Wednesday 26 October 2016

Tying the knot is great - for the minority who can afford it

Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30

Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch were married earlier this year Photo: Yui Mok
Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch were married earlier this year Photo: Yui Mok

Did you see those lovely wedding pictures of happy, smiling Jerry Hall with her new groom, media magnate Rupert Murdoch? Apparently, the marriage is blissful and it's halcyon days for all concerned.

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Wonderful. But is the image of Jerry and Rupert the very emblem and symbol of heterosexual marriage as it is shaping up today? That's to say - predominantly, an arrangement favoured by the wealthy and the better-off?

That is one of the conclusions of the Iona Institute's latest survey, 'Mind the Gap'. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the social trend is that the better-off get married, while those who are poorer do not. A wedding is the norm in the Rathgar and Clontarf areas in Dublin, but a minority pursuit in Tallaght; all the rage in Galway's 'Snob Hill' - Taylor's Hill - and lovely, swish Rockbarton, but unlikely in Nun's Island. The pattern is the same in Cork, where in the more affluent areas, marriage is at 60pc of the population, while it's only at 17pc in Shandon and South Gate.

It's similar all over the UK and America, where the line from the old song 'The rich get richer and the poor get children' could plausibly be re-written to 'The rich get married and the poor get to be single parents'.

Marriage has become a marker of being middle or upper-middle-class.

Actually, marriage was always linked to bourgeois respectability. Thus it was that artists and social rebels scorned it: as did feminists who saw it as a conspiracy to promote patriarchy and transmit property to legitimate heirs.

The anti-conforming intellectuals preferred to live together, without benefit of state or clergy, as exemplified by James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, who were free cohabitees rather than husband and wife. Only towards the end of their lives did they travel to a registry office in London to tie the knot officially, probably to clarify inheritance regulations.

But whether this was a stable situation for children is another question. The Joyces stayed together, but they moved accommodation 19 times during the course of the children's young years. Lucia, their daughter, developed serious mental health issues, and, according to a new book about her life by Annabel Abbs ('The Joyce Girl'), Lucia was tipped over into clinical insanity when her parents confessed that they had not been married. This is not proven - Lucia was diagnosed with schizophrenia - but it is claimed her parents' situation added an extra stress.

There used to be huge social pressure to marry rather than cohabit: and in most societies, severe penalties - frequently directed at women - where couples did not. If a couple were not married (or there was an impediment), the woman might change her surname, by deed poll, to make it seem that they were lawfully wed.

It took bravery to 'live in sin', as the phrase had it, and it's surely a good thing that people no longer feel coerced into wedlock. Even clergy don't usually suggest that a couple should marry if they present their child for baptism. Priests and ministers feel it is not their place to imply such judgments, and that couples should arrive at that decision of their own free choice. Christian marriage has to be voluntary.

And yet, it's turning out that the poor will be increasingly disadvantaged when couples are not married. There have been many studies done in the US which demonstrate that marriage is a stabilising force in family life, is a support in employment and something of a defence against poverty. In Britain, the former High Court judge Paul Coleridge became so distressed by the problems he presided over in the family courts that he launched a campaigning organisation called The Marriage Foundation, to try to promote marriage.

Some of the barriers are economic. It is well recognised that being on welfare benefits can be a disincentive to marry. But some are cultural. Where the norm is to live together rather than to marry, the norm prevails.

But the money factor is relevant. An average wedding in Ireland costs anything between €20,000 and €25,000, and the expense of such an occasion can be the most influential deterrent. Lavish weddings almost underline that marriage is mostly for those who can afford such ceremonies.

It would take a Ryanair-type provider of budget weddings ('Don't spend €20,000 on your nuptials! We'll deliver the whole package for €199!') to alter this pattern. It would take a further cultural shift to make it socially acceptable.

Individuals and couples must, of course, be free to choose to marry or not. There is quite a strong lobby campaigning for full equal rights between co-habiting, although this is now in contradiction to gay marriage, where it has been argued that marriage itself must remain special.

"Love and marriage", sang Frank Sinatra, "go together like a horse and carriage". But money and marriage seem even more inextricably connected.

Irish Independent

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