Popping the question used to involve a suitor going down on one knee to ask his beloved: "Will you marry me?" Today, according to Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, he would be forgiven for declaring: "Why marry at all, darling. What's the point?"
Dame Butler-Sloss, former president of the High Court Family Division, last week criticised the Government for failing to help married couples. She said tax incentives had been stripped away so that people who cohabit are often better off. Add record levels of divorce and its cost, the outlay for a wedding and the erosion of social stigma to having children outside marriage and really, is it worth it?
More people are deciding not. There were 65 per cent fewer marriages in 2003 than in 1970. Talk to lawyers and a stark picture emerges: financially, marriage is more likely to benefit the woman than the man as she is more likely to earn less and take time out to bring up children. But that will change as more women become breadwinners.
The primary child carer - usually the mother - is vulnerable after a break-up if the couple are unmarried, says Mark Heselton, a family lawyer at Vanderpump & Sykes. "Where they're married, the Matrimonial Causes Act gives a framework of issues that have to be looked at in drawing up a financial agreement, including the needs and resources of both parties and how long they were together," he says. "But where a couple who have lived together split, the court has no requirement to look at future need."
When children are involved there are extra Children Act safeguards. These, for example, may keep the mother in the family home until the children are out of full-time education, but make no provision for maintenance for the partner herself. The situation is under review but changes may be years away.
Divorce isn't, of course, inevitable: death, on the other hand, is. So an accountant's advice will invariably be to marry to avoid paying inheritance tax when one of you dies. "If you jointly own a house worth more than about £550,000 but aren't married, you'll pay inheritance tax on it if your partner dies," says Geoff Taylor, a partner at Streets Tax.
Since independent taxation began in the 1980s there has been no advantage to married people in tax bands or allowances. Marriage can benefit wealthier couples who can shift assets to take advantage of the tax allowances of a non-earning partner, while unmarried couples cannot. Such benefits as family tax credits are the same for couples whether wed or not.
Marriage isn't all about money. Research seems to prove that married life is healthier, that married people live longer and are happier. A new study last month even found that marriage helps ward off flu, spouses having more antibodies in their blood. But critics say most of these studies fail to compare long-term cohabiting couples. "There's nothing to suggest advantages to your health and well-being if you're in a married as opposed to a cohabiting relationship," says Dr Janet Empson, psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University. Except, of course, that statistically a married relationship is likely to survive longer than a cohabiting one. Which most of us - including Dame Butler-Sloss, who also criticised people for giving up on marriage too easily - would agree is a good thing, especially where children are concerned.
So does being married make a couple work harder to stick at a relationship? Alex Gardner, a Glasgow psychologist, thinks so. He says building up a marriage is like maintaining a property. The vital ingredients, he says, are passion, commitment, and intimacy. And somehow, he believes, when you've got it all written down in black and white and you can't just walk away from the relationship without at very least signing some legal documents, it does make many people try that bit harder to make the relationship work.
For relationship psychologist Paula Hall of Relate, the advantage of marriage is for the children. "If you're the child in the class whose parents aren't married, you're still the unusual one," she says.
It may be that fitting in and being like other people is still one of the strongest incentives for tying the knot.
I do: Jilly Cooper, Novelist
Jilly Cooper, 68, novelist, married Leo, 71, a publisher, in 1961.
I think marriage is absolutely marvellous, a real pleasure. It's like building a cathedral, brick by brick, slowly at first, until you've created this wonderful edifice. Nobody could ever pose as one of our partners. Leo and I have so many private jokes and understandings that have built up over more than 40 years. But you cannot deny that there are going to be ups and downs. It's like rowing a small boat in a huge ocean. There may be big storms but then you might see a ravishing sunset or the odd whale.
People today have got to try harder at marriage. I suppose it's because they suffer from remote control syndrome. We didn't have as much choice when we were younger, only two channels. People are also too romantic. The young want fairytale romance terribly badly.
I don't believe people should stay in a terrible marriage, but people who care for each other should stick together like glue. A good marriage doesn't have to spring from the bed, it springs from laughter in the mornings in bed, a late-night giggle after a party. It's about companionship.
I don't: Marcelle d'Argy Smith, Broadcaster
Marcelle d'Argy Smith, 57, former editor of 'Cosmopolitan'
I never thought that "Mrs" sounded particularly attractive. I love being in love and I know that I definitely wanted some of the men I was in love with to ask me to marry them, I just didn't want to get married. And it took a psychiatrist to point that out.
I guess I felt marriage involved too many compromises, and I never wanted children. I don't like domesticity and loathe routine. I also never had the kind of love affairs that involved men you could drag down the aisle.
Some of my friends are very happily married. Some have hellish marriages and I don't know how they stay with it. I used to be stunned when married friends told me about how they would roll over and have sex but not want to. If you are single, you either have great sex or no sex.
I suppose when marriage works, it offers people a degree of protection against the outside world. I have always been pretty good at looking after myself.
If I could roll eight men into one - one for humour, another for charm etc - that would be great. But I don't think you can have a man for all seasons.
I did, I did, I did: Shirley Conran, Author
Shirley Conran, 73, best-selling author, married and divorced three times
When I got married the first time, to Terence, I was 23 years old and my expectations were that it would last forever. I expected him to be faithful, which is a ludicrous expectation. You could argue with anyone that marriage ceremony vows are impossible to keep. What I have found out over 50 years is that it's not the infidelity but the treachery that makes a woman feel so awful.
Every time the ring went on my finger, I changed into a doormat. The reason for that is centuries, or even millennia, of indoctrination. If you behave like a doormat you are going to resent that person for treating you like a doormat. I believe that having a child or even buying a house can be more binding than marriage. I also found marriage very expensive. My career dived when I was in a marriage and climbed when I was out of a marriage.
I wanted to be an independent and creative person in my marriages but I found myself in Laura Ashley dresses trying to bake bread. I'm either dreadful to be married to or I pick the wrong men, I'm not sure which.
I did: Bel Mooney, Writer
Bel Mooney, 58, writer and agony aunt, separated two years ago from the presenter Jonathan Dimbleby, after 35 years.
I am part of a generation that assumed we were going to get married. My husband and I had only known each other for three months and were madly in love. There was no engagement and even then, it was a brave thing to do - we were pretty unusual.
There was some chafing against the institution of marriage later on and there were difficult times in the 1970s. But the reason for any marriage lasting so long is a feeling that the person is the love of your life and you want to grow old with them. To have a long marriage, what is required is absolute friendship and real conversation. I think that is the crux of it.
My situation has not affected my views on marriage. Earthquakes happen. My husband met someone else. Things change. But I feel that the reasons I married him are still true. If you can get through bad times, you eventually reach a wonderful plateau of mutual acceptance. What I've learnt recently is that for me, loving somebody properly is also letting them go with dignity.
I kind of did: Michael Holroyd, Biographer
Michael Holroyd, 70, biographer, has been married to the writer Margaret Drabble, 66, for 23 years, 13 of which were spent living apart.
Marriage is very, very good when it works and it is pity when it doesn't. People should be free to find out whether marriage is something that suits them. I didn't get married until I was in my forties in 1982. Cowardice, poverty and selfishness probably stopped me from marrying sooner - and perhaps a lack of confidence. I would have become too hermit-like if I hadn't married Maggie. For a time I kept my flat and she kept her house. But we were only 20 minutes away and not apart for more than 24 hours. It felt absolutely natural and many people envied our situation. However happy you may be together, one needs some time apart, particularly as we're both writers. The best aspect of marriage is that it stops you from getting into iron-hard habits with your own selfishness. The most difficult aspect is getting out of those habits. When I was younger I always thought that I would never marry, never drive a car and never write a book. I'm happy to say I've managed all three over the years."
I just did: Vic Reeves, Comedian
Vic Reeves, 46, the comedian, married his second wife, model Nancy Sorrell, 30, three years ago. She is expecting twins.
Just when Iresigned myself to the possibility of never meeting anyone that I met Nancy. We'd asked two models to come in to play a couple of parts. I spent the whole day talking to Nancy. We just really hit it off. Every day for three months I looked at her picture until I called her. I knew straight away I wanted to marry her. she did too, but she was the sensible one and we waited a while.
There seems to be a sense of malaise and laziness penetrating the nation. It's not just in marriage: it's work and other aspects of life too.
People get married thinking it won't be a big deal to get out of if it doesn't work. In my youth it was unheard of for parents to divorce. Today it's so much easier to divorce. It's become quite a dissolute environment to live in. To make a marriage work, you need to have mutual respect and an ability to understand your partner's likings. Nancy likes soap operas and I never watched them before I met her but I like them now. You need compassion, humour and constant laughter.
I'm about to: Lembit Opik, Politician
Lembit Opik, 40, the Lib Dem MP for Montgomeryshire, is engaged to Sian Lloyd, 44, the ITV weather presenter. They are planning to marry next year.
I did not take the decision to marry lightly. People don't think about the consequences enough. It is frequently a long-term decision taken in a short-term way. People end up married and they don't like it. Or, worse, they think they can change the person they are marrying into someone else - an act of magnificent folly that is destined to fail. Sian and I are not like schoolkids. Speaking for myself, I have tried to avoid these pitfalls. I feel that in life, what you see is what you get. You need patience but you also have to accept that marriage is always a big gamble. It doesn't have to be perfect: it has to be good enough to withstand major overhauls.
A lot of people don't enter marriage with reverence and respect. Instead of driving into the sunset they're on the roadside waiting for AA to come - Altercations Anonymous.
The dangers of gold digging should be remembered. I have seen people who have been stung. Pre-nuptial agreements should be clarified.
In 2003 there were 306,200 marriages in the UK, up 4.5 per cent on 2002. But the longer-term trend is down - by 24 per cent since 1981.
In 2004 there were 167,116 divorces - up from 166,737 in 2003. In 1981, it was 156,400.
The average length of a marriage is 11.5 years; the average length of a cohabiting relationship is three.
The average wedding costs £16,500.
In October Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of the WWP advertising empire, was ordered to pay nearly £30m to his former wife Sandra - a record deal for a UK couple.
The average age at divorce for a man is 42.7 years; for a woman, 40.2 years.Reuse content