Wedding stress

The Church of England is courting divorcees - because nobody else is getting married.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The Church of England has overturned its ban on marrying divorcees in church (1). And, just to keep its options open, the Church has also discussed allowing vicars to marry couples outside a church premises.

Bouncy castles are out, said Richard Chartres, the bishop of London; but it seems that soccer pitches could get the Church’s blessing. As Mark Bryant, the archdeacon of Coventry, put it: ‘The Almighty might be working in a football ground as much as in a parish church.’ (2)

Clearly distressed at plummeting attendance figures, and lacking no small amount of faith in their own faith, church leaders are resorting to the kind of craven audience-chasing usually exhibited by politicians or the makers of docusoaps. ‘It is our duty as a church to go out to meet people, not to compel them to come and have their marriage at a place that we are used to’, said Jim Butterworth, a vicar in Barnsley, South Yorkshire – who, by way of example, described his participation in the 2001 London marathon as ‘an act of worship’ (3).

But if the Church wants to boost its popularity, why on Earth latch on to marriage? The general population is running away from this institution as quickly as it is deserting the church.

The marriage rate in the UK has been on a steady decline over the past three decades, falling from 447,000 in 1971 to 302,000 in 1997. The proportion of marriages solemnised by a religious ceremony has followed a similarly downward trend, falling from 60 percent in 1971 to 41 percent 1997 (4). The most recent available figures, for the year 2000, show that there were 267,961 marriages in England and Wales, only 36 percent of which were religious ceremonies (5). This indicates a major social shift, both away from people getting married at all, and from people seeking to give their union a meaning through religion.

In fact, the only marriage rates that are going up are remarriages. Between 1971 and 1997, the number of first marriages halved and the number of remarriages almost doubled (6). In 2000, first marriages accounted for only 58 percent of all marriages, while remarriages of both parties accounted for 19 percent (7). Given the propensity of divorcees to try, try again, one can see the pragmatic attraction that this group holds for the church. But once ‘till death do us part’ is replaced by serial ceremonies based on the premise ‘till I get a better offer’, you have to wonder what any of it actually means.

The Church’s dilemma represents a broader issue surrounding the marriage question: namely, how to give this institution, once the bedrock of Western society, a sense of meaning. In terms of religion, the problem is straightforward, and unresolvable: holy matrimony does not work as a concept in a society that no longer believes in anything holy. But what used to give marriage its importance, its meaning, was never just religious sanction but social expectation.

That people married for life and had children was seen as A Good Thing for society at large; and to that end people were encouraged (if not coerced) to get married and stay married. Now, all that has changed – for better and for worse.

The social expectations that gave marriage its solidity came at a price. Pushed into staying at home and raising children, women’s ambitions were subordinated and their potential thwarted, while men, charged with the primary responsibility of supporting their dependent families, were prevented from taking the kind of risks and achieving the goals they might otherwise have done.

The entry of women into the labour market, the development of birth control and the loosening up of social norms and attitudes that characterised the period after the 1960s were positive. They reduced the traditionally stifling constraints upon individuals’ achievements in the public sphere of life, and freed people up to develop relationships based less on pragmatism and necessity than on emotion and equality.

So how did we end up here? How did we get from the promise of sexual liberation to a society populated by lonely singletons and couples in therapy, to a society wrought with anxiety over individuation, social fragmentation and ‘commitment phobia’? How did finding and preserving a personal relationship stop being an aspect of life that was taken for granted and become an apparently insurmountable challenge? It’s not that people don’t, or can’t, or won’t fall in love any more. It’s that they do so in a cultural context that professes to support intimate relationships, but which actually tears them apart.

Few commentators argue that marriage today is a bad thing. On the contrary – across the political spectrum, particularly in Britain and the USA, more and more people are discussing the decline in marriage and long-term commitment as a problem. The issue was neatly summed up by a recent book review in The Washington Monthly: ‘Liberals and conservatives agree that the institution of marriage needs help. But neither side knows what to do about it.’ (8) In order to solve the marriage problem, you have to know what the problem actually is.

The problem with singleton society, many argue, is that people are miserable. Long-term commitment makes you happier and more fulfilled. But promoting marriage in terms of individual happiness is contradictory – for it is the pursuit of individual happiness that also spurs break-ups and divorce. Marriage and long-term commitment have to mean more than short-term self-gratification, otherwise what separates them from a holiday fling?

Finding happiness an unhelpful indicator, an argument increasingly articulated is that marriage makes you healthier. People might be prepared to pay a lot to preserve their health, but a life-long coupling? It’s not exactly convincing. The argument that marriage is good for children is gaining new popularity, including amongst its one-time detractors. But given that fewer and fewer people are having children, this could only have purchase among a relatively small group – who often don’t believe it anyway.

The big concern, particularly among the political elite, is that singleton society is unstable and risky. Yet today’s young singletons are hardly tomorrow’s risk-takers – quite the opposite. A new survey by the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University, USA, of ‘young men’s attitudes about sex, dating and marriage’, lists as one of the 10 reasons ‘why men won’t commit’ the fact that ‘they want to own a house before they get a wife’ (9).

‘Financial stability, often equated with owning a home, comes before marriage in their personal priorities’, explains the report. ‘However, pegging the timing of marriage to mortgage rates may substantially delay marriage, especially in more difficult economic times.’ Romantic, huh?

The crazed growth of single-person households, particularly those bought by young people, surely indicates that this generation desperately does want to commit – to something. Their desire to put time, money and emotion into bricks and mortar shows that singleton society is not about risk-taking, but deeply rooted in risk aversion. A long-term relationship, far from being a safe, boring bet, is now perceived as one of the most dangerous things you can do.

‘They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.’ This is listed third on the Rutgers study’s 10 reasons why men won’t commit, and sums up the prevalent ambivalence towards marriage in society today. Long-term commitment might be desirable, but it is increasingly seen as destined to fail. This is the real problem at the heart of the marriage debate – and one to which there is no policy remedy or self-help solution.

‘Today’s young men encounter few, if any, traditional pressures from religion, employers or society to marry’, explains the Rutgers report. The social expectation that people should marry has gone. Decades of delving into the dark side of domesticity, of emphasising the potential of abuse and unhappiness behind closed doors and of calling for official arbiters – social workers, doctors, therapists – to ‘help’ people with their relationships, have meant that society no longer feels able to promote marriage, or long-term commitment, as A Good Thing.

The social expectation today is that marriage makes pragmatic sense, but is likely to fail. If there is one thing guaranteed to weaken commitment further, it is this miserabilist view. Left alone, people will live and love; subjected to endless discussion of and official ‘help’ with their intimate relationships, they will retreat further into the illusory security of their one-bedroom flats. Then we really will be able to talk about atomisation.

Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: marriage and commitment in singleton society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Conversations in Print series. Respondents to her essay include Fay Weldon (novelist), Yvonne Roberts (author), Ed Straw (Relate), and Helen Wilkinson (Genderquake).

Bristow will be discussing the rise of singleton society at the London conference Private Lives, Public Policy, on Saturday 20 July 2002. For more information, phone 020 7269 9220 or see the Institute of Ideas website.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and sex

Home alone, by James Harkin

Lord Irvine: Love Doctor?, by Jennie Bristow

Singleton society, by Frank Furedi

(1) Divorcees can wed in church, Telegraph, 10 July 2002

(2) Racing for a bigger share of weddings, Guardian, 9 July 2002

(3) Racing for a bigger share of weddings, Guardian, 9 July 2002

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

(5) Marriages in 2000: England and Wales (.pdf), UK Office for National Statistics, 28 January 2002

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

(7) Marriages in 2000: England and Wales (.pdf), UK Office for National Statistics, 28 January 2002

(8) Vow-To Books, Lynda McDonnell, The Washington Monthly, July/August 2002

(9) Why men won’t commit, Barbara Defoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, New Jersey USA

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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