"I Do" -- but Not for Very Long, Thanks

By Gunnell, Barbara | New Statesman (1996), August 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

"I Do" -- but Not for Very Long, Thanks


Gunnell, Barbara, New Statesman (1996)


Moral crusaders can't force people to live happily ever after argues Barbara Gunnell

Giuseppe la Pera and Willy Pasini, psychologists from Rome, claim to have identified that men are "biologically disposed" to fall in love at 50. This explains so much (and so many, starting with Bill Clinton and Warren Beatty, and drawing a discreet veil over prominent 50-year-olds closer to home).

But, given that they usually (but not always, according to the researchers) fall in love with someone other than their wives, we should note that it will be adding to the European-wide collapse of the institution of marriage.

In England and Wales, fewer people are marrying than ever before. In one generation, the number of couples marrying has halved. In 1998, just 267,303 made it up the aisle, compared with 348,492 in 1988. Marriage is decreasingly popular and, when it does take place, divorce is a regular outcome -- according to the Office of National Statistics, four out of every ten marriages are likely to end in divorce.

Even one of the main reasons given by couples for marrying -- to raise a family -- is becoming less of a motivating force. In Britain, about one-third of children are born outside marriage.

Britain has taken the rapid decline of marriage on the chin. A few tabloid "debates" on the divorce question apart, the increasingly anti-marriage culture has not generated moral panic or calls for government action. On the contrary, only one in five of the population considers marriage an important factor in bringing up children, according to an opinion poll commissioned earlier this year by the government-funded National Family and Parenting Institute.

Patricia Morgan, the guru of family values, is one of those worried, not just about the decline of marriage, but also its substitution with other arrangements such as single parenthood and, in particular, cohabiting.

Cohabiting has become, for increasing numbers of us, the relationship of choice, sometimes preceding marriage, but sometimes not. Living together has become acceptable in all classes, and more than 70 per cent of couples cohabit before marriage. Tony Blair may set off to church with his wife and four children, but, in today's Britain, this is eccentric behaviour. Even at the heart of government, there are long-term cohabitees alongside married couples.

Morgan's report Marriage-Lite, published this month by the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, aims to warn these cohabiting couples that they are running serious risks that do not affect married people -- or, at least, that affect them less.

These risks include unemployment, infidelity and depression. Children who are "illegitimate" (a word that no longer has any legal meaning, but which Morgan uses intemperately) are more likely to be abused and unsupported. …

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