John Updike, who died this week, and Richard Yates, the author of the novel on which the newly released film Revolutionary Road is based, were both sublime chroniclers of the difficulties and frustrations of modern marriage.
Updike, in his "Rabbit" books, charted at great and brilliant length the endurance of a struggling marriage through four decades. Revolutionary Road tells the story of a couple who experience disappointment and aloneness throughout their union. The message of both writers, if such art can be reduced to a "message", was simple – there is a huge gulf between what marriage promises and what it delivers.
Now it seems that the public resonates with this same message. According to the Office for National Statistics, next year will be the first since records began when unmarried couples outnumbered the married. On top of that, the ONS says we are heading imminently for a divorce rate of 50 per cent. Marriages are about to be in the minority, and divorces in the majority. The lifelong union that marriage once implied is now a rarity.
This collapse in marriage rates and rise in divorce – which took off in the 1970s – could originally be seen as a largely feminist and otherwise counter-cultural phenomenon. Not only was marriage seen by a whole generation of women as confining and patriarchal, it was also seen by men as "straight", old-fashioned and unnecessary. And if it didn't work out, "freedom" required that it simply be discarded.
The decline of religion in general has had a withering effect along with the more recent reality that the tax system penalises married couples by up to £5,000 a year. Furthermore, many men who have suffered punitive divorces – or who have recently witnessed large-scale settlements in favour of the wives of the super rich – are less keen than they once were to take what may be a very high-stakes risk.
Meanwhile, as the Government takes steps to make civil partnership and cohabiting as legally secure as marriage where children are involved, the need to possess a marriage certificate as legal protection dwindles for women, once seen as the more vulnerable sex and still most commonly the secondary earners. But I wonder if the deeper reality isn't simply that women and men are falling out of love with one another. Perhaps the great domestic challenge of the late 20th century – that of women and men stepping out of comfortable confinement and relating to one another as proper human beings and mature adults – can now be seen to have failed.
Here we begin to touch on areas where statistics cannot reach, but I am tempted to suggest that it is this intangible reality that is most markedly producing the slow death of marriage. As one frustrated friend of mine once said to me, as his marriage collapsed, "our generation just can't do this stuff any more". All the sacrifice, all the loyalty, all the putting the other person first is a foreign way of thinking to a more selfish, more materialist and – in the instances where they are part of the equation – a more child-orientated generation.
I was speaking to my 83-year-old father the other day about the only time I remember him losing his temper. He pinned my teenage brother by the neck against the wall and half throttled him. The scene has always remained etched in my mind, but I could never quite remember what my brother's mortal crime was. "He spoke rudely to your mother," my father informed me last week.
How different things are now. The loyalty of both parents so often seems to be to the children, not to one another. If my wife told me that our daughter had been rude to her, I would certainly not have found it a cause of physical assault. In fact, I would probably have found it vaguely amusing, and certainly profoundly commonplace. Apart from anything else, the whole "Wait till your father comes home" scenario just seems absurd nowadays.
Nowadays the adults have to fit in with the children's wishes, and not vice versa as it was when I was a child. (Of course I am rather unfairly presupposing that marriage implies children, but this is still the norm.) This backseat role for parents may well have produced happier children, but it may also have produced unhappier marriages.
This spotlight on the children has also made marriage much more centred on women. Many married women's lives no longer focus on their husbands – they focus on the kids and on the networks of friends the wives meet during the day on the school run. Apart from anything else it is far more emotionally straightforward to be a mother or a friend than a wife, just as it is more straightforward to be a bloke seeking the company of blokes than a proper husband.
As for the many women who work, they have the added stress of a job to hold down while keeping a family together. Thus marriage is way down the list of priorities, whereas once it used to be top, for both parties. This produces a double whammy – a weaker set of commitments attacked by a stronger set of pressures.
Furthermore it seems to me that despite all the struggles for equality, men and women have fundamentally failed to understand one another. A happily married friend of mine once said to me that the formula was very simple – "Women want you to listen to them and men want to be praised". Unfortunately, it is a feat that very few marriages seem to be able to achieve. From the many informal conversations I have held on the subject, men often feel undervalued and excluded by their wives, while women feel trivialised and ignored by their husbands. And those are the ones that aren't divorced.
What's more, equality has opened up all sorts of new areas for conflict. Once the men looked after the finances and the women chose the wallpaper. Now everything up for debate – or rather, argument. The blurring of gender roles has been a terrific liberation for both parties – but it has also produced a slew of problems for which we appear to have no answer.
But then perhaps the transience of modern relationships – in contrast to the permanence that marriage once represented – is simply no more from the progress away from the romantic towards the real. Perhaps the new style of "coupling" is different, but none the worse for all that. As John Updike himself wrote, "That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds."