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