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On the fallacy of marriage

This column first appeared in The Western Mail in December 2021

There’s only one way to interpret the end of Bill and Melinda Gates’ 27-year union. The concept of marriage – a wildly optimistic promise to remain with the same person until one of you carks it – is surely done for. Don’t at me. 

If the fourth richest couple in the world can’t make it work, what hope for us mere mortals?

Sure, it takes more than money to build a successful marriage. But let’s face it; when you have more disposable cash than the combined GDP of Luxembourg, Estonia and Bolivia, you’re not squabbling over putting out the bins, are you?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that obscene wealth brings plenty of issues, but shall I tell you what else it brings? Multiple luxury homes in which to cool off after your latest spat. Plus more childcare and life admin support than you can shake a platinum card at. 

First came the Bezos split, now the Gates’. If couples with such vast fortunes can’t last the course, what does that tell us about the institution of marriage?

The pandemic year has undoubtedly put even the strongest marriages under strain. Official divorce statistics for 2020 aren’t available yet, but lawyers, academics and therapists predict that many thousands of marriages won’t survive the virus. 

It’s understandable when you consider how many people have been unable to escape their other half for a really rather cruel period of time. The past year must have been hellish for those poor betrothed souls without a shed, allotment or spare bedroom. 

According to Charlotte Leyshon, Director of Cardiff-based Lux Family Law, divorce enquiries have soared during the pandemic:

“We’re seeing many more couples deciding to split, compared to what we would usually see over a similar period. Many relationships that were already under strain have perhaps inevitably collapsed under the sheer weight of the pandemic.”

But this is part of a more significant trend; in 2019, divorces among heterosexual couples rose by 18.4%, the largest annual increase since 1972.

Yet the dream of a white wedding remains intoxicating to many – so much so that, in 2010, one Swansea woman married *herself* in a lavish ceremony. Karen Reed found herself single at the age of 40 and unwilling to give up her dream of a big dress and a limo. So, she organised a wedding reception in which she committed entirely to herself, calling it “the ultimate act of female empowerment”. (Feminist readers, discuss). 

That she managed to live out her dream without the inconvenience of being stuck with the same man or woman till death them do part displays a level of wisdom to which I can only aspire. I’ve never met her, but I raise a belated toast to the still happily single Karen.  

Because, really, how romantic is a legally binding contract that locks you into a monogamous relationship, regardless of how bad things get, for the rest of your life? 

Marriage was designed in an era when humans were lucky to make it out of their teens without being devoured by wildebeest. Life expectancy in the UK these days is 81. That’s a helluva long time to put up with another human being with all their weird quirks and bodily noises, isn’t it? 

Perhaps we should reinvent marriage, so a performance review is scheduled for every five years? Because we change. We grow. The people we are in our twenties are very different to who we become in our forties. And that’s as it should be. 

Given the gradual metamorphosis we all undergo over a lifetime, is a genuinely happy marriage even possible anymore?

You shouldn’t knock something until you’ve tried it, apparently (I beg to differ; the list of things I’m happy to knock without trying ranges from fascism to frogs legs). But when it comes to the fallacy of marriage, I can at least speak from experience.  

In December 2003, aged 22 and bubbling over with the romantic zeal of a kid raised on Disney and Motown, I eloped to Gretna Green with a drummer that could quote French philosophers in one breath and hip-hop lyrics in the next. I was madly – certifiably – in love. Armed with a vintage lace frock picked up in the sale, a sharp suit, two bottles of champagne and a copy of The White Album, we made the long journey north in a clapped-out Peugeot. Both the vehicle and its passengers were fuelled mainly by the hopeless, unfettered optimism of youth. 

With witnesses recruited from the snowy street outside the registry office, we pledged our entire futures to each other before posing for pictures by an anvil in our finery while our teeth chattered. Then came the long drive south and the tricky business of building a life together.

Reader, suffice it to say the whole caper didn’t last 24 months. Love, it turned out, wasn’t enough. 

With the benefit of almost two decades’ hindsight, I think I’d do it all again – for the frock, for the butterflies, for the story. But not for the piece of paper. No sirree. 

There are many perfectly rational reasons to get married. The tax system favours it, for a start. Perhaps to have the same surname as your children (although there are other ways of navigating that one legally). Or simply because you can (see Liz Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor).

But marriage – invented thousands of years ago and propagated by organised religion – increasingly seems like a mad old idea when you weigh up the available evidence. Surely it’s time to move on? 

On that note, I caught a lyric on the radio this week that lodged itself inside my head:

“Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life / All the days you get to have are big.”

Ain’t that the truth?

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