "cowardly": "the world all in couples, each couple in its own little
house, watching its own little interests and stewing in its own little
privacy - it's the most repulsive thing on earth."
There were other influences: the psychiatrists RD Laing and David Cooper,
with their emphasis on the destructiveness of family life; the films of
Ingmar Bergman, with their portrayal of marital gloom and anguish; the
example of our parents' marriages, which seemed so boring. In an earlier
era, love and marriage might have gone together like a horse and
carriage. But then the car was invented, and sexual intercourse began,
and less binding forms of relationship came into fashion.
"Did I get down on one knee and ask you?"
"I don't think so."
And yet we married. There was no stag or hen party, no limo, no morning
dress and most of our three-week honeymoon was spent in a tent. But 60
people came, and for all our reservations (how conformist, how
unironic!), we went through with it. In England and Wales that year,
358,566 other couples did the same. That was 50,000 fewer couples than
had been marrying a few years earlier. Still, it didn't bear out the
picture of bankruptcy.
By now, 150,000 or so of those couples will have divorced. There is
nothing surprising about that: relationships have countless ways of not
working out; the right to divorce is a hard-won freedom; Wyoming in the
1920s had a one-in-three divorce rate too. What is surprising is that the
majority of divorcing couples today marry again: one in every four UK
marriages is a remarriage, and four times as many people are remarrying
now as in 1961. Even the decline in first-time marriages (which has begun
to level off) is slightly misleading: 20 or 30 years ago, many such
marriages were shotgun marriages, enforced by pregnancy; now, it is safe
to assume, they are voluntary. There is even a strong feeling that
marriage is becoming fashionable again - 41% of respondents to the
Guardian poll certainly thought so. Belief in marriage is holding up
better than expected, it seems. To put it another way: a majority of
couples continue to feel that a formal contract endorsed by the state
(and maybe by God, too) offers them something they would otherwise lack.
For practical reasons, partly. Common-law marriages haven't been
recognised in England and Wales since 1753, and despite talk of imminent
legislation to give cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples
(with one bill introduced in the Commons a year ago, and another in the
House of Lords last January), they are still at a disadvantage. Property,
pensions, rights over children, inheritance tax - the married have all
the advantages here. In fact, the situation for unmarried couples is in
some ways worse than it was 20 years ago: at that time they could claim
double tax relief on mortgage interest and if they had children, an extra
single parents' tax allowance, too. I know of two couples in 30-odd year
relationships who have recently married through worry about what will
happen should one partner die; break-ups also carry economic penalties.
Public opinion strongly favours those who live together having equal
rights, but the government sees this as a minefield (how long do you have
to cohabit to earn these rights?) and isn't making such legislation a
When people talk about the "security" of marriage, though, it is
something emotional and physical they usually mean, not legal and
economic. "I married in order to settle something," one friend told me.
"To seal or cement the relationship." It's an old idea. Marriage "hath in
it less of Beauty but more of Safety than the Single Life," wrote Jeremy
Taylor in the 17th century. And safety - the creature comforts of
domesticity - was what won over Charles Darwin when he weighed the
arguments for marriage in 1838: "Constant companion (friend in old age),
who will feel interested in one... object to be beloved and played with -
better than a dog anyhow... a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire...
These things are good for one's health." The last point is contentious:
it's only men, research suggests, who are the healthier for marrying. But
pair-bonding promises durability in a world that is transient and
security in a world that's unsafe.
In reality, there is no reason why cohabitation should be less durable or
secure than marriage. Still, many couples feel the need to make a public
statement. "It was a kind of validation," another friend told me. "I
wanted the world to know we weren't just shacking up. It was also a
chance to celebrate and have a party." Others I have asked cite different
reasons. "Because I had reached an age when I started to think beyond
next week"; "Because I wanted to know someone was there to eat, sleep and
speak with"; "Because it gave me the excuse to buy a new outfit". None
spoke of marrying to perpetuate the species, but several women said
having children was what tipped the balance: "I wanted their dad to be
someone I was married to, not just living with."
All this seems a long way from the 1970s, when, for feminists at least,
marriage spelled death to liberty and independence. "If women are to
effect a significant amelioration in their condition," Germaine Greer
wrote in The Female Eunuch, "it seems obvious that they must refuse to
marry." The obviousness was lost on Diana Spencer, whose marriage to
Prince Charles in 1981 was relayed across the world (there was no
escaping it even in the camp site in the Pyrenees where I holidayed that
summer). People talk of her death as a watershed in the nation's
emotional life. But her wedding had a greater impact, ushering in an era
of romantic spectacle. No one would have wanted Charles and Di's
marriage, but mimicry of their extravagant nuptials became de rigueur.
Parents have been footing the bill ever since.
If you are going to bother, do it in style: that seems to be the
attitude. Heals and Harrods were always there to help; now there is
confetti.com and a host of other websites offering "fuss-free" gift
ideas, "toolboxes" to fix honeymoon difficulties and Christian-funded
marriage encounter weekends. With the C of E lightening up, and
registrars willing venture out from their offices to hired mansions or
private marquees, marriage has become more user-friendly. More flexible,
too: rather than speak those lovely, daunting vows - for better or
worse... forsaking all others... till death us do part - brides and
grooms have the freedom to write the script themselves. Yet most choose
to promise what has always been promised. So long as ye both shall live?
Marriage wasn't half so glamorous in the 1950s, when twice as many people
were doing it. But in recent years, it has regained its allure. The
current box office success of the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding is
symptomatic. The plot is virtually non-existent - single girl spots her
Mr Right, they fall in love at first sight, he agrees to become
Greek-Orthodox in order to keep her family happy. But audiences lap it up
because the film, like a 19th-century novel, leaves us at the altar. "It
did happen, it did happen," the heroine says, the modern equivalent of
Jane Eyre's "Reader, I married him". People may be marrying older, at 30
rather than 25, but that doesn't stop them being dewy-eyed. The weddings
in the films of Richard Curtis have softened us up, as has Bridget Jones.
Even lad lit has made its accommodation with marriage, putting away the
lager cans and commitment-phobia. In Tim Lott's White City Blue, the hero
decides that freedom is "not all that it's cracked up to be. Marriage is
what happens when you learn that life is bigger than you."
A veneration of monogamy is part of it. In the 1960s, libertines could
safely boast of experimenting with alternatives - open marriage,
wife-swapping, group sex, etc. These days any such deviants are hauled
out on to the Jerry Springer Show and excoriated as "cheats". Sydney
Smith once compared marriage to a pair of shears, "often moving in
opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between", and
attitudes to "love-rats" who threaten a marriage have never been so
punitive as now. The last major survey of sexual attitudes in Britain, in
1994, found that 78.7% of men and 84.3% of women regarded extra-marital
sex as "always or mostly wrong". Almost as many disapproved of sex
outside a live-in relationship.
Asked why they marry, the vast majority of respondents (62%) still give
love as the reason. It is easy to forget that marriage was once seen as
the antithesis of love. "Marry you? No, no, I'll love you," goes a line
in Congreve. Jokes and proverbs traditionally employ the image of the
The image wouldn't appeal today. Nor would Dr Johnson's remark that there
are 50, or perhaps 50,000 people in the world we might be equally happy
with. In these sentimental-puritan times, the ruling idea is Plato's,
that we were sliced in two, "like a flatfish", before birth and are
destined to search out our perfect matching halves - Romeo his Juliet,
Posh her Becks. To the romantic every marriage is an arranged marriage -
arranged by fate, that is, which gives us no choice.
If there has been a shift in the nation's attitudes to marriage, it is
appropriate that Tony Blair, the most married-looking prime minister in a
century, should preside. His children were conspicuously present in
Sedgefield the night he became prime minister, and he has since fathered
a fourth child, a reminder to the adulterous Tory crew who went before
(their ranks now swelled by Edwina Currie and John Major) that the cares
of office don't preclude an active sex life within marriage. To Blair,
marriage is the basic building block of society. And though New Labour
might pay lip service to campaigns for the recognition of homosexual
marriages, or for the right of gay couples to adopt, its heart isn't
really in them.
New Labour's slowness to address discrimination against cohabitees is
part of this prioritising of marriage - though now the spin-doctors know
how strongly the public feels on the matter, perhaps they'll push on with
new legislation. The bigger problem is a growing cultural prejudice
against single people or "loners", who tend to be portrayed as sad, mad
Singleness was once accepted as a valid choice; the current romanticising
of coupledom makes it look like failure. The old worries about marriage
bringing a loss of independence seem quaint now: Darwin worrying about
having less "freedom to go where one likes" and no more "conversation
with clever men at clubs"; Kafka balancing the "inability to endure life
alone" against "the fear of the connexion, of passing into the other";
Philip Larkin deciding marriage would stop him writing poems. Quaint -
but still worth listening to. Solitude is important. Even the married
have to learn about it. All of us die alone.
Will fewer people be marrying by 2010? The figures point that way, and a
majority of us seem to think so. But when I look at my teenage children,
bombarded as they are by books, magazines, films and websites presenting
marriage as the Santa Claus of adulthood (provider of familial joy and
expensive presents), then I'm not so sure. They know it's a myth but the
myth still wields a dangerous power - an idea that marriage, if only we
surrender to it, can make us better, happier, different, more complete.
Maybe it can. But surrender doesn't seem a healthy message. Cultivating
the self matters too.
"One flesh, separate persons: was that it?" I asked my wife. But she was
reading and didn't hear.
Tying the knot
· In 2000, there were 305,900 weddings in the UK - 1.6% more than in 1999
and the first time the number has increased since 1992.
· Four out of 10 marriages are expected to end in divorce.
· In 2000, the average age for first marriages was 30 for men and 28 for
women. In 1961, it was 26 and 23 respectively.
· 61% of weddings are funded by the couples, 30% by the bride's parents
and 9% by the groom's parents. In 1980 only 40% of weddings were
· Almost 10% of British marriages took place abroad last year, at an
average cost of £5,000.
· The average cost of a UK wedding is £13,000.
· During a wedding service the doors must be unlocked to allow in
· Weddings must take place between 8am and 6pm so there is enough light
to ensure you marry the right person.
· It wasn't until the 1500s that most people began taking their vows in
· Before the 18th century there was no formal state involvement in
marriages. Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753 meant all marriages had
to take place in the Church of England, a Jewish Synagogue or Quaker
Meeting, otherwise they were invalid.
· Nearly every civilisation since the Egyptians has used the wedding ring
- a circle representing eternity - as a symbol of marriage. The earliest
rings were made of braided grass, hay, leather, bone and ivory.
· The ring is traditionally worn on the third finger of the left hand
because it was thought it contained a vein that went straight to the
· "Marriage is a career which brings about more benefits than many
others." - Simone de Beauvoir
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