Harriet Walker: Don't blame our woes on 'Hello!' weddings

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The Independent Online

Few of us expect to find ourselves staring up at an august member of the judiciary intoning his remedies for our own personal flaws. But with the launch of Sir Paul Coleridge's foundation to promote the virtues of marrying – and of staying married – we're all in the dock, gazing balefully at him as we twiddle our wedding rings. "This is not a moral crusade," Coleridge told Radio Four yesterday, "it's a health campaign. The impact [of divorce] on the whole of society is real and dramatic... We need to... re-evaluate long-term relationships and their value and their difficulties."

He points to the importance of a stable domestic background in the development of children, citing crime rates, unemployment and community tensions as products of divorced parents and broken homes. But he doesn't refer to the easy cohesion and pragmatic, quotidian bonds that cohabitation, civil partnerships and joint bank accounts can bring. Nor does he speak about the loaded misery and debilitating unhappiness of remaining in a bad marriage.

The status of marriage is constantly under scrutiny, from lawmakers and lovers alike. It is something we're all programmed to want, but nobody has told us with any conviction how or why it should actually fit into our lives.

As women become financially independent, they have no reason – let alone desire – to settle for the schmoe who once treated them nicely when they were 16. We can go and do other things. As for the blokes – well, they don't have to marry at all. Why should they? What's in it for them? Some people just want to be happy, while others think the grass will always be greener elsewhere. And that's hardly the foundation for any sort of long-lasting union. Coleridge blames the glossy weddings in Hello! for fetishising marriage into a glorious day of partying followed by a vision of sweet nothings until we end our days. But this view of marriage is no less evangelical, albeit more Gradgrind and less glitter. The problem is that getting married has just become a nice thing to do, a lifestyle choice not a necessity.

Strictly speaking, nobody needs to anymore. Having a child with someone is the biggest commitment you can make, whether you're married or not, and if that doesn't keep you together, little else will.

Having laid so many social ills at the feet of separated and unmarried parents, Coleridge, inset, fails to consider the bigger picture. Many of his problems are products of a breakdown in community that goes much further than whether people tie the knot or not. Wealth distribution, gender inequality, general mistrust. We are all out for as much as we can get for as little as we need put in.

The cult of the individual is such that we can afford to look after number one and we are not used to sacrificing that for the greater good anymore. So politicians and now those in charge of our moral rectitude, telling us that we should – telling us to get wed for the good of society – feels hackneyed; out of date. It perpetuates an outmoded cycle of doing what we think we want because we feel we should. The cult of marriage is more dangerous than marriage itself, when you consider how often it goes wrong.