Reader, I married them

We offer the Greyhares antidote to Royal Wedding post euphoria syndrome. Twice-married Neil Taylor asks, “What’s the point of marriage?”

Would you ever seriously consider advising someone you cared for to get married? Your own children, for example? Or Ed Miliband?

The most recent report from the Office for National Statistics reveals that there were fewer marriages in England and Wales in 2009 than at any time since 1895 and the proportion of married to unmarried adults was lower than at any time since 1862. But David Cameron believes that marriage could the solution to Broken Britain. And marriage is in the air, with the heir to the heir to the throne safely married — despite the Coalition’s failure to honour the Tory Party promise to introduce a married person’s allowance of a princely £150 a year.

Back in 2004, a lengthy, statistics-heavy report from Civitas concluded that ‘Families based on marriage are, on average, healthier, wealthier and more stable than other family forms’ (Does marriage matter? Civitas.org.uk). I paraphrase or plagiarise the following small selection of their numerous findings thus:

  • Married people live longer than do otherwise similar single or divorced people.
  • Divorcees are more than twice as likely as their married counterparts to attempt suicide, while married women have lower rates of depression than do lone or cohabiting women.
  • Married couples build more wealth than do otherwise similar singles or cohabiting couples, even those with similar incomes, and marriage itself seems to increase by 15% the earning power of men.
  • Children of married parents score higher on measures of academic achievement, and children of divorced parents have lower occupational status and earnings and increased rates of unemployment.
  • Marriage tends to decrease men’s criminal behaviour, and reduce the risk of women suffering from domestic violence.
  • Only 8% of children born into a married household see their parents split before their 5th birthday, whereas 52% do of those born into a cohabiting household.

This is powerful stuff. Of course, it’s seven years out of date now and, not being a sociologist, I am unaware of all the methodological pitfalls inherent in statistical analysis of this kind. (After all, unhealthy, unstable ne’er-do-wells may not be that marriageable. But still, it makes me think.)

I went to the theatre a couple of weeks ago to see As You Like It. The culmination of the plot is the mass marriage of four different couples, with Hymen himself, the god of marriage, blessing their union. I loved the production, but even if hadn’t, I would still have been moved by the play’s commitment to marriage as the aim of life. I always find myself in Shakespearean comedy, or Jane Austen, or other similar fictions, willing the lovers on, urging them to tie the knot, virtually marrying them myself. And when real people in real life tell me they’re getting married, I’m instantly delighted. And when I hear they’re getting divorced, I’m utterly hurt. It’s as if I’m in love with marriage.

What’s wrong with me?

What’s wrong with me is that I don’t think. Or, at least, I don’t think it through.

The unstated belief held by my fellow inhabitants of Romcomland is, get married and you’ll live happily ever after. But not all marriages are happy. At my back, why can I hear Gracie Fields so memorably warbling, ‘Walter, Walter, take me to the altar, and make all my nightmares come true’? Marriage ceremonies tend to require the participants to promise to stay married until death them do part, and these days people live a long time. A child born in 2011 stands an excellent chance of receiving a 100th birthday email from King William’s heir. How can people be expected to get on for 60, 70, 80 years?

If you want to get out of a marriage you normally have only four options: murder, suicide, desertion or divorce. Separation gets you out of the relationship but not out of the marriage. Bigamy is no solution because it only gets you into another fine mess. So divorce is the favourite. Further ONS statistics suggest that more than a third of current marriages will end in divorce. Now, it’s surely very likely that many of those who don’t divorce are less than happy with their marriages but stay together for religious reasons, or for the sake of the children, or for want of the courage or initiative to make the break. Weddings are expensive (£20,000 is the average price these days) but divorce settlements are usually crippling, emotionally as well as financially, and maybe that knowledge weakens the resolve of some husbands or wives to call it a day. Who knows, but if you add all these factors together, is it inconceivable that in fact the majority of those who are married are unhappy? What sort of risk analysis wouldn’t warn against wedding?

Bernard Shaw argued that divorce was good for marriage because it enabled more people to marry more often. I write as a confirmed multiple marrier. But, having just read what I’ve just written, I must say my ardour for As You Like It has cooled a little.

Ed, I may have to vote “No”.

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