My last post was about my grandparents celebrating sixty years of marriage. They got married in 1954 and moved into a brand new house a few months later. All of their children were born and grew up in that house, eventually leaving to build their own lives. I have many beautiful memories of staying with them there. My brother, cousins and I all camped in the garden, helped Gran to water her plants, chased the ice cream van down the street, and ate breakfast cereal in our pyjamas whilst watching the Magic Roundabout on TV.
They lived there until a few days ago, when Grandpa was discharged from hospital and we moved them both to a care home by the sea. We are hoping that in time, they will be able to move into a flat with a full-time carer. What is certain, however, is that they will never return to that house. The street has changed, almost beyond recognition, in the past sixty years. All their friends have either died or moved away, and their neighbours are now people they don’t know, with young families. Times changed, people moved on, and my grandparents went from being at the centre of their community to being like strangers in their own street. Now it’s time for them to move on too.
While they are celebrating sixty years of marriage and trying to adjust to the changes in their lives, it feels like an opportune moment to reflect on marriage and how it has evolved over the years.
Yesterday was a momentous day for many people in the UK, as it was the day the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 came into force, meaning that gay and lesbian couples can now legally get married. This legislation was passed last year, with relatively little fanfare. There has inevitably been some criticism, mostly from religious groups who believe that marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman, and that same-sex marriage as a concept is wrong. However, most people have either welcomed the change in the law or not expressed a strong opinion about it.
This is in stark contrast to the reaction in France, where same-sex marriage was also legalised last year. In France the change was met with loud and vocal criticism and widespread protest from many people, including a significant number of young people. Talking about it with Olivier, I realised that many people in France are extremely opposed to same-sex marriage, including many of his friends. Spending so much time in France, I am so used to French culture that it always comes as a shock to me to discover an area in which French and British culture seem to be so fundamentally at odds. Certainly, I am not aware of any of my British friends being opposed to same-sex marriage; they all seem to welcome it with open arms.
When the same-sex marriage debate first began in this country, I did not initially understand why it was such an issue for gay and lesbian people. Since 2004 people have been able to enter into civil partnerships, which are recognised as being equivalent to marriage for all legal purposes, such as tax planning, spousal pension benefits and death benefits. If someone dies without leaving a will, their civil partner will have the same rights to their property as a spouse. So I have to admit, at first I couldn’t really see why gay and lesbian people were still campaigning for same-sex marriage when they could have a civil partnership.
As I started to take more notice of the debate, and to talk to gay friends about it, the answer became clearer. It is a point of principle. Marriage is about more than just tax breaks, or ensuring that you have financial protection if your partner dies, even though those in themselves are important and valuable things. Marriage is about committing to stay with someone for the rest of your lives, through good times and bad. Marriage is about staying faithful to that person, even when it’s difficult. Marriage can be beautiful and wonderful, and it can also be difficult and painful. People keeping their vows and doing what they promised to do, even when it’s not the most appealing option, is what binds families together. Stronger families create stronger communities and a stronger society as a whole, even for people who aren’t part of a traditional family structure. Marrying someone is a huge decision, with huge consequences. Taking your vows in front of all your friends and family, and having the state legally recognise your union, underlines what an important decision it is, and legitimises your relationship in the eyes of the world. It’s not something to be entered into lightly.
And yet… The divorce rate is hovering somewhere close to 50%. And even amongst people who are still “successfully” married, the levels of adultery, domestic abuse and plain old misery are shockingly high. Having worked in the family department of a law firm, and having witnessed the breakdown of a marriage within my own family, I have seen at first hand how terrible the fallout can be when two people decide they don’t want to be married any more. It is devastating to see two people who used to be in love go to such lengths to hurt and damage one another in divorce proceedings.
Each relationship is unique and different, and it is impossible to make sweeping generalisations about why so many people are getting divorced. I am also certain that in previous generations the main reason the divorce rate was so much lower was because many people didn’t have the financial freedom to leave an unhappy marriage, or they wouldn’t have had the support of the rest of their family. Leaving was a much harder decision to make back then, and many people put up with unhappy marriages and intolerable situations because they simply had no choice. From that perspective, the fact that we have a higher divorce rate now is not necessarily such a bad thing.
But the fact that so many marriages end in divorce has devalued the concept of marriage in modern society. It has made many people feel that marriage is no longer a life-long decision, or that it is not worth bothering with in the first place. So in that context, the fact that gay people have campaigned for so long to be able to marry is interesting. Gay people have “traditionally” been on the fringes of society, and so the question of why it is so important to them to be able to enter into marriage, an institution which has long been defined by the traditional social values which have often excluded gay people, is an intriguing one.
In my view, the same-sex marriage debate seems to focus almost entirely on tradition, and on a very narrow definition of what marriage should be, i.e. the legal union of a man and a woman, and only that. However, in other cultures, marriage can mean something else. Many cultures around the world have polygamous marriages, for example, and their family structures look quite different. Huge numbers of people (notably in Asian cultures) have arranged marriages. We are often very critical of arranged marriages in the western world, without stopping to consider the fact that until relatively recently, a huge number of marriages in Britain (particularly in the aristocratic classes) were arranged marriages, for social and political reasons. The point is that marriage does not have one fixed definition which can be applied equally to all cultures in the world and all periods in history. It is a concept that is constantly evolving, and yesterday, in Britain, it evolved yet again.
I am now 28 years old, and at “that age”. Many of my friends and former classmates are getting married every year. Although I wish them all the best, and hope that they will all be very happy together, statistically it is very unlikely that all these marriages will last. In fact, I know at least three people my age who are already divorced. All the fanfare over rings and dresses and venues and cakes and hen parties makes me wonder (perhaps rather cynically) whether some of these people are just getting married because they feel it’s what they are “supposed to be doing” at this age. Once you’re over 25, as soon as you’ve been with someone for more than a year or so, people can’t stop asking whether you’ll be next, and whether marriage and babies are on the horizon yet. Facebook doesn’t help, either. Sometimes I see so many photos I almost feel like I’ve actually been to all these weddings, even if the people getting married are people I haven’t seen since I left school. This puts people my age under huge pressure to conform to what society expects of them. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that some of these people are getting married because they feel they should, or because they want to have a big party, rather than because they feel that they’re with the right person and that they’re ready.
It almost makes me feel relieved that Olivier and I live in different countries, because it takes the pressure off. We can’t even think about getting married until we’ve decided which country we will live in, and one of us has actually made the move. Moving country in itself is a major decision, which will have a huge impact on both our careers, so we won’t rush into it. For the time being, “we don’t even live in the same country yet” is a pretty good comeback to anyone wanting to know when we will be “tying the knot”.
I think the same-sex marriage debate is starting to make people of all sexual preferences question what marriage is fundamentally about, and why it is so important. It is also making people question traditional values, and think about whether they are something to preserve and aspire to, or simply not relevant to modern life. It’s wonderful to see people who have been living in committed, loving relationships for a long time, and who are clearly more committed to each other than many married couples, able to have their relationships legally recognised as marriages for the first time.
Equality is a wonderful thing, and so is choice. The choice to get married, even if you’re a 50-something gay couple who have already been living together for twenty years, as well as the choice NOT to get married, even if you’re a 20-something straight couple and society expects it. Marriage is such an important thing, I think we all need to think much more carefully about whether it is the right thing to do. I hope the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and this debate over what marriage really is, will encourage all kinds of people to do just that.
If society would only stop trying to impose “traditional” values on everybody, regardless of their personal circumstances, people could make their life choices much more freely, without fear of judgement or discrimination, and they would be much more likely to make the choices that are right for them.