On the eve of Valentineâ€™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 â€“ and still enjoy â€“ 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 â€“ and some thrived â€“ 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 â€“ or thought he couldnâ€™t â€“ it was not his province. The woman did not expect to clean the shoes or earn the income â€“ that was her husbandâ€™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 fatherâ€™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 manâ€™s work and womanâ€™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 â€œthe other halfâ€ as they can be the whole article themselves.
A womanâ€™s ability to earn a living, and a manâ€™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 â€“ 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. Womenâ€™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 â€œYouâ€™ve made your bed and now you have to lie on itâ€ 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 Manchesterâ€™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.