For all that, however, marriage continues to be what we choose. More than 77 per cent of us can expect to get married by the time we are 50 (women at an average age of 28 and men at 31), although the decade between 1980 and 1990 saw a decline in those risking it, and in a 1994 survey 16 per cent of people declared marriage dead, compared with nine per cent four years earlier.
Marriage is an act of faith. But it is also, according to Penny Mansfield, director of the marriage research organisation One-Plus-One, a much more important social institution than has been allowed for in the contemporary quest for individualism and independence. When people get married, she says, they are not just tying a knot for themselves but creating an exten- ded family, with a history and future once their children are born. Despite all the evidence of failure, says Mansfield: "Many people believe that together they can build a private world of support and security, care and comfort."
So why is this aspiration so difficult to sustain? One reason, says Jack Dominion, author of Marriage - The Definitive Guide to What Makes A Marriage Work (Heinemann), is that our beliefs about it have changed radically. Marriage used to be a family and financial structure, where the notion of love was almost non-existent. In the Victorian era it was an institution for procreation (the Victorian paterfamilias rarely chose his wife as a soulmate). These days, by contrast, we look for "emotional aptness" in marriage. "The big danger of modern marriage," says Mansfield, "is to believe it's either all there or it isn't, and that if we love each other that's all that matters. Then as soon as we hit a problem and things don't look so rosy, it's 'Oh dear I obviously made a mistake. This can't be love so I shouldn't stay'."
And it is ironic, she adds, that most people take on the task of melding two lives, with two sets of individual desires, quirks and values, without preparation and often without having really contemplated the implications.
We have reached a critical point. It is essential to help people find new ways of being married, and an increasing number of social scientists are exploring how marriage succeeds or fails. Penny Mansfield and Jean Collard recently published an important survey which followed 65 couples through the first five years, charting how times of transition caused them either to pull together or to fall apart. But their newest research examines happy marriages.
Their early findings, and those of other marriage researchers, are that our romantic mythologies about what makes a happy marriage need revising. No longer should we imagine that the best way to resuscitate a flagging marriage is with an injection of romance and passion, and that everything will be OK if we just carry on being our sweet loveable selves. The new idea is that marriage should be embarked upon rather as you might a complex business venture, with planning, discussion of goals and philosophies, and a recognition that there will be problem times. Negotiation and "conflict resolution" skills will be needed.
Janet Reibstein, a Cambridge psychologist, is studying more than 30 couples who have nominated themselves as happily married, for a book and film in which she will deconstruct how and why their marriages work. She stipulated that her couples must have been through some of the "normal life transitions" which usually occur in the first two decades of marriage and are frequently testing times. She lists these as having children, moving home, a change of job, business reversals, illness and even coping with a partner's infidelity. She says: "The important thing is that in happy marriages the people see themselves as being in a joint enterprise. They may have rows, they may not match each other's expectations in every way and they can become as distressed as anyone, but they never lose sight of the fact that they want to be together. This means that when there is a conflict or a stressful time, they start from the belief that sorting it out is what must be done. There tends to be a lot of talking about things and hearing what the other person says, even if they don't agree. The striking thing with these couples is that they have a lot of goodwill towards each other and they aren't defensive. They don't attach great importance to proving they are right."
This is highly significant, in the view of John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington. He has researched the impact of conflict within more than 2,000 marriages and remarks wryly that in one study he was able to predict with 94 per cent accuracy which couples would divorce within three years. Conflict does not have to be avoided. Indeed, airing grievances can be a good thing. But Gottman stresses that criticisms should focus on the action that is upsetting, and not become a global attack on the partner's character, which will make them feel disliked and defensive and likely to strike back. For example, he suggests saying: "When you forget to pick up my clothes from the dry cleaners, it makes me feel you don't care about me", rather than, "You didn't pick up my clothes, you are selfish and you don't love me."
Gottman believes that by understanding damaging behaviour such as "stonewalling" - the retreat into stony silence as a way of dealing with conflict (something men used in 85 per cent of marriages surveyed) - we can decide not to go along that path and start thinking about constructive alternatives. Everyone agrees commu- nication is essential in a healthy relationship. But, according to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury), one of the biggest obstacles to getting this right is the insurmountable fact that partners have different gender. "Girls learn to read emotional signals very young, while boys become adept at minimising certain emotions - those to do with vulnerability, guilt, fear and pain." These different approaches, which may seem to add a frisson during the courting period, can cause havoc when you are sharing a life.
Understanding why your partner thinks and behaves as they do is important. Goleman explains: "Issues such as how often a couple has sex, how to discipline children or how much debt they feel comfortable with are not what make or break a marriage. It is how they discuss such points that matters." And while the marriage scientists do not believe in the 10-tips-for-a- happy-ever-after approach, Goleman has a few ideas. Don't bring old grievances into a disagreement, he says; ignore the other person's hostility and listen to the point. It can be valuable to "mirror" a partner's complaint by repeating it in your own words and acknowledging what has been said, even if you don't agree.
Goleman recommends acknow- ledging when you are wrong. Reibstein agrees, adding that for happy couples, compromise was not seen as a loss of face, but part of what had to be done. "Partners acknowledge if they do it one time, their spouse will do it another."
Remembering to "stroke" our marriages is vital, say the experts. Talk about the things you value in the relationship and in your partner. Do it as part of happy times, and also bear in mind that it's an aid to healing. Judith Wallenstein, who studied 50 happy couples for her book The Good Marriage (Transworld), compares it to a building under construction.
"The couples regarded their marriage as a work in progress that needed continued attention lest it fall into disrepair," she says. "There were serious differences - conflict, anger, even some infidelity - along the way. But all viewed the satisfactions as far outweighing the frustrations in the long run."
Not surprisingly, infidelity is one of the thorniest issues to be tackled in a marriage and Reibstein, who is co-author of Sexual Arrangements (Mandarin), a study of the impact of unfaithfulness on relationships, says there are generally two outcomes. "It may be that the broken trust cannot be overcome, even if the hurt partner believes intellectually that they can get over what happened. If the pain is reactivated all the time by remaining with the unfaithful person, the marriage is unlikely to survive. And of course the outcome will probably also depend on how serious the affair or incident was.
"But sometimes an infidelity can bring a couple closer together. In one marriage I have surveyed the partner who was unfaithful realised how much distress he had caused his wife and that he was in danger of losing her. He made this clear and she was able to see that this incident had moved the relationship on from not really being very committed to a very definite commitment." But she adds: "Infidelity always has some impact. It changes the way people are together and that is often a dangerous thing."
Wallenstein looked at marriages which had lasted between 10 and 40 years and she believes we need to think in terms of tasks. "Marriage is about asking constant questions, examining the relationship and looking at where it may need to be adjusted," she says.
At the start of marriage both partners need to detach emotionally from their childhood family and make a clear commitment to the family they are setting out to create, says Wallenstein. With the arrival of children they need to recognise that things will change - marital satisfaction drops substantially after the birth of a child. Couples frequently find it difficult to make time and emotional space to nurture their relationship, but it is very important to do so. A sex life which both find pleasurable on whatever level is important, Wallenstein says firmly, and couples do well to try to find a time for this, protected from the stresses of work and family life.
There is much sense in what the experts suggest. Reibstein says: "I have been quite dewy-eyed listening to my happy couples. They have found a way of being so caring of each other." But will people find the approach too practical? Does it sound too much like a tough job - when the romantic dream is what fuels the desire to marry? Mansfield hopes not. She says her study has shown how many couples have grown closer by negotiating adversity, recognising that giving up independence to become inter-dependent was worthwhile. Instead of crying over the loss of romance, they talked about how much they valued being in a partnership. "They'd learned that happy ever after doesn't come just because you love someone," she says, "but that you have the power to create a successful marriage."
WHAT MAKES A GOOD MARRIAGE: THE EXPERTS SAY ...
Romance and passion are less important than mutual goodwill - the feeling of being "in this together"
Compromise is the key: problems are seen as something to sort out together. Neither of you "loses face"
Don't attach importance to proving you are right. Learn how to back down
Stonewalling is a killer - keep talking
Understand what makes your partner tick - especially when they do things you don't like
Stick to the point in rows - don't drag up ancient history or assassinate your partner's character
'Stroke' your marriage: talk about what you value in each other (in happy times, not just after arguments)
Infidelity is dangerous - it changes the way you are together
Detach emotionally from your childhood family
Good sex is important - and make time together just for yourselves
John Stapleton, 50, TV presenter , married to Lynn Faulds-Wood for 19 years: The important things are patience, tolerance and perseverance. Patience to walk away during an argument, tolerance (of which Lynn has truck-loads), perseverance to keep going against the odds, and support. You also need friendship. Kids help - to remind you at the end of the day that they are the most important thing.'
Annabella Rowe, 38, designer, living with boyfriend: Good friends make a good marriage. And not marrying a northerner if you're a southerner.
Robin Crowther, 23, secretary, single: A good kitchen. A kitchen is the central core of the house and therefore the marriage. If you haven't got a good kitchen, you can't eat together, you can't communicate.
Sandra Boler, editor Brides magazine, married 27 years: No one can really tell you what makes a good marriage. Personally I think it's an absolute loving commitment to a lifetime partnership. You have to attempt to stay on the same side of the fence in arguments or in anything, and you have to remember to ask yourself during the most difficult times if you are on the same side. I believe in marriage, especially where children are concerned.
Kieran Conry, 45, catholic priest for 21 years: Communication. When a marriage breaks down it is usually because people have stopped communicating. And there should be more investment in preparing people for marriage. It is probably one of the most important steps they take in their lives so they should be more careful about going ahead with it.
Jack Wright, 30, magazine editor, single: Mutual trust, honesty and sharing a sense of humour. Having different interests and the understanding to let your partner do other things that don't involve you, that will show the security of a relationship. There needs to be some sexual chemistry. And dogs are important.
Jenny Nolan, 54, housewife and mother, married for 30 years: Give and take, that's what it is. You have to be yourselves but still do things together. You have to have your own interests and make sure you talk things over if there's anything wrong.
Kate Dale, 24, PA, single: Solid friendship, you have to have a strong foundation.
Emma Lyle, 28, bridal shop assistant, single: A bloody good sex life. No, but really I'm sure it helps. And you'd have to like each other to get on and make it last after the sex has gone.
Joyce Smithson, 50, nursery teacher, married 27 years: A sense of humour - if you can make each other laugh and have fun it helps. And compromise, that's the other thing. You've got to be individuals within the framework of the marriage and have shared interests too. Ben Bowden, 23, trainee barrister, married one year: You have to have enough love, sex andReuse content