Terence Blacker: Marriage rarely lasts for life – so how about vows fixed to 10 years?

The Way We Live: It has become just fine to show public contempt for the person with whom you once agreed to share your life

Terence Blacker
Tuesday 21 February 2012 01:00

Couples who, in a spirit of romance and hope, are beginning to prepare for a spring wedding would probably do well to avoid reading the press at the moment.

The darker side of marriage has been on display. In a law court last week, the former Mr and Mrs Huhne presented a memorable image of post-separation misery, thanks to the court artist. She sat blank-eyed at one end of the bench while he was at the other, his back turned huffily to his ex-wife. Then, over the weekend, a forthcoming book by Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was serialised. Every sentence ached with unhappiness and regret.

Marital misery used to dwell behind closed doors, a matter of embarrassment, even shame. Mercifully, those days have gone, but of late something almost as depressing has taken their place. It has become just fine to show public contempt for the person with whom you once agreed to share your life. Trashing your past has become commonplace; it is a way of committing yourself to a bright new future. No poison spreads as quickly as marital hatred. It can blight the lives of children and destroy friendship. Worst of all, it infects private history so that the happiest memory is retrospectively stained by the hurt which is yet to come.

"The first time I saw my husband after we separated, I realised, to my surprise, he hated me," writes Rachel Cusk. "I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was contaminated by it, like a coastline painted black by an oil spill." During the marriage, she "had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's, and he, like her, claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence."

Cusk is a fearless writer, and while I believe she should not have written it – or at least waited until what she calls "the whole bloodstained past" was more distant – her account of the end of a modern marriage is compelling. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but I suspect the feelings she describes will resonate with the recently and the soon-to-be separated.

The loss of individuality, the unfairness and daily compromises of married life have never been felt more sharply than today. Once there was a sense of a unit, of shared responsibility involving sacrifice – usually, but not exclusively, on the wife's side.

With our new sense of self and entitlement, it is what is lost from individual lives – time, variety, advancement, freedom to be oneself – which comes to dominate and obsess. "I didn't want help. I wanted equality," Cusk writes. "Why couldn't we be the same?" It is difficult for any relationship to survive this sense of slow personal deprivation, the suspicion that somehow one is getting the worse part of the deal. The feeling of unfairness festers and can corrupt even what is good in a marriage.

Just as royal weddings have traditionally provided an idealised, fairy-tale version of romance, so the post-marriage years of Prince Charles and Princess Diana offered a model of the way these can now be handled. From then on, any idea of discretion or loyalty to the person to whom one had once been married was abandoned.

Perhaps changed priorities and attitudes within marriage require a new approach altogether. Instead of the increasingly absurd illusion that a new union will, or should, last for life, a system providing a marital licence for a fixed period – to be renewed, or not, every 10 years, say – would bring a healthy element of jeopardy to this jaded institution. The idea of living together, an arrangement in which the sense of obligation is based on love rather than a contract, might also be encouraged. At the very least, the marriage vows could be revised to include this new commitment: If it all goes wrong, I pledge not to hate you ...

We ignore the drip-drip effect

In parts of south-east England, the current drought is so strangely unseasonal that it feels as if it presages a new era of water shortage. At the very time of the year when they should be at their fullest, rivers, reservoirs and ponds are half-full or, in some cases, dry.

The Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has cheerfully pointed out that to bring water from the north-west, where there is plenty, to the south-east is impracticable. What she omitted to mention, and is widely ignored in these discussions, is the fact that, thanks to the Government's proposed liberalisation of the planning law, a bad situation will soon become considerably worse.

Hundreds of thousands of new houses are to be built where the demand is greatest in the south of the country, with little or no regard as to how the infrastructure – notably water supply – will support the new population.

Clearly it would make sense to locate the majority of houses not only where there is room for them, but where the water supply will be sufficient.


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