Harriet Walker: Don’t blame Hello! for the decline of marriage

Coleridge’s view of marriage is no less evangelical, albeit more Gradgrind and less glitter

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Few of us, except those who end up on the wrong side of the law or on the reality show Judge Judy, expect to find ourselves staring up at an august, bewigged member of the judiciary intoning his remedies for our own personal flaws. But with the launch of Sir Paul Coleridge's foundation to promote and extol the virtues of marrying – and of staying married, more importantly – we're all in the dock, gazing balefully at him as we twiddle our wedding rings or re-adjust our forlorn and bruised hopes of meeting Prince or Princess Charming and having a happily ever after.

"This is not a moral crusade," Coleridge told Radio Four yesterday, "it's a health campaign. The impact [of divorce] on the whole of society is real and dramatic... We need to... re-evaluate long-term relationships, and their value and their difficulties."

He points to the importance of a stable domestic background in the development of children, citing crime rates, unemployment and community tensions as products of divorced parents and broken homes. But he doesn't refer to the easy cohesion and pragmatic, quotidian bonds that cohabitation, civil partnerships and joint bank accounts can bring. Nor does he speak about the loaded misery and debilitating unhappiness of remaining in a bad marriage – a self-immolating act that will just as surely poison the minds of yourself, your spouse and any children you happen to have had.

Coleridge's view is one of a plague doctor, arriving in all his ceremonial garb and applying a poultice to your foot while one of your arms falls off. The solution to all these problems and more is to work on the individuals who might one day sleep in the marital bed, rather than forcing us all into it and shutting the door so that the conjugal necessaries can take place.

The status of marriage in society is constantly under scrutiny, from lawmakers and lovers alike, and it occupies a strange mid-point in the socio-political landscape somewhere between being crucial and utterly irrelevant. (Other inhabitants of this particular region include Cornflakes and yoga.) Marriage is something we're all programmed to want, but nobody has told us with any conviction how or why it should actually fit into our lives.

As women become financially independent, they have no reason – let alone desire – to settle for the schmoe who once treated them nicely when they were 16. We can go off and do other things. But the spectre of marriage haunts us more ruthlessly than it does men, and the tabloids tell us that being single gives you cancer. As for the blokes – well, they don't have to marry at all. Why should they? What's in it for them? Some people just want to be happy, while others think the grass will always be greener elsewhere. And that's hardly the foundation for any sort of long-lasting union.

Sir Paul Coleridge emphasises that he is not preaching but offering help to those who might otherwise throw in the towel, but his reasons do not feel good enough for us to bother taking him up on it. He blames the glossy weddings celebrated in Hello! magazine for fetishising marriage into a glorious day of partying followed by a vision of sweet nothings until we end our days.

But Coleridge's view of marriage is no less evangelical, albeit more Gradgrind and with less glitter. The problem is that getting married has just become a nice thing to do, a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity. Strictly speaking, nobody needs to anymore. Having a child with someone is the biggest commitment you can make these days, whether you're married or not, and if that doesn't keep you together then very little else will, regardless of how much counselling or how many bleak statistics Sir Paul can give you. I can't imagine that any parent would rather bring up a child on their own than with some like-minded soul – divorce remains, in these cases, a final solution.

Having laid so many social ills at the feet of separated and unmarried parents, Coleridge has failed to consider the bigger picture. Many of the problems he invokes are products of a breakdown in community that goes much further than simply whether people tie the knot or not. Wealth distribution; gender inequality; general mistrust of one another. People do not know their neighbours; we have lost any sort of collective conscience; we are all out for as much as we can get for a little as we can be bothered to put in.

The cult of the individual is such that we can, both literally and metaphorically, afford to look after number one, and we are not used to sacrificing that for the greater good anymore. So politicians, and now those in charge of our moral rectitude, telling us that we should – telling us to get wed for the good of society – feels hackneyed and out of date. And it only perpetuates an outmoded cycle of doing what we think we want because we feel we should. The cult of marriage is more dangerous than marriage itself, when you consider in how many instances it goes wrong.

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