As romantic teenagers, my friends and I used to lie in our beds at boarding school – very Malory Towers – talking solemnly about what life would look like by the time we were 30. We’d be married, we decided, with one to three children and a dog, living in a nice house. The fact that none of us had gone much further than snogging a boy, maybe the odd bit of fingering on a beach in Cornwall, didn’t dissuade us from this fantasy. That was the pattern of life. We knew it would happen.
I’m now 33 and not married. Fourteen-year-old me is horrified. I eat toast for dinner, I leave teabags in the sink, I never seem to have enough clean knickers (where do all the clean knickers go? Is it the same place as hair ties?). But my general slovenliness has nothing to do with it. I’m just not sure marriage is for me.
It was a topic that came up early in my relationship with my boyfriend. "I’m never getting married," he announced airily on date five or six. Men often do that towards the start of a relationship, I’ve noticed. It’s a little test – are you Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction or Julia Roberts from Runaway Bride?
"Me neither," I shot back.
He looked slightly surprised. "How come?"
"Everyone in my family’s divorced," I said, shrugging. "So I don’t want to do it."
My siblings and I have often debated whether having divorced parents makes you more or less likely to make a marriage succeed. On the one hand, you’ve felt divorce up close and may be doubly keen to avoid it. On the other, you realise that divorce isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Hideous, sure, but life goes on.
It has made me a cynic, though, and installed a fear of the impermanence of relationships. Falling in love and being in love is a wonderful, extraordinary, magical thing. But making it last? Hmmm. Trickier. And yet in our 20s this strange phenomenon starts happening – friends begin to rush up the aisle as if it’s Black Friday at Asda. They choose to commit to someone forever, which is incredibly optimistic given that many of us struggle to commit to a date for dinner in a few weeks’ time with our closest mates. Statistically, we know that around 40% of these marriages will end in divorce and yet there we stand, celebrating, dutifully clapping after the vows, dribbling espresso martinis over ourselves at the reception.
So, yeah, a cynic. Or maybe just a wimp? I’m in awe of my pals who choose to do it, but sitting in church as the organist ploughs through Pachelbel, there’s often a little voice in my head thinking 'Really? You guys sure? Are you definitely not just doing this because everyone else is?' The ultimate life goal for a huge number of people these days, considering it’s 2018 and we’re supposedly all so much more emotionally aware than previous generations, still seems to be getting engaged so you can Instagram a picture of your hand. And then throw a hen or stag party with its own hashtag so you get loads of likes. And then the wedding itself – even more likes! Brilliant!
Eeeeeech. It sounds bitter and churlish. It’s not meant to. It’s more that this assumption about marriage, this persistent obsession that marriage is the answer and you 'should have' done it by a certain age, feels ever so slightly unthinking. I love my boyfriend enormously and I can't imagine my life without him, but promise to stick together forever? I’d rather we take each day, each month, each year as it comes without that pressure.
Baroness Fiona Shackleton, top divorce lawyer, made headlines recently when she declared that marriage lessons should be taught in schools. They teach children about alcohol and drug abuse, sex and "goodness knows what else", Shackleton told Radio 4, but failed to talk about "the most important decision they make – which is, basically, who they breed with".
Well, it’s a fairly unromantic way to put it, Baroness, but I’m with you. Sort of. When I think back to the classroom, I remember teachers wanging on about photosynthesis and oxbow lakes but I don’t remember many truths about marriage. I’ve admired the lawyer ever since she appeared from court all those years ago with wet hair, slicked back like a Bond girl coming out of the sea. She was representing Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills and supposedly things had become so heated that Heather lobbed a jug of water over the Baroness in fury. Still, Shackleton stepped from the court beaming, which seemed a sensible way to carry on if you’ve just been assaulted with a surprise shower. And her suggestions about marriage lessons seem a sensible step in the right direction too, but can I make a suggestion? Could one of the lessons cover options for those who aren’t sure about marriage at all? For those who want to be single, or just cohabit with someone, or live in a commune with 47 other people having orgies every night, frankly. In pluralist times where difference is championed, why should marriage still be the prescription for so many?