How long should a marriage last? For how many decades can you reasonably expect to tie yourself to another human being in the erratic three-legged race of married life?
Does the fact that we are all living longer — general life expectancy is rising by 2.5 years per decade — change the answer?
In the 18th century, there were just ten centenarians in the whole of Europe. By the end of this century, there will be an estimated 1.5 million in the UK alone. So is that laughing, adventurous young lover really the right person to spend the best part of a century with?
Professor Sarah Harper, founder of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, said a lot of interesting things at the Hay Festival this week, not least that we should accept the ever-increasing years and stop talking about being ‘old’ until we are actually frail and approaching death.
But most strikingly, she suggested that because a British baby born today may have a potential lifespan of 104 years, the institution of marriage itself may have to be rethought.
I married at 30, we have lasted 37 years and I, at least, have my fingers crossed hoping for a couple more decades of it
Perhaps, she says, we should be asking ‘whether we do want to be together for 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years’.
Things have changed. In 1950, you were lucky to live beyond 70; in 1930, even 60 was a good age to reach. And now that people are living longer, marriage among over-65s is on the rise. Maybe it’s inevitable that we will want somebody different as life goes on.
The traditions and expectations of marriage, of course, are embedded in a Christian faith to which not everybody adheres. Think about those awesome vows at the altar: ‘For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death do us part.’ The words always bring a lump to my throat, even at the merriest, most youthful ceremonies. They are so starkly uncompromising.
You are solemnly vowing that, even if your spouse ends up broke, or disastrously sick, even if the union itself becomes worse not better, then you’ll damn well stick with it until one of you is dead. Which, these days, could be 70 years ahead.
This is, of course, an enormous undertaking. Terrifying, if you dare to think about it seriously. No wonder some couples in civil weddings adopt the American habit of writing vows of their own — softer and more loving. All the registrar legally needs is for you to promise that there is no impediment, and agree to be a ‘lawful wedded’ husband or wife. So you can add on flowery bits with none of that fierce, apocalyptic, Book-Of-Common-Prayer severity.
People write loveable things such as: ‘I will laugh with you, cry with you, respect your uniqueness . . . May my heart be your shelter and my arms be your home.’ They aren’t announcing explicitly that even if their darling becomes ill, crazy or impoverished they plan to stay alongside them until widowhood.
So Professor Harper may be right; we might need to think again about what we expect of marriage. Certainly 42 per cent of marriages now end in divorce.
The most common reasons are arguments over money, sex, privacy, in-laws and conflicts over jobs and children (in other words: anything).
But are we, as Professor Harper implies, wrong to expect marital longevity as we live longer? I don’t feel quite that way. Partly, I suppose, it is personal.
I married at 30, we have lasted 37 years and I, at least, have my fingers crossed hoping for a couple more decades of it.
My parents stuck it out over 40 years, and in our whole extended family there has been only one separation (met with a certain startled surprise). I like being married. It suits me. In many ways it frees me. I take no particular credit, and am simply grateful for it.
When marriages fail, it is always to some extent sad, even if it is clearly for the best.
Like anyone else, I have plenty of friends who haven’t been lucky, several managing their divorces with grace, generosity and a superhuman patience for the sake of their children.
But I am not sure that this natural decay in some unions supports Professor Harper’s idea about longevity causing a change in future attitudes to marriage. Because interestingly, nearly half of all divorces happen in the first ten years.
My parents stuck it out over 40 years, and in our whole extended family there has been only one separation (met with a certain startled surprise). I like being married. It suits me. In many ways it frees me. I take no particular credit, and am simply grateful for it
Figures crunched by the Marriage Foundation suggest that the longer you go on, the more solid your union becomes.
You can see why. The first ten years are likely to see the birth of children, or arguments over having them, or the grievous disappointments of infertility.
They are also more economically fragile years, and we all know how badly discussions about money can end. But keep on going and there are rewards to be found: a new dimension beyond the first excitement and adaptation. Stuff happens: happy or sad, funny or shocking. Memories build.
You get used to one another’s eccentricities. You develop languages and expressions based on crazy things your children once said, or jokes about friends or family (some you wouldn’t dare voice outside home).
Physical changes come so gradually that you don’t notice, until suddenly one day you spot a grey-haired bloke in the street and realise you’re married to him. And glancing in a shop window, there’s a middle-aged woman who turns out to be you.
Yet a long marriage is not a static, uneventful thing. You sign up to a team and its foundation is trust. When teams break down, it is usually about loss of trust. But you have to make up your own rules, which may change over time
Yet a long marriage is not a static, uneventful thing. You sign up to a team and its foundation is trust. When teams break down, it is usually about loss of trust. But you have to make up your own rules, which may change over time.
A few couples even manage to tolerate affairs (the Other Woman or Man should be wary of these marriages: they tend to get a lousy deal and end up resentful and alone).
There are mundane deals to be cut, too. In the present state of employment and housing, fewer pairs can safely opt for the old-fashioned breadwinner-and-housekeeper model my parents knew.
One may lose a job, one may be tied to particularly taxing childcare. Sometimes the woman will out-earn the man. Because those traditional ideas die hard, she will still need to be tactful and graceful about it.
Sometimes, one partner lives in the shade of the other’s success, and there, too, you need tact and grace, and for the powerful one to create areas in the marriage that compensate for that
Sometimes, one partner lives in the shade of the other’s success, and there, too, you need tact and grace, and for the powerful one to create areas in the marriage that compensate for that. To be honest, nobody really wants to be nothing but ‘the wind beneath the wings’ of the high-flier.
Long marriages can benefit from a reasonable degree of individual separation. I suspect that couples who have proudly ‘never spent a night apart’ are a minority, sweet though it is.
It certainly helps if you have separate adventures, and bring home stories and new interests.
I write theatre reviews, often getting home late. Rarely does my husband Paul come to a show with me, and that’s fine.
Meanwhile, he took off for months on end to sail to Cape Horn and back. I joined him only as far as Lisbon because I was happy to be tied to a job on the Radio 4 Midweek programme (now sadly axed, it does make me slightly irritated that I loyally missed the Cape Horn trip).
Tolerance, tact, just general niceness can hold together the long, rickety, ingenious construction that is marriage
But we each made choices and accepted one another’s. So do countless other long-married couples, wryly acknowledging one another’s preoccupations with golf, or Zumba, or spas, or taking up the ukulele, or chasing a sports team across Europe.
Tolerance, tact, just general niceness can hold together the long, rickety, ingenious construction that is marriage.
And importantly, every union is a knot in a wider social network: by connecting to someone else you are linked to another family and its extensions (aunts and uncles and cousins and all their own in-laws across the world). That’s good: it’s social cement.
The idea that long lifespans will put an end to the solidity of these unions and networks seems flaky to me. Some couples will never make it all the way to the grave, and sometimes that’s for the best. But if you do make it to 30 years, you might as well try for 50, 60, 70. Why not?
The chances are that there are memories and jokes you share that nobody else possibly could. It’s a sort of treasure.