By Tennant, Laura
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 135, No. 4785
First, let's dispose of some myths. The institution of marriage is in terminal decline and divorce rates are rocketing. Right? Wrong. The Office for National Statistics released a startling figure this year: the total number of marriages in England and Wales went up for the third year running in 2004. As for divorce, since 1980 figures have barely budged, fluctuating between 12 and 14 divorces per thousand people. Far from falling by the wayside in favour of cohabitation, serial monogamy, communal living or single parenthood, marriage remains the aspiration and reality for the majority. The National Centre for Social Research, an independent research institute, found in 2002 that only 9 per cent of people agreed with the statement "There is no point getting married--it's only a piece of paper", while 59 per cent felt that "even though it might not work out for some people, marriage is still the best kind of relationship".
While marriage remains the norm (60 per cent of babies are born to married parents), there is no denying that since the 1970s or thereabouts, it has been a tragically unfashionable option among enlightened, progressive and vaguely left-leaning types (in other words, you, dear readers). Its distinct lack of va va voom was summed up in the apologetic title of Garrison Keillor's We Are Still Married, but there's more behind the liberal-left orthodoxy on the institution than plain ennui. Ever since Marx and Engels postulated marriage as a patriarchal structure to secure the legitimacy of children and the safe transfer of property between generations, the left has viewed marriage, along with church and state, as an instrument for social control. The sexual revolution opened up the possibility of a lifetime of free-flowing erotic liaisons and the undesirability, if not impossibility, of confining one's activities to a single partner. Later, radical feminism argued that marriage was merely an arena for the economic and sexual exploitation of women. More recently, the emphasis on individual fulfilment has worked against the compromises that marriage entails, and our longer lifespan makes "till death us do part" a promise ever harder to keep. Bourgeois, constraining, sentimental, naive and politically incorrect--wouldn't it be just as well if marriage did the decent thing and withered away?
Evidence is emerging that marriage is not withering, but cautiously putting out green shoots. Perhaps now is the moment to rescue it from the conservative doldrums. Cultural commentators from all sides have tended to assume that without moral, social and religious pressures to stay together, increasing numbers, human nature being what it is, would part company; hence the anxiety about making divorce "too easy". It was an outcome regarded as a disaster by those who feared social breakdown, and welcomed by those who wanted to extend individual autonomy and freedom. It seems we all began to regard marriage as a dreary but necessary building block of social cohesion, beneficial to society but onerous to individuals, and requiring constant shoring up because the alternatives were so much more appealing.
But what if marriage is actually our best chance of happiness? What if "wedlock", to use a telling word for it, not only makes the usual, pragmatic, financial and legal sense, but also fosters our own deep well-being and contentment; and further, that its very longevity brings advantages of which those lightweight serial monogamists can only dream?
The public perception of marriage may indeed be in transition. Penny Mansfield, the director of the relationship research body One Plus One, says couples too young to remember the ideological battles of the Seventies now regard marriage less as an institution to which one has to sign up than as an individualised contract of public commitment. Attitudes to premarital sex and having children outside marriage have changed hugely; consequently, couples today often buy a house, have a baby and then marry, rather than the other way round. …