Marriage is an act of hope. It’s knowing what broken love feels like, and risking it anyway. It’s knowing that the worldwide divorce rate is 41 per cent (50 per cent in America, 42 per cent in the UK, a third in Australia) and still choosing to walk down that aisle. It’s knowing that a legally binding contract cannot protect you from failure and wishing, desperately, that you’re exempt all the same.
Fewer people are getting married than ever before and those who are, are doing it later in their lives. It may feel like there’s a new wedding hashtag on your Instagram every week, but actually, marriage is at an all-time low across the world. In America, for example, only 29 per cent of people aged 18 to 34 were married in 2018, compared to 59 per cent in 1978. Millennials are three times less likely to get married than their grandparents were. According to the Pew Research Centre, they either don’t feel like they’re financially ready to tie the knot, haven’t found someone with the right qualities or feel like they’re just too young to settle down. We’re seeing a shift in values, as people choose to focus on their careers, have a family or validate their commitment to their beloved in a less legally binding way.
For some people, a private declaration of love is enough. Ben and Hettie, for example, have been together 10 years. They look after Hettie’s two children from a previous marriage and they have no intention whatsoever to part ways. “Put simply, I’ve just never seen the point of marriage aside from the distinctly unsexy reason of tax benefits,” says Ben, 43. “I couldn’t imagine being in a better, or for that matter more committed, relationship and no part of me thinks that getting a certificate to show that would improve it in any way. A couple of overtly religious ceremonies that I have been to recently really reinforced the overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of marriage and that is enough on its own for me to want nothing to do with the whole enterprise.” Hettie, 47, is a self-confessed romantic who loves weddings, but doesn’t feel the need to have another of her own. She agrees that they are, in many ways, deeply problematic. Ben and Hettie know their relationship is forever, though, without the blessing of the state. The tenets of their love are no different from a marriage, according to Hettie: “mutual attraction, great company, compatible idiocy, but also the shared commitment to work hard within a relationship to support and understand one another.”
Some people get hitched for practical reasons. Kate, 27, got married to George, 27, a few weeks ago. They spent a lot of their 5-year relationship long distance between Malaysia and the UK, so getting married was a way for them to live in the same country. “I promised to believe in him, to support and encourage him to be the best he can be,” Kate tells me, when I ask about their vows. “I also promised to hold his hand at the doctor’s. He promised to give me a home so I don’t get homesick, and to be there for me always, as well as a life filled with laughter – and to only ask me to go on one hike a year.” When I ask her if she believes in marriage, though, she says: “We don’t, really, to be honest. If visas weren’t an issue, we probably would’ve just stayed partners for a much longer time. I don’t think marriage is the sacred institution it’s touted to be, and if you’re dedicated to one another enough, why get married?”
Then, of course, there are the people who regret getting married. “If I could turn back the clock, I wouldn’t,” says Shreyansh, 36, who’s been married to his childhood sweetheart for 10 years. “It does bring a kind of stability to our lives, but what some call stability, others call being stagnant. Marriage is a huge challenge. When I got married, I thought it was a natural progression of the relationship and also it was what everybody around us expected from us.” The weight of that social expectation pushes a lot of people into marriages they may or may not later wish themselves out of; perhaps that explains some of the divorce rate.
So what then of the people who still want to get married? Those sweet fools, all of us, who are willing to legally bind ourselves to another human being because we believe in the possibility of forever? What do people even want from marriage, in 2019?
Sophie, 28, got engaged to Jess, 30, in June, after less than a year of dating. “I’ve always been so heart set on getting married,” says Sophie. “Perhaps the things that have changed as I’ve got older have been the sort of person I want to marry (absolutely not a man) and the sort of wedding I’d have. I always thought it was so important to have this big white wedding with all the frills and food and booze in an amazing venue, but now I’d be happy to just do it in a registry office and have a drive-through McDonald’s after!” What she wants from a marriage is really the same as any of us: commitment, security and family. She also wants that basic, elusive right: to be happy. “You know like when you leave your dog at home and then you come back and it could be five minutes or five hours and they’re always so, so happy just to see your face. That’s what coming home to Jess feels like and I want our marriage to be like that too.”
Amy, who is single right now, wants to get married, too. She believes in the institution, partly because she was raised Christian, and also because she’s saving sex for marriage, so there’s that to look forward to, as well. “For me, it’s about true companionship, a perfect balance between freedom and responsibility, equal sacrifice, interdependence, and care, having someone who is literally legally obliged to fight on your team, a sense of safety and fun, and of being fully known and loved and totally safe.” Amy’s parents have been married 40 years, which she says probably allowed her to believe in the possibility of being together always. “One of my parents is terminally ill, and watching the other one care for them has brought home the reality of a lifelong commitment. The healthy one, in a frankly uncharacteristically practical way, said, ‘I promised in sickness and in health – we’ve had health and now we can do sickness’.”
Ceren, 30 and single, is pragmatic about what marriage means to her – and it’s a quiet sort of wisdom that seems to come with age. “When I was younger I had grand ideas about marriage. I wanted fun and electricity and romance. I wanted someone who would surprise me with flowers and gestures. Now? I want a teammate, a partner. Someone to navigate life with. Someone who will help me practically. Too often in relationships I’ve been relied on. I want to be able to rely on someone.”
Rosie married her husband, Nathan, a few years ago. She was similarly hopeful about what marriage could be. “I was looking for a partnership that meant we would challenge each other to be the best versions of ourselves and as a unit be welcoming, generous, kind and creative,” she says. “I think I was looking for security and a degree of commitment that being in a relationship or cohabiting previously did not provide.” She also recognises that times have changed and that marriage means something different from what it might have in previous generations. “It used to be a business transaction, then I think it was more about status, religion and the notion of virtue. Since the sexual revolution, I think it is entirely optional and these days it’s probably quite old-fashioned, yet people are still doing it so I think there still must be considered some value in it.”
And that’s just it: people are still doing it. Marriage may be less popular than it’s ever been, but we can’t declare it over just yet. There are still plenty of us who sign up for a ceremony to proclaim that we want forever love. We want security and companionship and romance and support and legally bound commitment. Despite how common divorce is, we still believe all of that might be possible.
As I said, marriage, ultimately, is an act of hope.
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