Better dead than wed

Virginia Ironside (once Virginia Grove-White) never made it past the 10-year hurdle. She knows why. So should you

`Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage," they used to sing. But now that Britain has become the divorce capital of Europe, with a sixfold rise in the divorce rate in the past 30 years, the rhyme has surely changed to "Marriage and divorce, marriage and divorce, go together like a carriage and horse".

Despite it being National Marriage Week, with Christian groups reaffirming marriage like billyo throughout the country, despite Helen Wilkinson of the think-tank Demos eagerly putting forward new zany ways to attract people to marriage - hey, why not make it possible for couples to be married by their chums? And why not make marriage contracts really short instead of for life? (brilliant piece of goal-post moving, that; in other words, get rid of divorce by calling it "end of contract" instead) - despite all this, the truth is that half of divorces are granted to people who can't even make it to 10 years.

Marriage is a far bigger step than most of us realise until we have actually tied the knot. For a start, it is extremely unnerving being described as a possession of the other person. You are his wife, he is "your husband". Together you are "a couple". Even if you decide to retain your name, there are sure to be some relations who insist on addressing you by his. Never one for being totally certain of my own identity, I (one of the under- 10-year divorce statistics) found it very unnerving being given the same name as so many other female members of my husband's family. I felt for a ghastly moment as if I had joined the Moonies. Everyone was called Mrs Grove-White: Virginia Ironside had vanished at a stroke. Complete strangers regarded me as their relation. I was an only child, but suddenly I had four siblings-in-law. I wasn't sure I could cope with them.

My husband and I were only asked out together, as a couple. Overnight, my girlfriends saw me as a different person: some were angry at my marrying, others jealous. Then, the moment I had a Mrs in front of my name, postmen, car salesmen, builders all imagined that behind the scenes there was a man far richer, more sensible and more decisive than I. I felt angry - angry at losing some of my identity and angry at my poor husband, who wasn't at all male chauvinist, for bringing out the male chauvinist in everyone else. Are we ever warned about these pitfalls? No.

The reason Ian Finlay's marriage failed was partly because he got married too young, at 24. He left his marriage after precisely a year because he realised that he and his wife were unequal intellectually - "It was obvious that as we grew up we were going to go our separate ways," he says. "Although there was no pressure on us to get married, it was probably a mistake for me to move in with her in the family home to start with. They were quite strict - there would have been no way we could have just lived together. There might have been subliminal pressure to get married. But I remember in the church thinking, `What the hell am I doing, there's no way out now'.

"The other reason perhaps things didn't work out was because my mother died when I was quite young and I had no one to talk to on that level. Mothers are the greatest filter, and stop you making mistakes on the `You're not marrying that!' lines.

"We rarely argued, it wasn't one of those pots flying across the kitchen marriages, but I found I needed more space, stayed out later and later, and felt terribly guilty because it's not pleasant to treat someone like that," says Finlay, now an art director. "When I left, I left her with everything. Now, 12 years later, she hardly crosses my mind."

Another reason a marriage can end early is because it is in that first year that the romance ends; each person may experience a huge sense of disappointment and blame the other for the crash of expectations. The first year of marriage is always meant to be the worst, with the worst rows, the longest walk-outs, the most tears. There also can be a tremendous sense of let-down after the event. The prospect of an endless round of getting up, going to work, coming home, watching telly, may pall. Is this what they meant by "settling down"? It's so boring! Not for ever, surely?

Kathryn Flett, a journalist, was 31 when she married her husband of 35, and they went into it 17 months ago with their eyes wide open, she says. Last week they split.

"We wanted to get married for each other, and we wanted to be with each other for ever," she says. "But perhaps we did spend rather too much time on planning a particularly lavish wedding. We wanted a big bash and we may have been swept along by the impetus and enthusiasm, which is a social construct as much as anything. Perhaps we would have spent the time more profitably in establishing the goals and parameters of our relationship, but I do think you have to get married in a romantic mood.

"Our split could have been partly because we started off talking very strongly as a couple, and after the marriage I felt there was an opportunity to breathe more easily and that problems could be tackled in an ad hoc way rather than in advance. Eventually we realised that to save our relationship we had to end our marriage."

One friend of mine confided that the moment they got married, her husband put a wall up. "It was as if marriage for him was somehow too close and from the very moment we got married he put up this emotional barrier. When we went out it was fine, we seemed like a happy normal couple. But when we got home, bam, the wall of ice went up. I couldn't live like that and nor could he, so we divorced two years later."

In the final ironic PS to National Marriage Week, Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit called off their wedding on Monday on the grounds that it was becoming too public an event. Just the prospect of marriage - which is, after all, meant to be a public declaration of long-term involvement - seems to have made them flinch. Despite "marriage resource packs" being sent to local church and community leaders everywhere and "communications workshops and candlelight dinners" being sponsored throughout the country to try to effect a change in our tragic divorce statistics, for many people the institution of marriage is, these days, simply too difficult to sustain

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