Paula, you'd be better off alone

Catherine Pepinster asks why so many of us still pursue marriage when it so often fails

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Tomorrow, when the beleaguered Family Law Bill goes back into the House of Commons, we will hear much about the rights and wrongs of easy divorce. There will be arguments that divorce is responsible for society's breakdown. There will be counter-arguments that divorce is a human right and that, Britain having the highest divorce rate in Europe, the most important issue is to minimise trauma for any children involved. What is likely to go unchallenged is the ease with which people slide into that other institution: marriage.

Yet take last week's headline-making relationships. Dudley Moore announced his marriage had failed. This is the fourth time that the star has called in the lawyers, yet it never seems to occur to him that marriage, for him at least, is a dud. Bob Geldof and Paula Yates described the division of the marriage spoils as "three days of complete bloody nightmare". Were they daunted by this? Not a bit of it. Paula plans to marry her lover Michael Hutchence in the next couple of months.

These may be extreme, showbiz examples of the miserably wed, but what they are doing is common. One in three marriages in Britain ends in divorce and yet in 1993, the most recent year for which figures are available, 100,000 people embarked on second or subsequent marriages. Even those who don't legitimise their union with a certificate seem driven to cohabit, split, and start afresh with someone new. Having a partner, dwelling with another, is de rigueur today.

It was not always thus. As the academic and writer John Bayley - himself married to Iris Murdoch for 40 years - pointed out last week: "There was a time when spinsters and bachelors were not only common but respected and taken for granted as useful members of any community. Now living with someone - anyone - is OK, but not living by oneself."

How right he was. The obsession with partners is everywhere. For the single there are room supplements, and tables for one parked next to the loo in restaurants. For partners there are two flights for the price of one, and offers such as buy one theatre ticket, get the other free. Coupledom rules.

Single people are chastised by the married for all manner of things: ready-made food sloth; selfish lotus-eating; the pursuit of money; deserved loneliness. Yet in a world of married misery, no wonder people opt for the single life. As Ray Charles says: "I don't have any trouble livin' with Ray Charles. I like him. I mean, he's a nice man. We get along fine, me and him."

Getting along fine with yourself is, to the paired-off, another description for loneliness. Yet there is much evidence to suggest that the successfully alone are among the happiest. Dr David Weeks, the author of Eccentrics, who has been studying loneliness for 17 years, says he has discovered that the single best criteria for mental health is to use one's solitude constructively.

And what could be darker than being alone inside a relationship? Remember Nelson Mandela's words when he spoke of his failed marriage to Winnie. It was not all those years in prison when he was at his most wretched, but "I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her".

Marriage demands loyalty, fidelity, duty and responsibility from two people. These are not talents, or skills, that most of us have in bucketloads. Nor is it that surprising. What in modern life teaches us fidelity? Loyalty may be rewarded by supermarkets but where else do we encounter it? Not from downsizing employers, or from Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party.

The trouble with marriage is that, apart from the occasional disapproving parent or best friend, nobody is ever discouraged. How much happier a bride and groom might be if the registrar took them to one side and said, "Forget it. You're both still too immature and selfish to do this. Once you fall out of lust, and the only things livening up your flat are piles of washing, the novelty will wear off fast." Imagine how less troubled the Royal Family might be if the Archbishop of Canterbury had whispered to that naive 19-year-old: "Don't do it, Di."

No, mediation, the latest fashionable talking shop, is only for those whose marriages have already fallen apart. Isn't it time that advice, counselling, call it what you will, was offered to the young, the idealistic, and saddest of all, the serial marriers? And what a service it would be if those who took on this task advocated the one way of life the affianced seem most reluctant to consider: the single one.

Single people are, after all, having a much better time. The under-55 single person, says a study from market researchers, Mintel, is healthier than the happily married person. He or she is more socially and environmentally aware, has more leisure time, and a better social life. True, they sometimes slob out, with a drink, fast food and a video, but on the whole they are more likely to buy organic food, fresh fruit and wholemeal bread. They are highly sociable and have a strong community spirit.

Rather than marry, they create support networks of friends, or what researchers at the South Bank University have called "families of choice".

According to the university's study, for these people "family means something more than biological affinity or the unit created by marriage. It means something you create for yourself, something that involves interactions, commitment and obligations that have to be negotiated in a world where nothing is pre-given or certain."

As some lament the fragility of the old support networks based on marriage and the family, it is worth considering the role of these new "families". Friendship as an element of the social and economic structure has been little recorded by academics, yet these patterns of obligation and commitment made through choice are increasingly important.

Many women are also making another equally fundamental choice in their lives, which was highlighted last week: the decision to remain childless. At least one in five women now in their twenties and thirties will have no children. Statisticians who have identified the trend suggest that women are opting for careers and further education rather than children for the simple reason that they now can choose them. Will marriage continue to seem attractive to these women? Already, and to the consternation of some politicians, increasing numbers of women who do become mothers are choosing not to marry or live with the fathers of their children.

To women at least, marriage offers fewer and fewer attractions. Even among those who marry there is a growing disenchantment. More than two- and-a-half-times as many divorces were granted to women as men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1993.

Perhaps it is time to heed Katharine Hepburn's advice and remember that the best way for men and women to have relationships is to be neighbours and visit occasionally.

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