Amy Jenkins: Marriage is a skill to learn like any other

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The Independent Online

Marriage "has become like scaling Mount Everest, a sort of great moral endeavour", says David Willetts, shadow minister for the family – and what a marvelously truthful description that is. I shall treasure it.

The trouble is, David Willetts, having brilliantly observed this, now seems to think it's something we can somehow go back on. He talks of returning to the days when marriage was "just what you do in your twenties". It's true, marriage might not have been such a great moral endeavour when people (women mostly) were held inside it for fear of the poorhouse. But now that people have the choice to be single – yes – marriage is a great moral endeavour. That is just the way of it.

And that applies to any long-term cohabiting relationship. Committed intimacy is likely to be one of the most challenging things a person will attempt in a lifetime. I don't think it an exaggeration to say that we come up against our deepest fears in these relationships. If there's one thing psychologists agree on, it's that unresolved pain from our childhoods is played out and revisited in the families we build as adults.

This is true whether or not you have the official certificate. Unfortunately Willetts, who is preparing a Conservative green paper on the family, believes the evidence shows that married couples stay together longer than partners who just cohabit. So he's forming policy ideas designed to encourage formal marriage – as opposed to cohabitation.

But the research about marriage really tells us that wealth and education are the best indicators of the success of longstanding relationships. It's impossible to separate out the fact of whether or not a couple hold an actual marriage certificate from the overwhelming evidence that it's the better off who still tend to do the official thing, and it's the better off who manage to stay in their relationships – for entirely different reasons, nothing to do with the moth-balled wedding dress in the attic.

Jobs, decent accommodation, support from outside of the family, access to information and education, the ability to make use of social resources – these are the things that help couples to stay together. Which is why , despite the muddle in the underlying philosophy, some of the new Tory proposals are good ones. Willetts has been impressed by the work of the Bristol community family trust that provides relationship courses to a third of new mothers in the city. The arrival of the first child is often a moment that puts relationships under severe strain and many couples break up at this point and Willetts's paper is to propose relationship guidance given at the time of a civil marriage.

I think this is a great idea because relationship skills – like anything else – can be learnt. The other day I went to a free day of parenting training at my son's nursery. I was given some great tips, simple things to do and say that really make a difference.

And yet, when it comes to love relationships, we're still hampered as a society by the great noxious romantic myth – a pervasive idea that "love" should somehow triumph of its own accord and that if you're not getting on with your partner it's because he or she is not your "soul mate". Let's wake up to the fact that romance is there to sell movies and chocolates. Let's learn the skills that will help us climb the Everest of intimate relationships.

Have we really been that bad to you, Lily?

Lily Allen, the Noughties wunderkind, who rose to fame on the back of MySpace, blogs and downloads has renounced all technology. She says she's put away her BlackBerry, her laptop and her iPod. She's even listening to music on vinyl – and planning a two-year break. The reason? She's got a new boyfriend called Sam. "I want real life back. I want the normal things. I want to look after him. Cook, make stuff, just be there."

Oh Lily! After all those quirky, cocky lyrics, all that partying, all that wild child stuff, all that drinking lager on stage and being the female Liam Gallagher – you really want to retreat into domesticity and "sort out the bed linen"? Even worse, you say you're happy "being more of a lady". Lily, Lily – what has become of you? What have we done?

Well, of course, we've hounded you and teased you and shamed you and gone on and on about your weight. But, I mean, we loved you and bought your records too. Please don't be a lady. I'm sure that despite all the unforgivable things that have been done and said – no one really meant for you to meet quite such an appalling fate.

I'm sold on the idea of the novel as auction catalogue

Storytellers are always looking for new ways to explore the timeless theme of Love Gone Wrong, so well done to Leanne Shapton for writing a novel about a doomed four-year relationship in the form – quite literally – of an auction catalogue. The progress of the relationship is charted through the things the couple give each other, the notes they write, their emails – all of which are now on sale at Strachan & Quinn's imaginary auction.

Shapton got the idea when looking through a catalogue of Truman Capote's personal effects that were up for auction. She realised the lots read like a biography of the writer's life – that, in their own way, they told a touching story.

It's a great feat for a novelist to pull off something as contrived as this and the book rises above its meticulous obsession with things to deliver real insight and feeling. I just wonder whether this couple might not have fared better in their relationship if they hadn't lived in quite such agonies of taste.

I'm starting to really appreciate Nicolas Sarkozy. He's been slowly growing on me. In fact, I now think he's the best thing to come out of France since... since... (oh, I don't know – I can't think of anything good that's French) since forever, as they say. At any rate, since the croissant.

Sarkozy's party wants to ban French Muslim women from wearing the burka in public. Hooray. If we can't liberate Muslim women by example, let's do it by force of law – that's what I say. A hundred accolades to the French President for his refreshing disregard of political correctness. And he's good looking.

Nicolas Sarkozy – je t'aime.

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