Valentine’s eve – the future of marriage

On the eve of Valentine’s day we should ask Is love enough? There must be as many young men attracted to their sweethearts as ever, as many young women dreaming of their wedding day as ever. We also know that the rate of divorce is high, the hesitation about marriage is pushing it later for many couples, that all too many couples struggle to stay together when the cake and the honeymoon fades in the memory.

We have to recognise that there has been huge social change in recent decades. I was blessed to be brought up by parents who enjoyed – and still enjoy – a good marriage. I remember being surprised as a teenager by a surprise remark of my late grandmother, who opined that if she could have her time again she would never have married. I had taken it for granted that my grandparents, like my parents, had a good marriage as they were always together when I saw them. Her words made me reappraise, and see the heartbreak and the misunderstandings behind the institution of marriage.

In my grandparents day it was almost unheard of to think of divorce. There was shame in it. Contrived adultery often had to be arranged if there was no real adultery on offer to persuade the courts that the marriage had failed. Because divorce was unusual people felt the pressures of society to stay together.

There was also economic necessity. Most marriages survived – and some thrived – on the splitting of the work. The men took on the paid employment so their wages could pay the rent and the food bills. The women did the rest, washing the clothes, preparing and cooking the meals, making the home. Much of that was hard physical work, without the labour saving devices we take for granted. A man did not want to wield the broom or cast the needle – or thought he couldn’t – it was not his province. The woman did not expect to clean the shoes or earn the income – that was her husband’s role. This economic model forced the unhappy to stay together, depending on each other economically but building their own interests and circles of friends for the little leisure time they had. The man would go to pub or club, the woman to her circle of family and neighbours. It probably also encouraged more love and companionship between others, as they came to respect or admire what the other achieved in the male and female spheres. They were partners, not competitors.

My parents generation saw some shift in this. My father would help with home tasks that his father’s generation would have spurned. My mother did take a paid job outside the home when I became a teenager, to supplement the family income. The basic pattern still had a lot in common with the pre war generations, but it was on the move.

Subsequent generations have seen this old model pulled apart. There is no longer the same rigid distinction between man’s work and woman’s work. Men change nappies, run the hoover, stack the dishwasher, peel the vegetables. Women get well paid jobs, use the paint brush, drive the car. This very multiskilling which can bring lovers into closer friendship, can also teach both woman and man they can live on their own. They do not need “the other half” as they can be the whole article themselves.

A woman’s ability to earn a living, and a man’s ability to cook a meal and wash a shirt can make each party less tolerant of each other. There is less need to compromise when living together – there is another option. Some ask if the wife or husband does not live up to expectations, then why carry on?

Many politicians would like to save or strengthen marriage, but show some humility as many have found keeping their own marriages too difficult a task.

Some of my colleagues believe that offering a tax break for marriage can change all this. I agree it could help. It is a perverse incentive to create a tax and benefit system which makes people better off if they live apart or alone. We should not think however, that it will be a complete answer. Women’s economic freedom is a good thing, but it naturally increases the pressures against marriage or long lasting marriages, as it removes the need of their grandmothers and great grandmothers to grit their teeth and carry on for economic necessity. The saying “You’ve made your bed and now you have to lie on it” sounds hopelessly dated and unrealistic. Today many more people think that if they have made the wrong bed they will change it instead.

A consumerist world produces a culture of instant gratification. Some see their marriages through the distorting images of the rich and famous having the perfect day for their wedding, more than they understand the subsequent rupture of so many of those celebrity alliances.

If marriage is to be strengthened we need to think more about how it can work and what legal framework it needs in this very different society. It requires friendship as well as love, tolerance and understanding as well as passion and attraction. The very differences between men and women that make much of the excitement and romance, can become the sources of tension and disagreement later. Men like things, women are fascinated by relationships. Men want to talk about Manchester’s team tactics, or the performance of the latest car: women want to talk about feelings and moods. There needs to be give and take to make it work, and goodwill on both sides. There is no easy quick fix for politicians, as expectations of marriage have outrun the average experience of it. The attitudes towards income and property in family law when marriages are broken up seem dated, based on a different model of the roles of men and women.

Tomorrow there will still be many young men buying the roses and the chocolates, sending the cards, and summoning up courage to tell someone they love her. There will be many young women hoping for the invitation, and wanting to receive the gifts. I wish them a lovely day.

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6 Comments

  1. Peter Drew
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Could the law at least be amended to permit marriage?

    At present the only option is a temporary liaison that can be terminated by either side on a whim (duly rubber-stamped by a court).

    I'm not suggesting that people should be forced into indissoluble relationships, but shouldn't people who want such relationships be allowed to enter into them?

    Treating people as if they were adults would be a radical experiment but surely one that is worth trying.

  2. Rose
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    It is all very complex and things are no better now than they were before. For some they may be better, for others worse. But there is wisdom still in the words "Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait". When passion is spent, friendship and laughter, consideration and loyalty may endure. Marriage used to be the only insurance policy without a get-out clause, and that was something precious which has now been lost. To know that whatever happened the other person would always stand by you, that was worth having. Together against the world. But that guaranteed loyalty could also be abused, as we sadly see now in some (word left out-ed)marriages. For every old woman like your grandmother, there must have been another who said "I'm glad I stuck it out. It was worth it in the end." But if she could have got out as easily as now would she have stayed?

  3. mikestallard
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Erm…. I was reading some stories about India and the raj the other day. I regret deeply that the ideals of Christian marriage were not always observed quite as precisely as they were in, say Madame Bovary or indeed Anna Karenina.
    I was in Tiffany's today buying a couple of things for my son's wedding present.
    Next to me were a couple of kids. They bought a huge ring and a bracelet. Then, and this, I confess brought tears to my old eyes, the man paid in twenties thumbing them out onto the counter. It must have been his own hard earned wages!
    Marvellous.

  4. Tony Makara
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I was very interested in Chris Grayling's comments the other day about immature grown men. One of the main reasons why marriage breaks down is because its too easy to walk away for a generation of men who have grown up without the structured responsibility of work and the personal commitment that comes from having to provide. The future Conservative government must set the focus on getting the fathers of young families into work. I believe Labour have spread their net too far in trying to get single mothers, the disabled, the over 50s into work when the focus should have been on youth and young fathers. A young father who has never had to provide for his offspring has little conscience about walking away and letting the state pick up the bill. Developing a wider sense of responsibility is the key here, the only problem is how can we get young men into waged work to build a new attitude and make walking away from marriage less of an option.

  5. david skinner
    Posted February 13, 2008 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer , sitting in a Nazi prison cell, once wrote a wedding sermon for a niece who was about to be married . In it he said,

  6. Simon_C
    Posted February 18, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    An interesting blog post…

    However I tend to view things from the other perspective. Rather than try to change society back so that it fits the old fashioned view of marrage, I think the laws around marrage it self should change.

    We should accept that marrage is just an agreement between two equal individuals to form a partnership for a period of time. It should not be a supprise that these partnerships may end some time, indeed, it would be better for everyone if people went into these things with the clear understanding that there was a 30-40% chance that their partnership would end.

    I think the tax and benefit system should be entirely neutral on the matter. I suspect if you encourage people to get married with a tax break, you'd actually end up causing the number of marrage breakups to rise, as you'd have a significant number of people who are in a partnership who aren't married decide to "take advantage" of the tax break without the hopped for increase in commitment.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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