Wedded to the view that 'I do' makes a difference

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The Independent Online
I WENT to Oscar James Jerome's christening the other Sunday. Lovely old country church (his parents were married there just over a year ago), heavenly day, gorgeous baby, proud grandparents, silver spoon and pusher - the lot.

Later that afternoon, as we were having tea and strawberries, I started talking to another young couple who also have a new baby, this time a little girl, called Lottie. They seemed equally proud and happy but they don't plan to get married. Mm-hmm, I said carefully, any particular reason? Oh, nothing special; they feel committed enough to each other as it is, especially now they've got her, and what difference will a piece of paper make? Usually at this point I nod and smile and change the subject, knowing from experience that it's useless to argue and, anyway, what business is it of mine?

In this case, however, I've known the young father for a good many years. I bandaged his knee after he had come off his bicycle; I've sobered him up after parties, given him a bed for the night when it was too late for him to get home; I felt entitled, or at least permitted, to put forward a few arguments.

The obvious and most important objection first - what about little Lottie? Surely they owe her as secure a background as possible? Staying together for life is a struggle, however much you love one another at the outset; they're going to need all the help they can get. Even if you ignore a wedding's religious significance, it celebrates two people's promises to one another before witnesses, and a marriage has legal status.

Marriage is a civilising sexual and social institution - especially for young men - and some such lifelong public commitment has formed the basic unit of many cultures over many centuries. Once the universal attraction of youth has passed, most people need domestic and emotional stability. Why do these two think they can afford to ignore all that?

Wasting my breath. They smiled patiently at my neanderthal views and gazed at each other and their delightful baby with untroubled optimism.

They may be right, of course. It is possible that 50 years hence they will still be together, having raised Lottie and any siblings in a close and lasting family, and by that time the whole institution of marriage may be obsolete. But it seems more likely that, living in a series of rented flats with few joint possessions to call their own, lacking the cement of social approval to bind them together and with only guarded parental support, their fragile commitment will be tested to breaking point - and will break.

Yet they are typical of their generation - the under-30s - and I suppose I am typical of a preceding one, the over-50s. Despite the fact that my own marriage did not last, I still believe in the theory and practice of wedlock. I ask myself guiltily: is it our fault? Did we bring up these serenely iconoclastic young people to believe that structures and institutions don't matter? Did we take the Sixties ideology of laid-back love and peace too far, indoctrinating our offspring with the notion that they could go it alone, each to their own brand of anarchy or laissez-faire?

Or is the problem that they looked critically at our relationships and felt there must be a better way? If their parents' marriages didn't stick together, and divorce was such misery, why not jettison the whole pointless fandango?

The other day my god-daughter, who at 27 has just qualified in law, told me that when they come to London, she and her boyfriend of two years plan to live together. She is tremendously looking forward to setting up house, decorating it and buying furniture at auction. Are you getting married? I asked faintly. Oh no, not married.

Yet her parents have stayed together and his parents have stayed together and all their joint experience is of a stable, permanent and mutually supportive conventional family background. So why . . . ?

I can't help feeling that these young couples who cohabit in open-ended, easy-going, 'maybe some day' relationships are missing something; and I don't just mean the wedding day and accompanying presents (though, actually, weddings are wonderful and, I've noticed, bring tears to the eyes of even the most cynical young).

What does commitment mean, if not publicly declared? And if they are as committed as they proclaim, why not marry? If they don't want a church wedding, they can go to a register office. Yet these young people actively choose not to bind themselves for life in the eyes of their family, friends and the state - or even their wide-eyed, artlessly smiling, powdery-skinned daughter.