Tag Archives: marriage


THE ART OF MARRIAGE is out now Down Under.  Or up above.  I guess it depends on your centre of gravity.  In Australia, anyway.

I had great fun talking about it on Sunrise Breakfast TV, although I think I looked down throughout the interview — and with my fluffy top and a seven and a half month bump, I also looked like big pink pom. (Or pom-pom.)

Any thoughts about marriage in the Antipodes, gratefully received…


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As summer sinks into silly season, I miss the World Cup. So the soccer stank. There were still delicious spectacles. Yes, Ronaldo’s torso. Better yet was watching spoilt youths rage at referees (presumably ‘No’ is rarely heard if you’re on £100,000 a week). Likewise, wasn’t Alastair Campbell baiting Sky’s Adam Boulton your General Election highlight? Their barney is a YouTube classic not just because Boulton turns a beguiling puce. When public figures expose their unscripted inner Eltons, it satisfies more than Schadenfreude. 

Connoisseurship of conflict is a national sport. TV is usually blamed for this. Especially the shouty ‘talk’ shows that serve as televisual espresso on daytime, and soaps where little chats routinely end ‘outside – NOW!’ But such stunted debates differ little (barring vocabulary) from  jousts on Newsnight. Broadcasters rig conversations as bouts because disagreement grips audiences as no analysis can – not to mention wakes them for ad breaks. 

Everyone loves a ruckus because conflict’s the DNA of drama. Spats have the entertaining qualities of momentum, passion, and clearly differentiated positions. For participants, however, ‘telling it like it is’ can be the worst way to get across views, unless your aim is simply to use each other as scratching posts. (Anyone with sisters knows fights are fun, a perfectly valid end in itself. Why? Because I said so.) The traditional definition of ‘argument’ is ‘proof’, although in everyday speech ‘argument’ usually refers to the activity of debate, not the logical steps to a good point, well made.  But let’s suppose you want a good argument, one serving a higher purpose, like reaching a decision. What steps to take? 

First, bear in mind that dialogue tends to polarise us so don’t rush; repetition and summaries minimise misunderstanding. Second, note you’re biased to believe arguments confirming your prejudices. As George Bernard Shaw observed: ‘The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.’ Third, remember your tactics may depend on what’s between your legs.

In lovers’ argy-bargy, usually she nags, he stonewalls – largely because men under attack ‘flood’ with stress hormones, taking longer than women cool off. So don’t rely on rows to up your tally of kisses. There are many argument techniques, from breastbeating to changing subject, but two spell relationship death: ignoring and contempt. My advice is listen. You may learn.

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Once, unless you were rich, there was but one way to become a fully paid-up member of society: get hitched.  

Today marriage is a free choice.  Daddy can’t make you.  Employers don’t demand it.  The word ‘spinster’ has lost its sting, sex, its stigma, and nobody calls a lovechild a bastard.  So what’s the point of marriage?

It’s an obvious question.  Yet for me it misses the point.   Now marriage is no longer compulsory, and the roles of husband and wife have shed their starch, we have an opportunity to custom-fit the marital commitment, to suit ourselves as never before.  

Marriage is no more than a pledge.  To put ‘we’ before ‘I’, and face the future as a three-legged race conjoined by a tie called wedlock.  How you run the race is up to you.  But one fact never varies.  To exalt a relationship, call it a marriage, invites couples to ponder what they’re doing together.  The value of this is obvious, isn’t it?

This ancient ritual works psychological magic too.  For men, more than women, research finds, the very public step of re-labelling a partner ‘a spouse’ alters your feelings towards them and your self-image.  And married couples must also think hard before changing their mind, given the costs of splitting.

Marriage has been accused of many crimes, but can be convicted only of suiting a host of lifestyles.  History shows it can knot us into almost any social formation – nuclear, feudal, or pharaonic.  The custom survived for millennia not by being dated but flexible.  This elderly institution remains fresh because every couple strikes their own deal, so it’s always personal.  

However, the tug of tradition has weakened.  Asking her hand in marriage is no longer the ‘thing to do’ after you’ve run out of conversation.  Perhaps today’s couples need to be reminded why this leap of faith into the unknown is worth making. 

Well, there’s the vast evidence that married couples are richer, healthier, and their children thrive.  Not just because happy, healthy people marry.  To say ‘we’ is more important than ‘I’ has practical power.  After all, for society’s greatest rewards, long-term tactics are necessary.  With a spouse who has sworn to support you, it’s easier to take decisions that are difficult in the short run. To step back from a job, start a family, or further your education. Secure in the knowledge that one day you will do the same for your spouse. 

Married couples can find it easier to widen each others’ worlds and reap the benefits of shared meaning and memories. They’re also shored up by the respect society offers those who trouble to state, publicly, their relationship’s importance. And if the obstacle race works out, at the end, if they’re lucky, they approach the finish with somebody to remind them where they left their spare teeth.

But magic only works if you believe in it.   If you don’t simply work at marriage, but play at and relish it.  Studies find that the more optimistic your expectations, the greater your demands, the more marriage will give you.  

If you seek the best, keep noticing each other, complain well but criticise less, and don’t let leisure slide.  (Although husbands tend to enjoy more free time, according to latest research, wives’ pleasures have greater impact on whether a union is happy.)  Try a psychological trick called ‘positive-sentiment override’.  If your beloved snaps at you, don’t snap back or take it personally.  No, they’re having a bad day.

With care, luck and selective attention, the ball and chain can weigh lighter than ever.  

As seen and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme

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In forty years’ marriage, my friend’s Dad, a surgeon allergic to shopping, gave his wife not one present. He adored her, and their lively sex life was a fact of which their kids would have preferred to know less. Yet the gift embargo lasted until their youngest son (30) called it a disgrace. You may think the Dad is amazing, but his wife’s self-possession is what impresses me. The Roman historian Titus Livy wrote, ‘A woman’s mind is affected by the meanest gifts’ – meaning, it costs little to buy female favour. But this happily married couple show that feelings about presents are fluid, and always an index of a relationship’s insecurities.
‘The manner of giving is worth more than the gift,’ claimed Pierre Corneille – in a play called The Liar. In reality, gifts cause upset because they are supposed to embody the giver’s esteem for the recipient. Hence it is little consolation to hear Mum say, ‘It’s the thought that counts’, when you open a half-eaten tube of Polos from your aunt on 25 December, as a mate of mine did, more than once.
As each exchange is a diplomatic act, similar rules apply to presents as to flattery. When Gordon Brown welcomed Barack Obama to Britain with a pen holder whittled from timbers of a sister ship of the Resolute, out of which the Presidential desk in the White House is made, plus a seven-volume, first edition Churchill biography, Obama gave him 25 DVDs including Psycho. Commentators scorned Obama’s ‘insult’, but the error was Brown’s. His presents were too great to be returned.
If gifts betoken love, in practice, they often say more about our budget, the relative length of queues in Selfridges and Superdrug, or our family etiquette. Indeed, a litmus test of new in-laws at Christmas is how they read local custom. My first time all gifts ‘for me’, in thrice-recycled paper, were ‘for me and him’. The highlight? A wooden spoon. Was I gracious? As if. But I have since learnt that so deep is my mother-in-law’s aversion to receiving gifts, to her, something useful, costing pennies, is the best imaginable.
I still love finding the perfect gift. The downside is that I am a pain to buy for. Which is why the best gift my husband and I shared was last Christmas. A gift-free, guiltless week in Egypt.

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Did greedy doctors invent sex addiction to grab a piece of the divorce lawyers’ action?  I only ask because commitment anxiety is rising, and not just adultery is being diagnosed as a disease.   Fidelity, too, is suspect.  Are you married, cohabiting, eyes for no other?  Might you be – whisper it – co-dependent?


I am married and I am independent.  Or so I thought.  However, my spouse and I depend on each other.  So the increasingly common term ‘co-dependence’ worried me. It sounds vague.  But my dictionary says that a co-dependent couple features one who is an addict, and another who is addicted to their relationship with the addict.  So me and my husband are okay.  But then it struck me the definition is slippery.  What if the addict is addicted to the relationship?  And what if a co-dependency therapist had advised Victorian poet Robert Browning? Would he have eloped with ageing, invalid opium addict Elizabeth Barrett?  Would we have their great love story?


‘In a codependent society,’ warns therapist Robert Burney, ‘everyone has to have someone to look down on, in order to feel good about themselves.’  Sounds like human nature.  By this measure, love between any two imperfect or unequal individuals is unhealthy, and caring is suspect (caring could be ‘looking down’ in disguise).  Is there such a thing as a relationship without any power imbalance?  Isn’t one of the benefits of a relationship that you don’t have to be best at everything?


Burney is not the first to view love with a surgeon’s suspicion.  ‘My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease.’  In this sonnet Shakespeare described a disorder called romance, which traditionally occurred outside dull marriage (which was for babies, money, and dynasties).  Only in the seventeenth century did married love come to be regarded the summit of human fulfilment.  In our crowded world, such a belief is less tenable.  


Twenty-first century romantics must commit to their job, friends, home, kids.  Even had we the time, it is harder to be confident about prioritising one relationship.  Fear of monotony, worry about monogamy, have increased our faith in other people’s right to talk us through our lives, and tell us how to live them.  But if we over-diagnose our emotions, our love stories may end before they’ve begun.



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