We've Got Rid of Marriage - but at a Terrible Cost

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

We've Got Rid of Marriage - but at a Terrible Cost


Byline: William REES-MOGG

The major English authors have discussed the institution of marriage endlessly, with the women often showing a shrewder understanding than the men. When it comes to the relationships between the sexes, no man equals Jane Austen.

Geoffrey Chaucer, the grandfather of English poetry, started the pragmatic theme with his comment, put in the mouth of one of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales: 'None other state, quoth he, is worth a bean, for wedlock is so easy and so clean.'

Samuel Johnson took, what is, I suppose, the classic view: 'Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.' Neither Chaucer nor Johnson had very happy marriages - Austen never married.

Perhaps the most familiar quotation is Austen's: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.'

William Shakespeare is thought to have been unhappily married to Anne Hathaway, to whom he ungallantly left his second-best bed in his will.

He even gives Hamlet the line: 'I say, we will have no more marriages,' but Hamlet had treated Ophelia very badly; she is the victim of his melancholy and indecision.

However, one can always forgive Shakespeare; one of his most beautiful sonnets begins: 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.' The sonnet goes on to express the permanence of true love, which is 'the star to every wandering bark'.

I would take a more cheerful view than the average of the English writers, though I share their respect for marriage as a practical institution. It is hard for humans to lead an isolated life. Indeed, it is against nature; as Aristotle observed, we are social animals.

The advantage of marriage is confirmed by the social statistics. Children cared for by two parents usually do better at school, are less likely to truant, are less likely to get into trouble with the police or to take drugs and are likely to enjoy better health. It is difficult enough for two parents to bring up their children, but for one person to do so alone is naturally much harder.

Obviously, many marriages have serious problems, many of which are eventually resolved by separation or divorce. But marriages that survive can confer benefits on whole families.

We can take a Darwinian view of this. Human institutions are shaped by an evolutionary process. If marriage had not proved socially efficient, it would not have become, or remained, the most common form of family organisation.

If, for instance, polygamy were more advantageous than monogamy, polygamy would have become the commoner form of cohabitation. The harem would be the norm. It is not and it did not.

Nevertheless, marriage is under pressure from the social developments of the modern world. The figures are disturbing. The Office for National Statistics published them last Thursday. The marriage rate fell to an all-time low in 2007 and is expected to have fallen further in 2008, if only because of the recession. …

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We've Got Rid of Marriage - but at a Terrible Cost
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