To love, honour - and divorce?

Love is in the air this weekend with the celebrity marriage of Matthew Freud to Elisabeth Murdoch. But with gloomy divorce figures due this week, why do they do it?
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The Independent Online

Is love, as the song says, even lovelier the second time around? Elisabeth Murdoch and Matthew Freud seemed to think so when they celebrated their wedding with a lavish party in Oxfordshire yesterday. The bash, dubbed the media event of the year, followed a traditional, very English wedding on Friday. The bride wore white, the ceremony was in a country chapel, and the marriage was announced in The Times. Except that the bride is worth £50m, the chapel was in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, and Daddy owns The Times.

For both Elisabeth, a television production executive and daughter of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and PR guru Matthew Freud, son of former MP Sir Clement and descendant of psychoanalyst Sigmund, it was a second marriage. That didn't deter them from marking the event with a religious ceremony on Friday night, and an intimate gathering for 60 closest family and friends, as well as a barbecue and reception for 150 guests in the grounds of Blenheim Palace yesterday.

Among those on the guest list were singers Geri Halliwell and Billie Piper, together with her husband Chris Evans, and various tabloid editors employed by the father of the bride. Then there was the man who knows all about weddings, Richard Curtis, the scriptwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, who is married to Matthew's sister, the TV presenter Emma Freud, not to mention the two Mrs Rupert Murdochs – Elisabeth's mother Anna Murdoch Mann, and the woman she blames for the break-up of her marriage, Wendi Deng, now pregnant with her first child by husband Rupert.

While the Freud-Murdoch nuptials continued, just a few miles away in Oxford, at the nearest register office to Blenheim, we spoke to other couples who were displaying that curious combination which marks marriage in Britain today – an almost reckless optimism about their chances of happiness, together with a certain degree of caution. Despite all the figures showing how difficult it is to make a marriage last – and this week the latest divorce figures will show a slight rise on the previous year – the number of marriages seems to hold fairly steady. In 1999, 263,515 couples tied the knot, compared with 267,303 in 1998. At the same time, 144,556 marriages came to an end in 1999, making us the divorce capital of Europe. But as the new Mr and Mrs Freud show, people once bitten are not necessarily twice shy when it comes to marriage. Those who've done it once often try again.

Where caution is apparent is in the growing popularity of pre-nuptial agreements. According to a survey of Britain's divorce lawyers, the past 12 months have seen an unprecedented rise in demand for pre-marital contracts that attempt to safeguard property, cars and bank accounts obtained before marriage.

For years, such agreements have been the preserve of wealthy Americans and celebrities such as Boris and Barbara Becker and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. But a study by the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA), reveals a 25 per cent increase in people asking lawyers to draw up a contract. Many of the requests come from bridegrooms secretly arranging pre-nuptial contracts – and then springing them on unsuspecting fiancées days before the wedding.

"Many clients were interested in the idea as a result of media reports," said the study. "They wanted to protect their assets acquired before marriage from a future claim by their spouse should they divorce.

"Many spouses-to-be didn't know that their fiancé was taking advice. One lawyer reported that some female spouses weren't happy with the idea but were going along with it."

The number of people arranging pre-nuptial agreements – although growing – remains small, not least because the contracts are not actually legally binding in this country. Nevertheless, the courts can take them into account when dividing up the spoils during divorce negotiations.

Andrew Newbury, SFLA national committee member, said Britons were still "squeamish" about entering into a pre-marital contract. "There is something about the idea of pre-marital agreements which is out of step with British culture," he said. "If someone is contemplating making one, the chances are they'll put it off until quite soon before the wedding. Ironically, this means it is even less likely to be influential on the outcome if the marriage does end in divorce."

The Government has proposed that pre-marriage agreements should be legally binding – subject to certain safeguards – but it has not yet found time to introduce the necessary legislation. Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, has said that pre-nuptial agreements "could help to remove some of the grounds for conflict" in divorce cases.

Such agreements and their potential for helping find common ground during a divorce have become even more important now that the Government has decided to scrap its plans for no-fault divorces. Lord Irvine decided not to proceed with the main part of the Family Law Act 1996 after pilot schemes showed that the attempts to help couples with information meetings and mediation sessions, which would have helped them make arrangements about money and children, had only reinforced their desire for divorce. Instead, couples who want to divorce in less than two years will have to continue to prove that unreasonable behaviour is to blame.