Forever – or a day?

As marriage declines and single households mushroom, why does making a long-term commitment now seem so hard to do?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘Love and marriage, love and marriage/Go together like a horse and carriage’…. Not any more they don’t.

The numbers of people getting married keeps on falling. In 1999, there were 263,515 marriages, and over half as many divorces (144,241) (1). The UK Office for Statistics’ 2000 edition of Social Trends reveals that approximately 25 percent of unmarried men and women aged 16 to 59 are cohabiting, and that the proportion of all non-married women aged 18 to 49 who were cohabiting in Great Britain more than doubled between 1979 and 1998-99, from 11 percent to 29 percent (2).

A report produced for the Lord Chancellor’s department in 1999 sums up the changes like this: ‘in one generation the number marrying has halved, the number divorcing has trebled and the proportion of children born outside marriage has quadrupled.’ (3)

But cut across the headlines bemoaning the-end-of-family-life-as-we-know-it, and marriage does not seem like quite such an old has-been. The divorce rate may be up, but most people who get married stay married. The rate of remarriage is relatively high – in 1997, there were 128,000 remarriages compared to 175,000 first marriages (4).

People may be having fewer children, but if they do, marriage is still seen as relatively important: in 1995, the marital birth rate was 82.7 per 1000 married women, compared with 39.6 per 1000 single, divorced and widowed women; and in 1994, 68 percent of all births were to married couples (5). Meanwhile, bookshop shelves groan under the weight of popular novels charting the heroine’s quest for a husband; bridal magazines, shops and florists continue to ply their trade; and the average cost of a wedding in the UK is about £10,000 (6).

So what has changed? In many ways, the most significant shift is not in the numbers of people getting married or otherwise, but in what marriage has come to represent.

You do not have to go back to Jane Austen to see the importance traditionally attached to marriage, both as a way of life and as a mark of somebody’s status in society. Especially for women, the terror of finding yourself ‘left on the shelf’ dominated young women’s lives up to the 1960s. The female role was about marrying, keeping a home and raising children – and failing to do that meant you were odd, the object of pity. Marriage was also seen as the natural course of a man’s life, enabling him to function properly in his working life and fulfil his duty by fathering children.

Even by the 1960s and 70s, as women gained greater independence and the social and moral conventions surrounding marriage began to break down, marriage was less of a choice for couples than it was an expectation. Cohabitation was still frowned upon, illegitimate births a stigma and the nuclear family the accepted way of doing things.

Today, by contrast, how could any young couple possibly argue that they ‘had’ to get married? Beyond the nagging of grandparents, there is no social expectation surrounding it. Cohabitation is fully sanctioned – to the extent that the UK Law Society proposed, in 1999, that cohabiting couples should be granted legal rights similar to those of married couples (7).

Illegitimacy of birth is accepted as a fact of life. Births outside marriage soared from nine percent in 1974 to 38 percent in 1998 – although the proportion of jointly registered births followed this upward trend, while the proportion of solely registered births has remained almost static, indicating that even if people are not getting married, they do not set out as single parents (8). Divorce is seen as a necessary evil; staying single is only a problem at dinner parties. So accepted is non-marriage that often, one of the biggest shocks a young woman can cause her family is to announce her engagement, arousing fears about ‘rushing into things’ and ‘throwing your life away’ on this one relationship with this one person.

There is no need to marry today; and nor is there any need not to marry. The key traps of married life – financial dependence and legal obligation – have largely been removed, through women’s increasing independence and the availability of divorce. The 1990s marriage can be based on what Anthony Giddens terms the ‘pure relationship’ – ‘a relationship of sexual and emotional equality’, in which ‘external criteria have become dissolved; the relationship exists solely for whatever rewards that relationship as such can deliver’ (9). And for this relationship, marriage is less a social institution than a lifestyle choice.

The shift from marriage as institution to marriage as an emotional relationship freely entered into by two equal individuals is undoubtedly a good thing. Intimate relationships, when they are no longer bound up with subordination or rigid social convention, have the potential to be more fulfilling and less antagonistic than traditional relationships between spouses.

The irony is that at the very time that personal relationships have been freed from many of their traditional constraints, they are often seen as more tortuous and problematic than ever before. In the ongoing discussions about the potential dangers of intimate relationships, from date rape and domestic violence to marital break-up and emotional trauma, the way in which these relationships are viewed has become tarnished by society’s broader sense of suspicion and mistrust.

Even though the institution of marriage can no longer be seen as providing a trap for people, merely the commitment of a long-term relationship is perceived as a possible danger zone. What is seen as the problem now is not the institutional bonds of marriage, but the emotional ties it involves.

Individualism and Commitment in Cohabitation and Marriage, Jane Lewis’ research paper for the UK Lord Chancellor’s department, addresses the ‘pessimistic’ view of modern marriage that ‘individualism in personal relationships has substantially increased, that this is essentially selfish and that it has undermined the commitment of men and women to each other and their children’ (10).

Picking up on both a real change in the way couples relate to one another – as individuals and equals – and a prejudice that this must result in ‘selfishness’, Lewis sensibly concludes that there is no clear link between ‘individualism’ and a tendency to shy away from commitment. ‘Men and women…increasingly want both room for self-development and commitment’, she argues; which may mean that intimate relationships are more ‘difficult’ and ‘open to negotiation’ than previously, but that this is not a problem.

Maybe this was not a problem for the 61 married and cohabiting couples interviewed by Lewis, who may have entirely healthy and committed relationships. But does the discussion end there? For the most part, how couples organise their intimate relationships should only be important to them. The issue is not the private arrangements that people make, but the public discussion and policy initiatives that surround them. Here, the perception of marriage and long-term commitment is increasingly negative, and informs policies that can only have a corrosive impact on people’s personal relationships.

From the UK government’s decision in 1999 to abolish the married couple’s tax allowance to its proposals to give responsibilities to unmarried fathers, policymakers are acutely aware that they have to organise around changes in the perception of marriage. Whereas in the past married couples were treated as a unit, now the trend is to see them as individuals, whose responsibilities are enforced rigidly in relation to their children, but who cannot be assumed automatically to have responsibilities to each other.

In May 2001, the New Labour government funded a magazine called Marriedlife: a rough guide for couples today, to be distributed with the help of registry offices and churches to more than 250,000 couples. Produced by two charities, One Plus One and the National Family and Parenting Institute, together with the Church of England, the 72-page magazine purported to offer information, rather than advice, about the benefits and pitfalls of marred life. Promoting the Marriedlife magazine, David Skidmore of the Church of England argued that ‘the glossy literature available to couples tends to provide a rather unrealistic and romanticised view of marriage’ (11).

But when the practical imperative of marriage has all but gone, isn’t the decision to marry necessarily one based on romantic ideals? Or, to put it another way, doesn’t the promotion of a ‘realistic’ view of marriage present it as an uneasy negotiation between two individuals, focusing on the most negative aspects of a life-long commitment and in fact discouraging people from taking the plunge?

The rather cynical attitude held by policymakers towards marriage today is most clearly illustrated by measures floated by the government to minimise the problems of marital breakdown. Prenuptial agreements, in which soon-to-be-married couples agree to a division of resources in the event of marital breakdown, were one of New Labour’s earliest family policy ideas. In August 1999, it was reported that the UK government was to warn women about the risks of opening joint bank accounts with their spouses, in case the marriage were to break down and leave them vulnerable (12). The assumption behind such policy initiatives is that marriages cannot be expected to work, and so provision should be made for individuals in the event of failure.

The UK Law Society’s proposals to give rights to cohabiting couples show just how far this assumption has gone (13). The Law Society has justified its proposals largely by arguing the need to provide some legal recognition of homosexual couples, and some mechanism where the individuals can have ‘rights’ to their joint resources if the relationship breaks down. These issues are clearly important for gay couples, but could be addressed relatively straightforwardly through allowing them to get married. Significantly, the Law Society has chosen not to argue for gay marriage, but to propose a wide-ranging set of reforms that could apply to all couples who have been living together for a certain period of time.

The message of these proposals is that even if couples are unwilling to commit to each other through marriage, they should have the same safeguards as married couples if the relationship ends. To put it another way: you cannot expect people to marry today, but you should expect relationships to break down.

The attitude of policymakers towards the potential of the ‘pure relationship’ appears to be that intimate relationships should be conducted on the basis that they may fail. What does this say about the way marriage and long-term commitment have come to be perceived? The romantic notion that love can conquer all has been laid to rest, condemned as naive idealism which never works in practice. Instead, there is a growing wariness about love and romantic attachments, where individuals are encouraged to adopt a self-centred, calculating and short-term attitude to their emotional commitments, and not to invest too much in anybody other than themselves.

An all-too-familiar figure in popular culture has become the single woman who uses her intimate relationships almost entirely for kicks. The thirtysomething career women of the TV serial Sex and the City spend their social lives in search of men who will give them new experiences – what counts is the short-term buzz of a fling, which forms handy material for a newspaper column.

One UK Channel 4 series, Love in the Twenty-First Century, worked on a similar theme – in one episode, a woman stole the sperm of her one-night stands in the hope of fathering a child without the complications of a relationship. These women are entirely calculating and self-centred, and far less shocking to a contemporary audience than the ‘bunny boilers’ of Fatal Attraction relationships, who go crazy with passion in the traditional way.

But even for these women marriage, surely, is where it stops. However cold and calculating you may be as a single girl, doesn’t that all change when you fall in love and meet ‘The One’ you are going to spend the rest of your life with? Twenty years ago, maybe so. Now, marriage is expected to codify the short-term approach of single life; and even when you meet The One you are supposed to keep your distance.

When even the government is promoting the impossibility of the ‘forever’ relationship, it might be expected that there would be some kind of celebration of singledom; or at least very little importance attached to ‘getting married’. But the most prominent recent discussion about the single life has been the one sparked by bestselling-novel-turned-movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, which depicts an independent woman in her early thirties torn apart by her inability to find The One who will marry her (14).

This book, the wave of copycat fiction that followed it, and the discussion it provoked do the very opposite to damning marriage. Instead, marriage is presented as the only goal worth having – more important than career, money or anything else – and the most difficult thing to pull off, as the woman with everything going for her wallows in the loneliness and frustration of being alone.

As a cultural icon, the Bridget Jones figure first appears hopelessly romantic and unusually old-fashioned. But what sets her apart from the tired heroine of Mills & Boon is precisely that she cannot be romantic; that however much she yearns for the ‘perfect relationship’ she remains acutely aware that this is impossible. This paradox is what so keenly represents the 1990s attitude to marriage – that the desire for true love and all those other clichés is constantly tempered by a cynicism hanging over any intimate relationship.

Again and again, popular culture sets up the desire for the perfect relationship while reminding us that it cannot exist. In Jane Green’s bestselling novel Mr Maybe, the 25-year-old protagonist Libby copes with rejection by the man she wants to be with by rushing into an engagement with an older rich geek. Her best friends, the happily married Jules and Jamie, exist as a constant reminder to Libby of the need to marry. Jamie has an affair, Jules kicks him out, and when Jules lectures Libby on the importance of marrying for love, Libby replies, ‘You thought you’d found the perfect man, and it didn’t work out’ (15).

Freya North’s Polly presents a couple so close they are almost one word, ‘Maxanpolly’. Here, the heroine goes off to America for a year, finds herself and has an affair (16). In Come Together by Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Jack and Amy are torn apart when another woman gives Jack a blow job in his sleep; in Lisa Jewell’s Ralph’s Party, the college sweethearts, Karl and Siobhan, break down when – surprise, surprise – Karl has an affair (17, 18).

Most of these popular stories end with the couples eventually making up; yet only by leaving the overriding impression that no relationship is ever a happy ending, only an ambivalent beginning. The moral is that you can never take relationships for granted – especially when you are married – and you should always guard against the possibility that you might get hurt.

But even if the notion of ‘happily ever after’ is romantic nonsense, isn’t the whole point of long-term or marital relationships that, in one sense at least, you can take your partner for granted? An intimate relationship is not one that develops overnight, like a crush or an affair, but depends on individuals changing over time to become part of the same life. And to do this, do you not have to assume that you will never split up?

Of course, entering a long-term relationship with the naivety of a Victorian virgin is a disaster; but nobody does that now. What a long-term relationship means is that you live as though it will last forever, even though at the back of your mind you know it may not; because the alternative is never to make any decision or commitment that goes beyond tomorrow – whether that’s buying a house or taking a holiday.

While it may seem very practical and sensible to avoid pooling money and to safeguard your future ‘just in case’, having one eye permanently trained on potential future disaster or infidelity can only lead to situations where couples circle warily around each other, waiting for their worst fears to be realised. You may be married, you may be cohabiting, you may have children – but as long as you are focusing on your get-out clause, you are as single as Bridget Jones.

That the desire for long-term commitments coexists with a heightened wariness of intimate relationships, reflected in popular culture and sanctioned by policy, is where the ‘pure relationship’ becomes poisoned. Whatever new possibilities may exist for people to find fulfilment in their personal lives are warped by the assumption that this can never really happen. And isn’t it rather pathetic, that of all the challenges we face at the century’s end, simply living with each other is placed top of the difficult list?


Read on:


spiked-issues: Love and sex


(1) ‘Marriage and divorce down’, Guardian, 20 July 2001


(2) Table 2.10 and p40, Social Trends 30: 2000 edition, UK Office for National Statistics


(3) Individualism and Commitment in Marriage and Cohabitation, Jane Lewis, Lord Chancellor’s department, September 1999


(4) Table 2.7, Social Trends 30: 2000 edition, UK Office for National Statistics


(5) Individualism and Commitment in Marriage and Cohabitation, Jane Lewis, Lord Chancellor’s department, September 1999


(6) WHSmith Total Guide to Getting Married, Issue One, June 2001


(7) ‘Cohabitation: proposals for reform of the law’, UK Law Society, September 1999


(8) Table 2.16, Social Trends 30: 2000 edition, UK Office for National Statistics


(9) Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: self and society in the late modern age, Polity Press, 1991. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


(10) Individualism and Commitment in Marriage and Cohabitation, Jane Lewis, Lord Chancellor’s department, September 1999


(11) Educating couples about marriage, BBC News Online, 16 May 2001


(12) Women told to be wary of joint bank accounts, Guardian, 23 August 1999


(13) ‘Cohabitation: proposals for reform of the law’, UK Law Society, September 1999


(14) Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding, Picador, October, 1996. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


(15) Mr Maybe, Jane Green, Penguin June 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


(16) Polly, Freya North, Arrow, new edition May 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)


(17) Come Together, Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Arrow February 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA). Come Again, Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Arrow July 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)


(18) Ralph’s Party, Lisa Jewell, Penguin May 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics