I've been wanting to write about this for ages, but now realise it has to come in two halves. The first is, unfortunately, where I rip up marriage as it is for a lot of people. In order for this to be a readable length, I'm going to make some generalisations about a subject which people tend to get a bit emotional about. I'm sure I'm not talking about you.
There is no way to increase the numbers getting married and decrease the number of people getting divorced without backtracking on sexual equality. The principle reason there were more marriages and less divorces in the 1950s are mostly to do with the facts that it was made very difficult for women to cope practically, financially and socially without men, particularly if they had children. Women felt compelled to marry if they wanted children and many felt unable to leave when things well and truly fell apart.
The trouble with marriage is that, even in this secular society, it carries an almost supernatural reverence. People see it as magic. People insist that it is good for us, good for children, good for society as a whole. Meanwhile, the wedding ceremony, whether or not the participants are religious, carries a great deal of hocus pocus; white dresses, gold rings, Abra Kadabra words. And we imagine that it has always been exactly what it is, even though we're kidding ourselves to imagine it is only one thing to everyone who enters into it, let alone everyone who has ever entered into it. But as long as that magic remains, frankly, we're going to keep messing it up.
Marriage or an equivalent civil contract is necessary for one reason; it defines an important next-of-kin relationship within the law. It defines families and as such, it protects those family members in the event of anything going wrong. The main disasters being relationship break-down, serious illness (i.e. where one person has to make decisions for another) and death. It is a useful piece of paper. Even I've got one!
But is it good for anyone? Is it better than having the same domestic arrangements without the paperwork? And is there any reason to discourage people – or disapprove at all - when they feel they want to bring this contract to a close?
The statistics suggest that marriage is good for us, but only if you read marriage or lack thereof as the cause of everything. There is a relationship between marriage and economic wealth but this is more likely to be explained by the fact that whilst it only costs about a hundred quid to get married, the hocus pocus element which most people still deem necessary costs an average of £16K. As far as I can see, this and the relationship-stress associated with unemployment and poverty, are the only explanations for a connection.
Similarly cohabiting partnerships appear more unstable, but that is because most cohabitating couples either break up or get married. There is little data about committed partners who have a conscientious objection to marriage. And then there is the anxiety about single parenthood, but single parents have one income rather than two, most of them are women and women continue to earn markedly less than men. It is therefore maths, rather than morals, which disadvantage single parents.
Right so, let's tear this apart.
Culturally, marriage is not about children, but about women. In it's most inequitable manifestation, marriage is the ownership of women; this woman is mine, her womb is mine, she will work for me and have sex with me and any offspring that come out of her womb are mine. Very often women were bought (the dowry systems we're most familiar with now are those in which a bride's family pays the groom; was not ever thus). Naturally women were provided for, but not necessarily any better than any other slave.
Fortunately, that's the extreme end - I've already stated that I do think there is a necessity for something like this contract as far as the security of couples and families are concerned.
However culturally, marriage remains about women. Men are supposed to initiate relationships, to seduce us and get us into bed, but women are supposed to do all the work from there on in. Women are supposed to persuade the man to commit. Women, we are taught, are a monogamous bunch who wish to settle down and have babies at the earliest opportunity. Men, we are taught, are a promiscuous bunch who have no interest in settling down or babies; they must therefore be cajoled.
I'm not saying men are not passionate about the women they love, but our culture belittles the passions of heterosexual men, relegating it to lust.
The traditional wedding is a fantastic manifestation of the traditional inequalities in marriage. Women do all the work; the bride must organise everything, the venue, the decoration, the itinerary, she must appease family members when the political conflicts arise over the seating plan. In many cases, the bride even chooses what the groom is going to wear. And all this for her big day, the happiest day of her life etc., etc.. Meanwhile, the groom is obliged to make a big show of reluctance, stage parties and so on, and turn up to perform his brief role in proceedings somewhat hungover. He gets to speak, of course; whilst the women did all the work, it is the men who get to make the speeches.
It's a horrible caricature, but you have attended this wedding, haven't you? You bought them the hideous vase with the turquoise flowers on, remember?
Women are expected to do the bulk of the work involved in the marriage. This is not to say women are expected to work harder than men in general, but girls are still brought up to be wives and mothers; these roles revolve around the other. Boys are brought up to be men, which is a markedly different role and at times a very difficult one, but it is principally about the fulfillment of the self. So women make most of the domestic decisions, do most of the housework regardless of their own employment status and study magazine articles and self-help books about how to be a good wife, how to keep him happy and faithful and so on.
But of course, no partnership works without teamwork. It is not that two people cannot get on if they are performing very different roles in terms of the practical tasks necessary for survival. But there must be an equal investment in the team. Our culture promotes a situation where women have an irrational level of investment. Which brings me to the crux of the matter:
For many women, there remains a reliance on marriage for personal happiness.
Thus, many women are unhappy. Married women are more vulnerable to clinical depression than unmarried women (the reverse is true in men). And three quarters of all divorce proceedings are initiated by women. It's not a piece of paper that does this. Nor do I believe it is because men are an inadequate bunch who don't love their wives or try to make them happy.
The problem is a culture which holds up a legal contract as a supernatural rite.