It's okay not to be the marrying kind
In a world where everyone seems to be going bananas for weddings despite climbing divorce rates, why do we still bother?
Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30
Just the thought |of organising a wedding gives me the cold sweats
It used to be that marriage was the only option for couples, but in a world where it’s no longer mandatory or expected, why do people still bother? In all honesty, when you think of a wedding, chances are romance is not the top reason, nor is it what you should expect in |the lead-up. So what is it about marriage that still attracts so many people? Is it for practical or romantic reasons? Tradition? Family pressure? Kids? Or do people just want the party and the day out?
Working for many years on the front desk of a busy theatre, a common issue came up when women were collecting tickets. “Did I book in my married name or my maiden name?” they would ask, looking at us as if we would have the answer. How can you not know your own name, I’d think. How could someone be unable to remember what they like to call themself? To me, it has never made sense. But then, a lot about being married doesn’t make much sense to me. I appear to be missing the bride gene.
Don’t get me wrong. I have been to lots of weddings and have seen how happy they make people. I am in no way anti-marriage, but I am bereft of any desire to tie the knot myself. And this makes me curious as to why so many people are still choosing to use this institution to commit to one another - but perhaps not as many as we presume. According to statistics from the 2011 census, and despite a multi-million euro wedding industry here, there has been a marked decline in marriage in the past 10 years.
Besides love and all that, some big reasons Irish couples got married in the past were sexual politics and because it was expected, the norm. It wasn’t that long ago that a couple couldn’t book into a hotel room together unless they were married. Now, a lot has changed. Divorce is legal and becoming more common. Civil partnerships are in place for same-sex couples, with a referendum on gay marriage imminent, and co-habiting couples with children are commonplace. So why get married at all?
There are a lot of practical reasons to wed, and there is a kind of respectability given to a married couple. When I got pregnant with my son three years ago, a few people asked if I would be getting married. |Now, with a second child on the way, a lot more people are asking about marriage. There is an expectation that it is inevitable. If you are in a long(ish)-term relationship, are of a certain age and have a house and kids, the idea seems to be that marriage is the natural progression.
My antipathy to marriage could stem from my stubborn streak, my inner teenager who is still unwilling to conform. To me, marriage seems like a prescriptive way of defining a relationship. Then there is the symbolism. The white dress, indicating the bride’s virginity. Her father, giving her away to another man, handing her over. I have had female friends look at me in disbelief and shock when I have vocalised these feelings. “But it’s nice, your Da giving you away. It’s tradition.” Yes, but it is where these traditions come from, and what they symbolise, that I take issue with. Of course, I realise marriage does not have to involve white dresses and a change of surname. So my aversion to it obviously must go deeper.
For a lot of couples, the marriage is as much about getting the big traditional wedding as it is about committing to a life together. We all know brides who get carried away. And then there are couples who do the complete opposite and eschew the whole wedding party altogether. Like Elaine*. Rather than deal with invitation lists and place settings, her and her husband chose a low-key registry office with a couple of witnesses, drinks and a celebratory dinner afterwards. Why miss out on the excuse for a big party? There were “so many reasons,” says Elaine. “First and foremost, I think relationships are private. We didn't invite our families because some of them are traditional, so we didn't see much point in bringing them to a registry office. We didn't want any judgment for going down that route either.”
If a big wedding was off the cards, what made marriage appealing? “Marriage never appealed to me in my life, but my husband is a bit more traditional and he wanted to go for it. We also want to start a family soon, and we thought there might be some legal advantages to getting married, if we have kids.”
Children are one of the most common reasons that come up when discussing the pros of getting married. Alan* is in his early thirties and got married last year. “We decided to as I saw it as making the relationship and the commitment permanent,” he says. “Also, there was the consideration of children, and being married makes everything much simpler down the line if something happened to one of us.”
Despite the fact that many children are born to unmarried parents in Ireland, there is still definitely a school of thought that says it is better to have children within a family unit — and in many practical ways, it is. Married parents automatically have equal rights to their children, while unmarried fathers have very few, although this is in the process of being changed under the Child and Family Relations Bill which, among other things, provides more protection for unmarried couples with children.
Tony Moore, relationship therapist with Relationships Ireland agrees that starting a family is one of the main reasons that couples cite when attending |pre-marriage courses. “When asked in our marriage preparation course, ‘Why are you getting married?' the first answer is not, ‘Because we love each other’. It is, usually said by the female, ‘Because we want to start a family’. That is why in the Relationships Ireland course we go on to ask, ‘What would happen if you find you are unable to conceive’?”
Being married seems to be seen as a kind of insurance policy for a lot of couples who want to |have children — as if it will protect you and make it harder for you to break up when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will get when children come along. British statistics on divorce cite that most marriages break down after four to eight years — a time when, for many, little ones arrive.
On top of these reasons, there are the people who just want to be married. “Being married is seen as |the normal state,” says Tony Moore. “Therefore, not being married is still seen as abnormal. People would rather have anyone than no one, even to their own detriment.” Tony has also seen the pitfalls that |couples face after sleepwalking into a marriage. “When people attend Relationships Ireland with problems, many regret being forced and being put under pressure to get married,” he says.
Unfortunately, the statistics don’t make a good case for marriage. According to the Central Statistics Office, while Ireland has the second lowest divorce rate in Europe, divorce has still increased by 150 per cent since 2002. In context, the fact that divorce has only been legal in Ireland since 1996 could have something to do with our lagging behind Europe. But divorce, co-habiting couples with children, and all kinds of family structures are de rigeur. However, the fact is that divorce is on the rise in Ireland, and it seems that the security that some couples crave from getting hitched can be an illusion.
I can’t see any advantages for me in getting married. I don’t think it’s romantic — the thought of organising it makes me break into a cold sweat. Also, there are the feminist objections I have about what the whole thing signifies. A good friend of mine, who married his husband in South Africa five years ago, said he wanted to get married because, “Personally, it meant genuinely giving everything I had to one person, making a promise to look after each other, and being a unit.” While I think the last two sentiments are sweet, it is the idea of giving everything you have to one person which maybe jars with me. I quite like being just one person, thanks, and it seems like a part of being married is a sort of blurring of identities, of subsuming one person into the other.
But if you marry for reasons that make sense to you, then surely it can do nothing other than bring good things to your relationship. And maybe, for some couples, the fact that they are in a marriage might make them work harder to stay together than if |they were not. Marriage as an institution doesn’t look like it is going anywhere soon, even if its popularity is declining. But me? I’ll be staying a Ms for the foreseeable. Any excuse to live in sin.
*Names have been changed