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Cover Story: Marriage a la mode

We know what goes on behind our own net curtains, yet can't resist speculating on what makes other people's relationships tick. Shane Watson presents a field guide
To love, honour and obey, in sickness and in health... in the good old days, the parameters of marriage were clear. But the good old days are behind us. In the past few years, marriage has undergone a revolution. Without most folk noticing it, our expectations of how a couple should operate have been transformed. Suddenly there's no longer one normal, standard way to be married. Women are not after a big, strong man who can offer them financial security. While, for their part, men have begun to look beyond mother-substitutes who are good with an iron.

Roles have become muddled. I know men whose diaries, bank accounts and opinions are, more or less, controlled by their wives, and wives who have embraced a modern version of the Stepford rules, gussying themselves up for their man's return from work and spending their days shopping for pleasing underwear. In one marriage you'll find the man running the kitchen, and in another a husband who refuses to set foot in Sainsbury's. There are couples who work together and split the domestic duties right down the middle, and others who barely see each other, and take pride in an almost-single approach to life.

Now that husbands can be metrosexual and wives can be the breadwinners, the real trick is to find an "other half" who completes you. But don't think the world is your oyster. As I discovered when I was writing a book about marriage, couples tend to fall into one of eight basic types. It pays to know which you are, or which you might end up as, because each is as different as marriage is from being single. Well, almost.

The Woman-on-Top Marriage

This is the marriage in which the woman calls all the shots. Typically it didn't start out that way but, gradually, all pretence of him having a say in their affairs has gone and her dominance in the relationship has become an accepted part of their public routine ("Richard is so useless, if it wasn't for me we'd all starve... the children are so embarrassed by him... etc.)

Generally the WOT marriage involves a forceful female personality who either gave up a career in order to stay at home or left marriage a little late and was ultimately forced to settle for less than she had intended. It is possible, however, and increasingly common, for the WOT to emerge at a point when her children are almost grown up and she has acquired a new confidence, or interest in business, and equivalent contempt for her husband.

Most likely to say (her): "You see what I have to put up with?"

The Kitten-Woman Marriage

"Kitten woman" was a term coined by the then Kimberly Fortier - prior to her hitting the headlines - to describe a woman who was not afraid to trade on her feminine wiles and pose as a harmless kittie rather than the jungle predator she really is. In the context of marriage, the Kitten Woman appears to defer to her husband in all things, and makes a huge show of being reliant on his wisdom/strength/experience. He is the hunter/gatherer protector and she is the ingenue who looks to him for guidance. In practice she is extremely capable and absolutely in control.

Mr Kitten-Woman has an old fashioned sense of chivalry and is, to an extent, complicit in his wife's little game. He comes from a world where kittenism is a refreshing contrast to the whip-cracking norm, and he enjoys the pretence that he is the centre of his woman's world, and her knight in shining armour. Providing he is very secure and not so in love that he will allow himself to be bullied, the KM marriage can suit both parties well.

Most likely to say (her): "We have a very special bond."

The Survivors' Marriage

This marriage is one of the newest arrivals on the scene - combining as it does the tendency to leave things a little late in the day and the contemporary preoccupation with money and status. Each partner in this marriage is attracted to the other for essentially pragmatic reasons: she married him because there was no-one else better on the horizon and her biological clock was audible from 50 yards; he married her because she made their union seem like an exciting power-merger which would protect both their interests. Together they embark on endless projects - holiday homes, entrepreneurial gambles, more children - and the glue that binds them is their steady march up the financial ladder and the social scale.

Unlike other couples they are - alright, she is - disturbingly up-front about their problems conceiving, his problems at work, and her feelings for his brother. Either partner may wear the trousers but it is most frequently the wife.

Most likely to say: "We've worked out it's cheaper for us to live in separate houses".

The Ongoing-Affair Marriage

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were typical of the Ongoing-Affair couple, which says all that needs to be said about the stability of this particular union. Normality - kids, an estate car, Center Parc holidays, relatives at Christmas - is difficult for these couples. At the heart of their marriage is the belief that theirs is a special love which must be nurtured and preserved from the humdrum daily drudgery of normal marriages. To this end they religiously celebrate anniversaries, are mad for renewing vows, and deliberately set aside quality time to be alone together, regardless of the fun opportunities that may arise.

OAMs hold hands in public, tend to cling to each other at parties, surround themselves with photographs of their most public loving moments and feel obliged to share their likes and dislikes and funny little habits with anyone who will listen. When OAMs do have children these become an extension of this special love-bond, and a nightmare.

Most likely to say: "We won't be able to do that, it's our night for catching up."

The Tomboy Marriage

The Tomboy Marriage is the opposite of the Kitten Marriage. Tomboy couples usually marry when quite young and think of themselves as great mates embarking on an adventure, who happen to have sex and a family. They are the most likely to have an unconventional attitude to their roles (she is quite liable to stay in bed on a Saturday with a filthy hangover while he looks after the children) and, though obviously devoted to each other, their relationship involves lots of jokes at each other's expense, quite a bit of independent partying, and plenty of risk-taking.

Tomboy couples are the most likely to sell up and go and live in Africa for a year while she is pregnant with twins. Their absolute horror is people who let breastfeeding get in the way of a good Friday night, and Ongoing-Affair couples. Zoe Ball and Fatboy Slim would fall naturally into this category and, as their example demonstrates, this pally marriage can be tricky to sustain and generally requires a shift towards a more conventional pattern at some point.

Most likely to say (him): "She's useless in the mornings so I deal with the kids".

The Commitment-Phobic, Determined-Adorer Marriage

Essentially this is a marriage between someone who is madly in love, and someone who is passive and happy to be given a direction. It is dangerous for the determined party because it means that, from the start, they have assumed all responsibility for the success of the relationship.

Commonly the determined partner is a woman who wants to have a child and is fed up with waiting (she gets pregnant, thereby forcing her boyfriend's hand) but it can also be the man, if he is seeking to snare a flighty, commitment-phobic girlfriend. The phobic party makes no secret of their reservations but, if their determined partner's instincts are right, this is anxiety talking, rather than indifference - and many reluctant grooms and brides visibly relax once they've taken the decision. In other words this is not the absolute recipe for disaster that you might imagine. It appears that one person's persistence can be enough to cement the deal - though this is still a high risk strategy.

Most likely to say (adorer): "Don't worry about it, you don't have to do it."

The Flatmates' Marriage

This is also known as the couple-in-denial marriage. The trouble with flatmates is that neither can admit to needing the other, or even being particularly into them. Flatmates continue to keep a mental tit-for-tat checklist and are always weighing up who has cooked the most and made the most trips to the supermarket. (All married couples are conscious of who is pulling their weight, but flatmates have a "you've drunk my milk" attitude to the relationship). Everything in the FM requires negotiation: there is no assumption that they will holiday together, or share the same Christening present, or attend the same New Year's Eve party.

Flatmates are secretly quite proud of their approach to marriage, although others can see that their lack of unconditional support for each other takes its toll.

Most likely to say: "He/She isn't the mood for skiing this year, so it'll just be me."

The Just-Gay-Enough Marriage

This is a style of marriage many women envy, particularly those in the Flatmates' category, although it doesn't appeal to everyone. The Just- Gay-Enough husband is thoroughly reconstructed and is happy to share in the chores and childcare as well as watch girlie TV and go clothes-shopping with his wife (though his preference is to look for "things for the home"). Mrs Just-Gay-Enough is, in the opinion of some of her female peers, rather spoilt. She gets a present on Valentine's day (accurate-size designer underwear), gets whisked off on romantic breaks and so on.

But, mysteriously, the woman sometimes seems less than thrilled with her metrosexual husband. There are tensions involving her use of the kitchen (he's taken over), her choice of decor in the bathroom (he has some very firm ideas), and her smoking (he wants her to give up). She feels (although this is rarely articulated) that, despite the many advantages of having a domesticated man, he is encroaching on her territory to a degree that makes her feel like she's living with a girlfriend.

Most likely to say (him): "Don't let her near my omelette-pan."

`Other People's Marriages', by Shane Watson, is published on Friday, by Macmillan, at pounds 12.99. To order this book direct, call 08700 798 897