If you have experienced the dubious joys of suffocation from an
excess of tulle and organdie; if you have attempted to assist a
tearful size sixteen as she struggles to squeeze into a size 12
Scarlet O’Hara extravaganza that she is convinced, on the day, will
keep her profound misgivings at bay – then you too, like me, have
known the pleasures of working in a bridal boutique.
Such establishments, if the pro-matrimony lobby is to be
believed, will soon be extinct. It believes that marriage is under
threat, not simply because the number of weddings in the UK has
reached its lowest figure since 1926, but also because it can see
an alternative institution being built, brick by shameless brick,
before its very eyes.
Last week, we were told that parental rights will be granted to
unmarried fathers if they sign their child’s birth register. A
report also signalled that the Law Commission will recommend that
unmarried partners, gay and heterosexual, who have lived together
for two years, will have a right to a share in the home if they
In future, cohabitees will no longer find themselves quite so
penalised because they resist becoming husbands and wives in
Some seek still more comprehensive cohabitation legislation,
arguing that it may be unavoidable because the Human Rights Act
1998 gives the right to all of a family life. In France, of course,
cohabitees have already been accorded status and Armageddon is no
Still, the pro-marriage lobby is newly harried not only by
cohabitee rights but also by four homosexual marriages last weekend
in Amsterdam – the first in that country conducted with full legal
Those who are in favour only of the promotion of heterosexual
marriage correctly say that spouses are healthier and happier.
Research may also show that long-term cohabitees (gay or straight)
are equally content. Except that nobody has yet conducted such a
survey – since we are keener to chart how society goes wrong, than
to understand how relationships, however unorthodox, function
The battle that really matters, once children are involved, is
not marriage versus cohabitation but commitment (inside or outside
of wedlock) versus drift.
People drift into matrimony just as surely as they drift into
cohabitation. Cohabitees have three to four times more chance of
splitting up – but divorce too will affect four in 10 couples.
Commitment, what makes individuals co-operate with some
contentment as a team, for a long stretch, is now, belatedly,
beginning to preoccupy researchers.
They tell us that commitment is made up of one, two or all three
imperatives. Namely, I must stay in this relationship (society
expects it), I ought to stay (duty and conscience allows no
alternative ), and I want too (the relationship as a changing
challenge; the pleasure is sufficient to push me through the
In these secular times, we apparently have less of one and two,
placing excessive emphasis on the expectation that we are grown up
enough to make a success of number three. If a greater legal
recognition of cohabitation encourages drifters, particularly those
with children, to avoid a split – then that surely has to be better
than the traditional snappy ending?