Will you marry me? Probably not

TO be or not to be…Married, that is!Wedded bliss has seemingly slipped from the great romantic masterplan in recent times, with more and more couples deciding to cohabit instead.

By Debbie Watson

TO be or not to be…Married, that is!

Wedded bliss has seemingly slipped from the great romantic masterplan in recent times, with more and more couples deciding to cohabit instead.

Here, as a new survey suggests that marriages might be starting to claim renewed popularity, Debbie Watson asks if the marital 'I do' is rather more a defiant 'I don't'!

"Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to witness this man and this woman join together in holy matrimony…making them one of the few brave souls who would dare to do so in this age of absolute marital scepticism!"

Fortunately, if you're one half of a British pairing that's destined for their walk up the aisle this summer, you're highly unlikely to be greeted by such a suspicious verbal opener from your vicar.

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But that said, the cynicism of us Britons is all too real when it comes to the concept of a formal union, and with statistics still pointing at a divorce rate of one in three marriages – it's hardly any surprise.

So is the fairytale image of wedded bliss now completely dead and buried?

Is the reality of so many frayed marital knots now convincing us not to go tying our own knot in the first place?

Well, it's certainly looked like that for the last decade.

Fewer and fewer couples had been marching up the aisle in the UK, leaving many households consisting of happily cohabiting partners, and of children born outside the traditional wedlock.

Now, however, it seems the tides are changing.

According to new research out this month the number of lovers tying the knot in England and Wales has risen for the first time in almost a decade.

In fact, a total of 267,961 couples got married in 2000 while the number of divorces fell. Marriages were up 1.7 per cent on 1999 – marking the first rise since 1992.

It's a revealing statistic, but does it really mean that we're rekindling a fairytale desire for the pomp and ceremony of a traditional White Wedding?

Or is there a hidden meaning behind the figures?

Seemingly, much of the rise is actually down to one or both partners getting wed for the second time.

Indeed, the number of people marrying for the first time has continued to fall, with the latest report showing that the marriage rate for never-married men aged between 20 and 24 was just 17 per 1,000 in 2000 (compared with 49 in 1990).

For single women, 35 out of every 1,000 aged between 20 and 24 said "I do" in 2000 compared to 85 per 1,000 10 years previously.

These statistics come at a timely point in the history of marital-dom, and in particular, at a timely point for the workings of the Church of England.

Last month the General Synod of the CofE met to discuss various aspects of church business – including the convention of marriage and the opportunity for divorcees (where their ex-partner is still alive) to be remarried within church.

Their verdict was that the old rules should now be scrapped to take into account the modern family-based changes in the western world. Already, some 11 per cent of CofE marriages involve divorcees so perhaps this is simply an appropriate move given today's relationship climate.

"It's a decision very much based on the reality of society as we find it," explained church spokesman for the Ipswich and St Edmundsbury Diocese, Nick Clarke.

"There are a lot more divorced people today – many of whom will want to remarry at a later stage in their life."

Nick was quick to highlight the fact that Suffolk has in fact been streets ahead of the Synod on this issue for some time.

He said: "The truth of the matter is that the General Synod has only now brought the church up to where Suffolk has been for years.

"When the Right Reverend Richard Lewis – Bishop of Ipswich and St Edmundsbury – was appointed back in 1996, he made the decision that if clergy felt they could marry a divorcee in clear conscience, then that was fine by him.

"So, however much of a landmark the Synod announcement is, it's still something which Suffolk has already been enjoying the benefits of."

In church or not, Nick insists that marriage still very much has a place in the agenda of society.

"We've recently analysed the figures for weddings in 2000 and I can honestly say that the reality of marriage is certainly not dead.

"There were 990 marriages in Ipswich and St Edmundsbury area that year, and 128 blessings. To me, that suggests that marriage is still very much something that people want."

This is something with which Reverend Nigel Hartley – who recently married a lookalike Marilyn Monroe and Elivs Presley in a Suffolk ceremony – firmly agrees.

"I'm still seeing a lot of marriages and that's certainly not restricted to second-timers," he said. "I think young people still do believe in the idea of marriage and I think it's wrong to get carried away with statistics that suggest we're not as eager to go up the aisle today as we might once have been."

Eager to comment on the latest ruling of the Synod, Nigel has made an interesting U-turn on his own approach to marrying divorcees.

"Over the years I've realised that divorce is a reality and that there were more and more couples coming to me where one person had already been married," he said.

"To turn those marriages down was becoming more and more painful – particularly because I could see how distressing it was for one half of the couple, who was very often getting wed for the first time.

"Now I realise that often the person marrying for the second time is in fact entering the union with greater seriousness. They have learned a lot from their break-up and they want this marriage to be one that lasts forever."

Despite Nigel's positive comments suggesting young people still have ambitions to marry, wider national research does unavoidably indicate that there is increasingly something holding us back from an old-fashioned husband-wife partnership with our lovers.

And if it's true that we're becoming more reluctant to walk up the aisle as first-time brides and grooms, is it also true that we're simply evolving into a nation of commitment-phobes?

Clearly marriage is meant to be the one most concrete step in proving our fidelity for, and love of, another person.

And yet, with the wedding figures down year on year, you'd surely be forgiven for assuming that we're not prepared to offer ourselves into such a lifelong pledge.

"I think the reality is that the relationships between men and women have changed fundamentally," said counselling psychologist Lilian Power. "There is a sense that men feel they have a chance to be freer for longer than their fathers were, and that women no longer see themselves as being duty-bound to make themselves into a wife and mother.

"In particular, this change for women will have had a radical impact on the necessity for marriage. Once upon a time, females thought that their purpose was to fulfil those roles – now they are financially independent and their purpose is in various areas of life."

She added: "I can envisage a point where we may end up seeing marriage very differently; viewing it as something that isn't a lifelong thing; finding it harder and harder to take on such a big commitment when we're not sure that we have to anymore."

If Lilian's prediction is in any way close to the truth, then wedding bells might indeed be sounding out across Suffolk with far less frequency over the coming years.

We're already well aware of the rise in cohabiting couples, of young women forging more competitively up the career ladder, and of parenthood being left later and later in the lives of modern young adults.

So perhaps the loss of a marital ambition is merely the next consequence of our modernised society.

"I fear it, but I sincerely hope that's not the case," stressed Lilian. "It would be a shame and terrible loss if the institution of marriage was suddenly seen as something unnecessary and irrelevant."

Indeed it would be a shame.

And perhaps – with the church now making huge strides to accommodate all those who wish to celebrate their love in the traditional way – we may now be turning a very promising corner in helping to encourage the marital union of old.




WEDDED BLISS?: Some key facts about marriage in the UK.

- The average age of marriage continues to rise: in 2000 it was 34.8 years for men and 32.1 for women.

- Only 16 per cent of single men who married in 2000 were aged under 25, compared with 38 per cent in 1990. For single women, the corresponding proportions were 30 and 57pc respectively.

- The number of divorces granted in England and Wales fell by more than two per cent in 2000 to 141,135, compared with 144,556 in 1999.

- The majority of divorces in 2000, 70pc, were to couples where the marriage had been the first for both parties, compared with 74pc in 1990.

- The General Synod of the CofE has now scrapped plans preventing the church marriage of a divorcee, where the former partner is still living. This would pave the way for Prince Charles to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles.