Marriage: why do we still bother?

After all, it's absurdly quick, it makes little legal difference and it often doesn't last. Geraldine Bedell reports

The bride wore black, and Doc Marten boots. Her family didn't attend, and neither did the groom's. There was no reception, and no honeymoon either.

Ayesha and Richard Granville married at 2pm last Thursday in the municipal splendour of Westminster register office. Ayesha is 21, her husband 23, and they have known each other five years, for much of which they have been living together.

This wedding was short on conventional symbolism. Ayesha and Richard weren't declaring a lifelong commitment to one another in the presence of their friends and family, because friends and family weren't there. They weren't leaving one family and establishing another, because they'd already done it. Their parents were alive, but Ayesha hadn't spoken to hers, she said, "for some time".

In common with all the weddings at Westminster register office that afternoon, this one involved a bride and groom who were already living together, and, by way of guests, only the two statutory witnesses. Such resolute privacy seems scarcely worth the effort: you could announce your lasting love and commitment to your best friends in your kitchen. Yet last week, the Registrar General announced a new and optional form of words which will make the marriage ceremony shorter and simpler still. One wonders, in such circumstances, why anybody, any longer, bothers at all.

It is not as if nowadays there is any stigma attached to cohabiting. Sixty per cent of people in Britain say they would advise a couple to live together as a prelude to marriage. One in three children is born out of wedlock, the majority to cohabiting couples.

And marriage as an institution is manifestly in a mess. Scarcely a month passes without some celebrity infidelity or divorce. That one in three marriages ends in divorce is probably the most bandied about statistic in modern Britain. And the established church's attitude is, at best, equivocal, at worst completely confusing. "Living in sin" is no longer regarded as a sin. Divorced people may sometimes marry in church. And in the course of a recent attempt to assert that ending a marriage is quite simply wrong, the Archbishop of Canterbury found himself unable to extend his condemnation to the Prince and Princess of Wales.

With the long-term prospects so poor, it might seem preferable not to formalise relationships, so as to avoid the nasty complications and form- filling when they fail. Even the legal and financial distinctions between being married and cohabiting can be circumvented. According to David Hodson, a partner in the Family Law Consortium, a practice of solicitors, mediators and counsellors, the chief difference is that when a cohabitation breaks down, there is no entitlement to alimony. "The court looks only at property rights, so if a man already has a mortgage when a woman moves in and she doesn't get her name put on and doesn't contribute financially, she can find herself homeless," he said. This relatively uncommon situation usually occurs when the woman is caring for children, in which case she can seek an order to stay in the family home until the youngest child is 18.

Cohabitees can suffer in terms of inheritance, but even this disadvantage disappears if there's a will. Children have to be paid for by both parents according to their means, regardless of marital status. While unmarried fathers don't have automatic parental responsibility (for decisions about such matters as the child's health and education), in practice this rarely becomes a matter of dispute.

Altogether, the trend in family law - significantly no longer called divorce law - for at least the past two decades, has been to safeguard the rights of family members, especially children, regardless of marital status. Brenda Hoggett, a judge on the family division of the High Court, and one of the authors of the Law Commission's 1990 report on family law, sums up the way things are going: "Logically, we have already reached a point at which ... we should be considering whether the legal institution of marriage continues to serve any useful purpose."

Modern marriage doesn't even confer status in the way it once did. In the 1950s and 1960s, being married meant being valued - as a provider if you were a man, as a homemaker if you were a woman. The wedding was a rite of passage to adulthood and a home away from your parents.

Today people get married later, and are quite likely to have lived on their own or with at least one partner beforehand. Marriage is not now valued primarily for providing roles, but for supplying companionship, intimacy, sex, respect. Its values are increasingly private and personal. Yet people still do it. The only possible conclusion is that it must answer some deep-seated emotional need.

The television presenter Floella Benjamin (married to Keith Taylor for 15 years) believes this need is felt primarily, and acutely, by children. "Keith and I had been together for 10 years when we decided we were the right partners to have children with - and then we married, because I think children's greatest fear is that their parents will split up. The security is stronger if there is a marriage.

"It was a hard-headed decision, something we did for our children and that they know is all about them. You can't afford to be airy-fairy about it. Two people can have a wonderful relationship, but you have to ask yourself very seriously whether it's going to provide the right setting for children. I work with charities that deal with children who are on a treadmill of unhappiness, and I wish more people thought about this beforehand."

This kind of rationality is rare. On the steps of Westminster register office, Ayesha says she wanted to get married "because we love each other and I want to be with him forever". But surely she could do that anyway? "It's complete commitment. It's different from living with each other."

In her case, marriage is a way of sealing the relationship in the face of parental disapproval. But her response suggests one drawback for those who consciously decide to cohabit. People marry partly because, like Everest, marriage is simply there. Not to marry can seem like an inferior commitment.

You know where you are with marriage; you know, at least, what its aspirations are. Cohabitation can take troublingly different forms. It can be temporary. It can be doubtful. It can be a way of avoiding a decision. If you are a committed cohabitee how do you distinguish yourself from all the flaky partnerships out there? Committed cohabitee sounds, incidentally, suspiciously like an oxymoron: if you want to stay with the other person, and if marriage and cohabiting aren't so different, why not get the piece of paper like the other four-fifths of the population? Marriage may be rooted in a property contract that was once profoundly discriminatory to women, but it isn't like that now. Taking a stand against marriage can look like faintly absurd, old-fashioned political attitudinising.

For PR guru Max Clifford, who will have been married for 30 years in 1997, "getting married was a way of setting out our stall. Not that there was any question of not doing it; it was more the done thing then. It was an event which had significance: the service, the reception, the honeymoon. It felt natural and right. And my views would be exactly the same now. Good luck to those who live together - if my daughter wanted to do it, so be it - but for us it represented commitment, and it still does.I'd be the same now."

The voluntary nature of contemporary marriage arguably heightens its value. Yet it seems likely that some social pressures still obtain. Sharon Breen of the marriage and partnership research organisation One Plus One says cohabiting couples frequently decide to marry when their first child starts school, or when they're expecting the second. Most people, it seems, are eventually bounced into acknowledging that their relationship, however passionate and personal, eventually also acquires a social and institutional character. Couples grow older, and more tolerant of convention.

Then however, they have to decide how to do it. One of the obstacles to marrying may be the uncertainty of pulling off a wedding that will do justice to the relationship. The way couples choose to celebrate can say a lot about their reasons for marrying.

Margret Kuiphas got married last week in leggings and a borrowed orange silk jacket. She looked for a dress, but she's six-and-a-half months pregnant so none of the nice ones fitted. She and her boyfriend Wim Smeenk, who live in Utrecht in the Netherlands, had been planning to come to Britain anyway for their friend David's big wedding (marquee, pounds 1,800 dress). When he called it off three months ago, Margret and Wim thought they'd still come over and fit in a wedding, but make it their own.

"We're only doing it because I'm pregnant; it makes a slight legal difference in Holland," Margret said. They have known each other 13 years, and seemed very relaxed beforehand, but when Wim stumbled over the pronunciation of "I do solemnly declare", they collapsed into giggles that suggested that something rather more anxious and far-reaching was going on than the acquisition of a piece of paper.

Ayesha and Richard married quietly to flout tradition and their parents. Wim and Margret married quietly because they wanted to minimise the distinction between their previous contented cohabitation and marriage. But most people still see marriage as a rite of passage, to be witnessed by family and friends, conducted as grandly and seriously as possible. This accounts for the continued popularity of church weddings (slightly fewer than 50 per cent of all marriages are conducted in church) in a largely irreligious population. In a recent survey by One Plus One of couples who had married in church, only a few were regular churchgoers. The rest were seeking ritual, the language of the prayerbook, and a sense of the uniqueness - and, in a vague way, the sacredness - of the occasion.

There may, however, be fewer church weddings in the future, now that it's possible to marry in one of more than 1,000 buildings licensed by a local authority. Couples can also marry in the register office of their choice. Westminster, which has a grand room into which to make an entrance, plus lots of marble and wood panelling, has seen its weddings rise from 1,350 two years ago to an anticipated 2,000 this year.

Alison Cathcart, Westminster's chief superintendent registrar, says the trend is increasingly towards personalised weddings, with music and poetry: Shakespeare's sonnets and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" are particularly popular. She's had a string quartet, a jazz band and even a one-man band.

Though it may not be strictly a legal event, you can also do the whole thing yourself - your own words, your own music. Georgia Chamberlain and George Banks-Martin are marrying in two weeks in the garden of Georgia's parents' Queen Anne house in the Forest of Dean. "We're having a humanist celebrant, because that's the only way we could have exactly what we wanted," Georgia says. "We'll do the legal bit on Friday afternoon - we're trying to make that as unimportant as possible - and then we won't see each other until the wedding on Saturday. "We've written the words and we're both musicians so there's a lot of music. We've asked all our friends to bring their instruments. People keep remarking how unconventional this is, but I think it's about as traditional as you can get: at my home, where I grew up, surrounded by family."

Georgia and George are marrying for themselves and not under pressure from parents, but have found the decision to marry "has changed people's perceptions of our relationship". And maybe this helps to explaining why marriage remains such a potent idea: it makes everyone feel good.

Long-term relationships are plagued by paradox. We expect to be sexually experienced before we "settle down", but then to be faithful. We make so many demands of intimate relationships, it's almost as if we want them to fail. We try to create stable families in an individualistic atmosphere that militates against them. Getting married can be a way of ignoring these difficulties, of substituting them with a fantasy. But it can also be a celebration of mutual commitment to find a way through them.

Getting married is a crazy, profligate thing to do - a promise which is unconditional: not predicated on your partner's behaviour or assets, but for better for worse, for richer for poorer. It's not a contract (no sane person would ever sign a contract like this) but a covenant; a commitment to unstinting generosity and nothing less than unqualified devotion: rash, heroic and inspiring.

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