Marriage is making a comeback writes Kathy Lowe. Although more people are bringing up children on their own, living alone or co-habiting than ever before, a huge ideological offensive is under way to persuade the younger generation to marry, conform and return to “traditional family values”.
Latest government figures available for the UK show that after 40 years of decline the number of marriages in 2010 rose by 3.7% to 241,100 with non-religious ceremonies accounting for 69% of these. The number of civil partnerships rose by 2% from 5,687 to 5,804 in the same period.
Despite the recession the multi-million pound wedding industry, including the “pink wedding” sector, is booming. Those who tie the knot are now tending to marry in their late 20s or early 30s and wedding publications report they are spending on average around £17,000 on their big day, often more. Since 1995, when legal restrictions were relaxed on where ceremonies could be staged, people have been marrying in all sorts of venues including stately homes, hotels, golf clubs and the hospitality suites of football grounds.
At a price, specialist management consultancies and freelance wedding planners will cover all aspects of the occasion from the invitations, the best place to find THE DRESS, hire of suits, venue, flowers, gift lists, the wedding video and photos, reception, the cake, entertainers and the honeymoon. Hindu weddings, which often last for several hours with no expense spared, are seen as a particularly lucrative target group. There is even an Annual Wedding Industry Awards Competition open to all wedding suppliers.
Not everyone, of course, goes in for the engagement rings, fake tans, hair extensions, frilly dresses, ridiculous hats, week-long stag/hen parties and so on. But even those who may have been living together for years come under enormous social and financial pressures to conform in the end and opt for a civil ceremony of some kind.
For women especially this desperately bad news. After being handed over, as Germaine Greer once put it, “from one man to another decked out like a Christmas tree”, a bride surrenders her economic independence and much of her identity. The state treats her and her husband as a single legal entity with the spouse as senior partner. She (usually) takes his name and becomes merged into his tax liabilities and general finances. She may be the joint or only wage-earner in the household but her state pension rights are reduced on marriage on the grounds that she is now supported by her husband. Socially the two are treated as a couple, invited everywhere together, assumed to share the same opinions – generally joined at the hip.
Women as possessions
Religious ceremonies put the emphasis most overtly on women becoming a possession of the man on marriage. Until relatively recently the Christian wedding vows included the promise by the bride to love honour and obey her man. In the traditional Muslim union the woman receives a mahr, a payment for her youth and virginity, agreed beforehand by her family with the husband they have chosen for her. The Muslim wedding contract can be arranged signed and witnessed by male elders of the family without the bride actually being present at all. At Hindu weddings the emphasis is on uniting two families to create a new family unit and some vows encapsulate the idea of ownership rather than partnership as in “You have become mine forever…I have become yours.”
The whole marriage process is, in fact, a confidence trick by church and state to reinforce control over how people live their lives. Most important, it underpins the traditional family as the basic unit of society. Frederick Engels argues in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that the family in class society is a key unit for the ruling class because it is where workers are produced and nurtured. And in our neo-liberal age it is also a prime unit of consumption with family members being urged by a rampant advertising industry to take comfort and status from products they often cannot afford. At its best the family can be a place of creativity, enrichment and mutual support. At its worst, under capitalism, it is a place where the alienated and exhausted turn inwards, destroy one another and ruin their childrens’ lives.
The number of civil partnership ceremonies is also rising rapidly. People in same-sex relationships, having suffered discrimination on grounds of their sexual preferences for so long, are taking advantage of the right to forge legally recognized partnerships that appear to offer stability and greater social acceptance. Yet they too are buying into the great marriage trick.
Mr or Ms “Right”
Central to both same-sex and heterosexual unions is the goal of monogamy, the notion that women and men can be completely fulfilled by finding the “right”person and staying “faithful” only to them. (Single people, presumably, are incomplete, having failed in this regard.) This idea of exclusive love permeates our whole culture in which we are bombarded with Hollywood rom-coms and magazines about celebs getting hitched. It leads to people embarking on marriage with expectations of living happily ever after, expectations that frequently come to a sticky end.
Monogamy, though promising apparent emotional security in an insecure world, is actually being used as a moral imperative to help to prop up the institution of the traditional family. More often than not it is an imperative that proves unworkable, leading to hypocrisy, recrimination and unhappiness. What is wrong with people being ready to commit to each other not on paper but in practice – for as little or as long as it may be possible for them to do so?
For those co-habiting, who have in many cases pooled their resources over years and had children together, the lack of legal protection and property rights in the event of a relationship breakdown or the death of one of them is a very real concern. For these reasons and for the tax breaks, marriage can sometimes seem like a necessary insurance policy even to those who do not swallow all the reactionary rationale surrounding it. But reciprocal wills and other legal agreements can be made without giving credence to the state of holy matrimony and all it signifies in our society.
As far back as the time of the Russian revolution, Alexandra Kollontai, the only woman in Lenin’s government, was advocating a contract under which the responsibilities of each party would be spelled out.
Building a more just and equal society where women in particular regain a lot of lost rights and win new ones will only be possible when people take responsibility for themselves and others and are open to forging wider networks of comradeship and solidarity instead of looking for marriage to the “perfect other”.
In the words of the old Joni Mitchell song, ‘We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall, keeping us tied and true…’
Office of National Statistics www.ons.gov.uk
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer 1970, 1991, Flamingo.
Alexandra Kollontai , a biography, Cathy Porter 1980, Virago