Terence Blacker: Marriage isn't always the ideal state

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The Independent Online

It has been an excellent summer so far for the Smug Marrieds. Those grim representatives of connubial bliss, invented by Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones during the 1990s, will have been delighted to read the various pro-matrimony reports and surveys of recent weeks. First, Iain Duncan Smith re-affirmed the Tories' commitment to the institution of marriage, arguing that the privileges and legal protections it provides should not be extended to those who live together. Then a Swedish study, reported in the British Medical Journal, revealed that various forms of stress are likely to increase a person's vulnerability to Alzheimer's disease later in life. It was the grim long-term mental effects of divorce which were given the headline treatment.

More good news for the Smug Marrieds has been published this week. A survey conducted by the University of Chicago into people in their 50s suggested that people who have been divorced were 20 per cent more likely to contract chronic diseases like cancer. Even those who remarry are 12 per cent more at risk of serious illness than those who remain married. It seems that the damage, once done, is pretty much beyond repair.

There is a whiff of self-satisfaction, almost of cruelty, in the way these surveys have been reported and in the moralising editorials they have prompted. Like a distant echo from the unhappy 1950s, marriage is presented as not only better and more socially responsible than other options, but better for you, too.

At the start of our adult life, says the University of Chicago report, we each have a "health stock" which will be depleted by stresses involved in becoming divorced. The survey may be scientifically valid (although the selection as a sample of people of certain age raises all sorts of questions), but it is presenting a partial view. There are other stocks in human nature – of adventurousness, of a capacity for change and development.

Only a callous idiot will not be profoundly affected when his or her marriage unravels, particularly if children are involved. The sense of failure, and often guilt, is there for life.

The problem with the simplistic and pious way that marriage tends to be presented in the media is that it makes what is already a horrible situation far worse. The easy deployment of words of judgement like "selfish", "casual" and "dumped" adds unpardonably to the stress and the misery.

Too often, hypocrisy attends pronouncements about marriage and about those who fall short of its ideas. Adulterous politicians argue sternly on behalf of the family. Divorced priests thunder warnings about the importance of lifelong commitment. Surely it is time to admit that, after the unhappiness, divorce can represent for many people a second chance, an opportunity for renewal. A personal earthquake may shatter a personal landscape but what emerges from it can be good and positive. It is heartless and unimaginative to present matrimony as a source of solidity and health, somehow innately superior to a life outside marriage.

There are signs that, not before time, the generations coming through have a more balanced and grown-up approach to these matters than their parents and grandparents. They meet, they live together, sometimes they have children; if it suits them, they might finally marry. According to the Office for National Statistics, rates of divorce are decreasing – in 2007, the figures were the lowest for 26 years.

There is more to marriage, people are beginning to understand, than legal protection, the approval of respectable society, and the vague possibility of improved health in later life.

Why did you have to betray me, Cliff?

If ever there were a case for bugging a celebrity's phone in the manner said to have been used by the News Of The World, that celebrity would have to be Sir Cliff Richard. Surely somewhere in his private life there must be a scandal to make him a little bit more interesting, a little less plastic, than the ghastly smiling image he presents to the world.

Joking in that amiable, pearly-toothed way of his, Sir Cliff has claimed he is "the most radical rock-and-roll singer Britain has ever seen. I was the one who didn't spit or swear or sleep around... I didn't do drugs. I didn't get drunk. I didn't indulge in soulless sex."

It is faintly nauseating, this sanctimoniousness. As someone who bought Cliff's early records, when he was marketed precisely as a spitting, smoking, soulless-sex kind of rock star, I feel personally betrayed by his tiresome, self-promoting saintliness. He is a reminder of the gullibility of youth.

If this helps tackle teen pregnancy, then good

A slightly creepy preoccupation with virginity has become evident recently. Bizarre stories about maidenhood auctions being conducted online have appeared in the press. The high-profile boy band the Jonas Brothers have proudly showed off their purity rings.

Now the BBC is playing its part with the documentary Sex: My Big Decision, which follows Shauny, a girl of 15, as she tries to make up her mind whether to have sex with her boyfriend. There are discussions with boys, with her best friend and her mother; a Dutch sexologist is consulted. It all sounds rather dubious, but Britain is famously bad at providing teenagers with sensible information about sex, and has woefully high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease as a result.

There will probably be a row but it sounds precisely the sort of lightly disguised educational programme BBC3 should be doing.

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