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Counter-cultural, but absurdly beautiful

02 November 2006


Katharine Hill sees hope for modern marriage, despite the pressures

‘We should develop a culture of vulnerability, where the married can be honest about successes and failures’

As we enter National Marriage Week, I recall an hour I spent recently with a Ugandan pastor who was visiting Britain. After the introductions, I stirred the froth on my cappuccino in an attempt to fill the awkward silences.

His tribal village was light-years away from the city coffee shop where we met. But all cultural divides vanished as the conversation moved to the subject of marriage. Joseph described his African home: a basic hut, built around a strong central pillar, which provided shelter and refuge for his family and all who gathered there. As he likened marriage to that pillar, I saw afresh the universal nature of marriage and its part in upholding society.

Marriage is rooted in the creation story, and is part of the first teaching about who we are and who God is. Research suggests that not only are married people happier, but they are also healthier and have better prospects of employment. Marriage gives companionship, and provides a stable environment in which to bring up children. Society has yet to find another model to equal it.

Yet, now that more than 40 per cent of British marriages end in divorce, none of us have to look far to see the devastating effect of family breakdown. I worked for several years as a family lawyer, and had more than a glimpse of the pain experienced by individuals and members of the wider family when reality failed to measure up to the ideal.

I was reminded of the human cost of family breakdown last night, when I had a phone call from Caroline, whose world had fallen apart when her husband of 18 months left her and their two-month-old baby. Marriage hadn’t turned out as he had imagined, and he was attracted to someone else.

The sociologist Alvin Toffler comments: "People today have a throwaway mentality. They not only have throwaway products, but they make throwaway friends, and this mentality produces throwaway marriages."

In the UK, we have one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. It peaked in 1993 at 180,000, and less than ten years later, it had fallen by 13 per cent to 157,000. The fact influencing the drop is that fewer couples are getting married in the first place. In 2003, there were 311,000 marriages in the UK. Although this is the second successive annual rise, the figure is still 36 per cent below the peak of 480,000 marriages in 1972.

The past 30 years have seen dramatic changes in partnership formation, many couples choosing to cohabit. Marriage no longer has the financial or social privileges that it had in the past.

Cohabitation covers a range of relationships, from a temporary arrangement, to a trial marriage, to those who see themselves as "married" but have rejected the ideology of the institution.

In the late 1960s, only two per cent of women getting married had cohabited with their future husband, whereas by 2002 this had risen to 77 per cent. Victoria Combe wrote in The Daily Telegraph of her wedding a few years ago: "When I went to organise our wedding list at Peter Jones, the assistant filling out the form assumed bride and groom were at the same address. She was startled when I corrected her."

The average age for first marriage has increased over the years. In 2001, it was 30.6 years for men and 28.4 years for women, compared with 24.6 years and 22.6 in 1971. While this trend is partly explained by pre-marriage cohabitation, other factors have also had an influence, such as increased participation in higher education, and women’s greater involvement in the workforce. Thirty years ago, marriage itself was the passport to adulthood. This link has now been severed. Increasing financial independence means that many will leave the family home and set up on their own, well before considering marriage.

Despite these pressures, marriage remains the ideal model for family life, a point made by Bob Geldof in a Channel 4 documentary last year: "This marriage stuff is a serious thing. It is not to be entered into and dissolved on a whim."

There are signs of hope. More than eight in ten of couples living together in Britain are married, and marriage continues to be the relationship that adults and teens aspire to. In 2003, Bliss magazine surveyed 5000 teenagers, and found that 92 per cent still hoped to marry.

Libby Purves, writing in The Times, asked: "What can marriage add to a modern relationship? . . The practical legalities are the least of it. There are deeper effects. Even in the age of serial divorce, marriage still holds a solemnity and public seriousness not found elsewhere in human relations . . . the knot you tie strengthens the wider net of society."

Many marriages break down not because of incompatibility, but because the husband and wife have never known what it takes to make their relationship work. There are many initiatives and courses, including ones from churches and organisations such as the Mothers’ Union and FLAME, that try to give couples tools to build healthy marriages.

I am involved in a new project, the National Couple Support Network, which offers marriage preparation to engaged couples through churches and register offices. Marriage preparation is still not a normal thing for couples, particularly when choosing a civil wedding. Couples can attend a course and link up with an ordinary married couple, who can share something of the reality of married life.

Supporting marriage enables the Church to connect with community, and to meet people at a point of need. There is an opportunity to teach about marriage in our churches and schools, so that we do not imbibe society’s worst values. We should develop a culture of vulnerability, where those of us who are married can be honest about our successes and failures, making it easy to ask each other for help.

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, speaking at the launch of National Marriage Week last year, said: "A good marriage is the greatest work of art that any of us are likely to achieve. . . Just because it is unfashionable and counter-cultural and absurdly beautiful, let’s hear it for marriage; the truth of the proposition is that the love we make is the love we give away."

My Ugandan friend would have agreed.

Katharine Hill is Marriage Project Manager for Care for the Family and the co-author of Rules of Engagement (Lion, 2005) with her husband, Richard.


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