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Marriage and its malcontents

Why should you discuss your 'bits' with a vicar before tying the knot?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Whatever friends and family might say about a wedding, you could usually count on the Church of England to approve. God knows, it’s tried hard enough to boost the flagging number of nuptials, from jostling for position with florists and bridal shops at the UK Wedding Show to giving its blessing to remarried divorcees.

But that was before vicars moonlighted as relationship counsellors, and became as ‘realist’ about marriage as anybody else.

The Reverend Andrew Body, Vicar of Chobham, Surrey, and a counsellor for Relate, made the headlines this week by offering couples a free marriage ‘MOT’, to help them work out whether they are sexually, financially and emotionally compatible before walking up the aisle (1). This includes an ‘intimate quiz’, in which couples are supposed to answer questions like ‘What are the best things about your sex life now?’ and ‘What words do you use for your bits?’, and speculate on what they might do if they found out they were expecting an unplanned child or a child with disabilities. (The question ‘why would you want to discuss your genitals with a man of the cloth anyway?’ is conspicuously absent.)

It says something about the Church’s diminished self-esteem that it thinks counselling people against taking too large a leap of faith when getting wed is the way forward. Talking about the Church’s presence at the Manchester Wedding Show, Bishop of Bolton the Rt Revd David Gillett says: ‘A church service offers a framework of meaning which can benefit a couple for the length of their future together.’ If ‘framework of meaning’ effectively boils down to the kind of compatability quiz one might see in teenage magazines, one wonders what a church wedding has over any other kind these days – except perhaps that it also offers ‘a much loved local venue’ (2).

But the crisis of the clergy pales into insignificance compared to the general cultural pessimism surrounding marriage and commitment, which Rev Body’s marriage MOTs illustrate only too clearly. Faced with growing evidence that more and more people are living single lives, self-styled relationship managers in counselling, policy, church and media circles are becoming increasingly worried about the effect that singledom might have on our health, wealth, behaviour and happiness (and of course the housing market).

Relationship risk-assessment, of the sort proposed by the good Reverend, is seen as some kind of a solution – aiming to ensure that people make the right decision about their intimate partner from the start, thereby minimising the danger of relationship breakdown. In reality, this kind of ‘look before you leap’ approach simply fuels the contemporary fear of commitment, and makes things rather worse.

‘Marriage MOTs’ were the sexy story – but on the same day newspapers carried reports of new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which claimed that more Britons are living alone than ever before (3). The statistics, derived from census data tracking more than 150,000 individuals since 1971, found that the population has grown by five per cent over the past 30 years, but the number of households with just one occupant is up by 31 percent. Between the ages of 25 and 44, men are more prone than women to a single life.

This is not a surprise finding. Research indicating the growth of ‘singleton society’ is regularly commissioned and reported. In November 2004, for example, a similar-looking study by researchers at Edinburgh University found that men aged 25-44 are twice as likely as women to live by themselves (4). By way of highlighting the negative consequences of this trend, the ESRC research found that between 1971 and 1991, the percentage of people living alone who reported permanent sickness doubled: though it argued that this is likely to reflect trends in both permanent sickness and living alone, rather than a trend towards people living solo when they are sick. The Edinburgh study found that single people drink more than their married counterparts, work longer hours, worry more and don’t eat properly.

Far from celebrating Bridget (or ‘Brad’) Jones, society is broadcasting the message that Single Life Isn’t Good For You far and wide. However, the justification for this message is a peculiarly one-sided one. There is an attempt to quantify the precise costs and benefits that an intimate relationship has for you, the individual – your health, stress levels and eating habits – as though getting yourself into a relationship should be viewed in the same way as joining the gym and eating your five fruit and veg a day.

It seems that society wants to promote the benefits to an individual of being in a relationship while at the same time avoiding all the risks of being in a relationship with another person. So while every new piece of research or set of statistics seems to lead to great fretting about the prospect of a singleton society, every new piece of advice or relationship initiative seems designed to stop people ever getting together in the first place – by encouraging people to think very carefully about what is good for them, as individuals.

Which brings us back to Rev Body and his marriage MOTs. The only remarkable thing about this idea, really, is that anybody reported on it. The notion that the way to build and nurture one’s relationship is to treat it as a cross between a job interview and a therapy session, in which two separate individuals can intellectually debate their conflicting views and emotions and decide, in the abstract, how likely they might be to stay the course, has become a staple prejudice of the commitment debate.

The assumption seems to be that singleton society is a consequence of communication failure, even stupidity, which could somehow be resolved if people just paid more attention to thinking about how they might cope with a hypothetical tragedy and sorting out the right words for their ‘bits’ – and did this, of course, with professional guidance in the form of pre-marriage counselling. Whereas in reality, the only reason anybody has a relationship with anybody else is because they are still capable of spontaneity, flexibility and no small degree of romantic delusion. All of this is being ground down by the onslaught of intimate counselling and attempts to ‘solve’ the problem of singleton society. When was the last time you saw a relationship checklist that asked, ‘Do you love him?’.

(1) ‘Question 1: do you take this man…’, Ruth Gledhill, The Times (London), 31 January 2005

(2) Visit the Church of England at the GMEX 03, UK Wedding Shows, 11 December 2003

(3) More Britons live alone, Economic and Social Research Counci, 31 January 2005; ‘Once bitten, happily shy: why Britons like life alone’, Alexandra Frean, The Times (London), 31 January 2005

(4) Forget Bridget Jones – meet Brad, BBC News, 9 November 2004

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Topics Politics

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