Terence Blacker: No break-up without a bitter, public outpouring

Couples who, in a spirit of romance and hope, are beginning to prepare for a spring wedding would probably do well to avoid reading the press at the moment.

The darker side of marriage has been on display. In a law court last week, the former Mr and Mrs Huhne presented a memorable image of post-separation misery. Then, over the weekend, a forthcoming book by Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was serialised. Every sentence ached with unhappiness and regret.

Marital misery used to dwell behind closed doors, a matter of embarrassment, even shame. Mercifully, those days have gone, but of late something almost as depressing has taken their place. It has become just fine to show public contempt for the person with whom you once agreed to share your life. Trashing your past has become commonplace; it is a way of committing yourself to a bright new future.

No poison spreads as quickly as marital hatred.

It can blight the lives of children and destroy friendship. Worst of all, it infects private history so that the happiest memory is retrospectively stained by the hurt which is yet to come.

"The first time I saw my husband after we separated, I realised, to my surprise, he hated me," writes Rachel Cusk. "I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was contaminated by it, like a coastline painted black by an oil spill." During the marriage, she "had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's, and he like her claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence."

With our new sense of self and entitlement, it is what is lost from individual lives – time, variety, advancement, freedom to be oneself – which comes to dominate and obsess. "I didn't want help. I wanted equality," Cusk writes. "Why couldn't we be the same?"

Perhaps changed priorities and attitudes within marriage require a new approach altogether. Instead of the increasingly absurd illusion that a new union will, or should, last for life, a system providing a marital licence for a fixed period – to be renewed, or not, every 10 years, say – would bring a healthy element of jeopardy to this jaded institution.

The idea of living together, an arrangement in which the sense of obligation is based on love rather than a contract, might also be encouraged.

At the very least, the marriage vows could be revised to include this new commitment: if it all goes wrong one day, I pledge not to hate you...

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