Yesterday an article headlined "Why marriage leads to a long life" caught my eye. On reading that headline, one's first thought is inevitably the old joke: married people don't live longer – it just feels that way.
It wasn't so much the headline as the picture that drew me in. Why is it that all articles about marriage are illustrated with the same image? You know the one with a bride in a dazzling white dress and a groom in dapper morning suit. These model newlyweds are always emerging from a picturesque church into glorious sunshine, cheered on by a photogenic, confetti-throwing crowd.
Is that really a representative photo of the typical British wedding? If any picture editor wants to phone me, they'd be welcome to use one of my snaps, which I think are a lot more typical. They can choose from "odd-looking couple smile awkwardly in the drizzle amid random smokers on the registry office steps" or "drunk men attempt to re-create breakdance moves of their youth, broken chins ensue".
The article itself also felt like something I'd seen before. Newspapers often feature pieces that extol the health-giving virtues of matrimony. I never trust people who are evangelical about marriage. I presume it's because they're unhappily married themselves, and misery loves company. Maybe newspaper editorial meetings are like the scene in Tod Browning's Freaks where all the circus exhibits chant "gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us".
This particular take on how brilliant marriage is was based on an article in the Student BMJ. Doctors John and David Gallacher cited a European study that had found husbands and wives had 10 to 15 per cent lower mortality rates than the population as a whole. I suppose this could be taken to suggest that marriage improves one's health. As a cynic, I prefer to think that there are just lots of couples who hate each other so much that their attitude is "You just watch, I'll outlive you if it's the last thing I do!".
I'd also bet that, because these data deal with mortality rates, the study in question probably examined people who got married a while ago – presumably in the 1960s and 70s at the latest. I reckon things have changed, and I'm not so sure that marriage is that healthy any more.
Anecdotally, most of the couples I know who are the kind of middle-class types you might expect to be quite virtuous actually chuck back the booze like peasants with free milk. If single people from our generation are inclined to binge drink, marrieds do so even more – particularly if they have children. Most parents I know can put a child to bed with one hand and operate a corkscrew with the other. Then they inhale as much shiraz as is humanly possible in the window between little Iolanthe's bedtime and when they themselves drift off in front of the TV.
Even if single people are indulging in risky sexual activity, at least they're getting some exercise. Married people arrive home from work shattered, have a row and are barely able to manage a chaste cuddle before bed. And we have to work off a lot of calories. Before I was married I barely ate. Last week I made something from Nigella's kitchen that involved crumbling Crunchie bars into melted chocolate.
I suspect that in 30 years' time, studies will show that our generation of married people isn't really that healthy at all. Even if that's not the case, I don't really think that the health aspect of things dictates people's romantic choices. I've never heard anyone say they got married because it was that or join the gym. Personally, I don't think there's much to choose between the two. I've known divorces that were less messy than attempting to get released from a contract with the Virgin Active gym in Crouch End.
So much as I'd like to believe that I'm going to live longer because I'm married, I'm not going to bank on it. I'll just console myself with one of Nigella's Crunchie treats.