Should we make it harder to marry, rather than make it harder to divorce?
This was the fascinating question which came from a discussion we were having with fellow Twitter buddies on the current hot topic of no fault divorce. And the resounding opinion, at least amongst our friends and their colleagues was a resounding yes: yes to making marriage harder, rather than starting at the other end of the spectrum and placing restrictions on divorce.
It’s an alluring thought and one that is surely designed to ensure that divorce is naturally, or organically reduced and at first we were seduced by it, too. Then we began to think about what ‘making marriage harder’ in practical, legal and cultural terms, might look like.
There are potentially lots of creative ways to restrict something like marriage, so we’ll mention a few and look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on the rest but for most lawyers, the inevitable first thought lies with the law. Perhaps a restriction on marriage could involve age limits for example, if we take the view that with more life experience, comes a greater ability to judge what is right for us and what is less likely to work. Perhaps a law which said no one was allowed to get married until they were 30, would be one way of restricting marriage. Or perhaps, couples would need to show that they had been living together for a certain number of years, which may be viewed as a possible indication that any future marriage was more likely to last. Yet both these suggestions are fraught with difficulty.
Older age does not make us immune from error of judgment even if, as some research suggests, the older you are, the more likely you are to be able to sustain a marriage. And whilst there may be an argument to suggest that being able to sustain a marriage belongs to the same school of thought as being happy in a marriage, we would beg to differ. We don’t kid ourselves that countries who are at war with one another always make peace in the truest sense. Often, the compromises are built on shaky ground, with each state giving way, not out of an appreciation for the other, but in order to acquire what they want out of the treaty or contract. This looks alright on a superficial level, but the slightest change in political climate and the whole agreement is likely to fall apart. So it is too, with many couples who wear their wedding anniversaries like a medal of honour. It is only an achievement, in the truest sense, if we have sustained something worth sustaining. And measuring that kind of success in any research is hard. In fact, we are not aware of any large-scale research which focuses on longevity of marriage based on happiness and fulfillment; it would be almost impossible to do.
Living together too, which by its very nature often sees couples getting married later on in life, with more couples in Britain today getting married in their mid to late thirties as opposed to previous generations marrying in their early to mid twenties, is not a guarantee of a long and happy marriage, with research in this area being conflicted. And whilst the research suggests that people from previous generations to the current one are more likely to sustain their marriage, a stark two-fold contradiction to that assumption becomes clear – that very same generation for the most part were the same people who got married in their twenties, and who now in their sixties have become one of the fastest growing demographics for increased divorce rates in the UK. Yes, longevity does not equal success. Neither does age or compromise guarantee lasting true happiness.
So how do we make it harder for people to marry, when there seem to be so many inherent contradictions surrounding the ingredients for a successful marriage and looking at what is possibly the most obvious preference for restriction, does the very act of making it harder to enter into that union, mean that people will inevitably take it more seriously?
Perhaps in the short-term, if we were able to impose limitations on getting married straight away in the first instance (and we have grave doubts about that, as we are inclined to feel that this would simply lead to a situation where people would choose to get married without state involvement), it might appear more valuable as a structure, but once the marriage sets in, the same problems which blight many marriages will still be there to test couples and ultimately, the greatest equalizer will not be the struggle to mount the hurdles to the registry office, but the challenges which come with the test of time itself. We cannot, no matter how much we try, know the human being our partner will become, nor what we will become, ourselves.
If marriage was an actual human being, it would suffer today with an acute form of schizophrenia. Beautiful and elegant to look at, they would, outwardly at least, radiate a romantic and ethereal quality, underscored by a hopeful spring in their step and a song on their lips. But below the surface of their beating heart, would lie confused and out-dated modes of thought, a dark past shrouded in chattels, contracts and the church; oppression and tyranny would rule part of its soul, love and tenderness, the remaining fragments of its spirit. They would view the world as a contract, but feel every kiss and every coitus.
Perhaps then, we have to ask ourselves what the value of marriage itself is; what does marriage have to offer and is it something which at its heart, and despite its chequered past, touches upon a deeper, more poignant need buried deep within the human condition?
We happen to think the answer is, yes and no. On a philosophical note, human beings don’t need signed pieces of paper to be with one another – that paper is for the state and always has been, to keep track of its population’s movements and today, that registration also ties in to various different types of financial benefit. From a practical point of view, these financial and legal benefits can make marriage enticing, a form of security offered by the state. And although historically, marriage has been a form of security for women, in the beginning, to protect against their other halves taking multiple partners and leaving them destitute and more recently, to ensure children were given a distinct legal status, we have moved on.
Children born out of wedlock are no longer called bastards, women it is understood, are not chattels and the Church does not have exclusive rights over human union. The term wedlock itself, is indicative of force and unyielding structure and it is this very concept of force, or restriction which the twenty-first century is trying to fight. So to address an institution which by and large is only viewed romantically in its most positive light and is these days, often viewed in its worst light as out-dated, requires a certain finesse.
One way of modernising marriage and making it relevant would be to remove the element of the contract from marriage altogether. The underlying implication that human beings are bargaining with their lives is inelegant and does not reflect the direction society is moving towards, as it begins to move into a phase which does not look unlike an Enlightenment Period. There may always be human beings who seek out their soul mate (we are one of those romantic fools), but so too will there be those men and women who want something different. And all of these desires are natural and originate from our biology.
So, whilst we believe that every marriage, no matter how well thought out, is a risk, it is not the risk itself that poses the problem, but how we choose to manage it. To our mind, exercising our power to limit marriage, will be as detrimental as our past attempts at restricting divorce – people will always find a way. Ultimately, the emphasis should be on facilitating healthy choices, rather than attempting to socially engineer a nation. Perhaps investing a little less on structures and a little more on sentiment, might not be as bohemian as it sounds, after all.
PS And we apologise to our friends for disagreeing with them on this issue – we move in mysterious ways…. which just means most of the time we wobble.