Maybe I do? Marriage in the modern era

Saturday 29 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

Marriage has been in the air this year. Even if you fled the country for the big day, there was no hiding from the build-up to Wills’ ’n’ Kate’s do. Labour leader Ed Miliband eventually did say ‘I do’ after his claims to be ‘too busy’ to marry his pregnant partner provoked heated discussion about the meaning of marriage, love and commitment. Government proposals to allow full gay marriage and offer new tax breaks for married couples have ensured marriage is a hot political issue, while TV schedules are filled with My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Don’t Tell The Bride. Despite the economic climate, the average amount spent on a wedding in the UK is close to £20,000. There is even a pink wedding industry: supermarkets sell cards celebrating ‘Mr and Mr’ and ‘Mrs and Mrs’. But some fear the focus on throwing a big party to mark ‘the happiest day of your life’ is trivialising marriage. The Rev Dr Giles Fraser thunders on Thought for the Day that the modern wedding is ‘an overblown, narcissistic affair’, while the Bishop of Willesden was suspended for declaring the royal wedding ‘a national flim-flam’ that would last no more than seven years.

For some, the obsession with getting hitched seems a throwback to more conservative times. Monogamy and 2.4 children have often been seen as a straitjacket, particularly for women. And in fact, fewer couples are marrying now than at any point in the last century, while over a third of marriages end in divorce. There are more than two million cohabiting couples and counting; children are as likely to be born out of wedlock as within it. Some note that the extension of quasi-marriage rights to gays and lesbians has happened precisely when traditional marriage is in crisis.

Is this flight from marriage simply about throwing off the shackles and embracing modern relationships, or does it reflect a fear of commitment itself? Certainly, few seem prepared to make a clear moral case for marriage, or indeed against it. Even traditionalists seem defensive. Though Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has blamed political correctness and ‘the desire to be non-judgemental’ for our reluctance to affirm the importance of marriage, the arguments that are made for it sound increasingly instrumental. Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith insists family breakdown costs the country £40billion a year because of the resulting ‘educational failure, drug and alcohol addiction, behavioural problems and crime’. His solution is to offer tax breaks, as though a few pounds will inspire couples to head down the aisle. So is marriage just another contractual arrangement like buying a car or a house? Or in taking such a pragmatic approach to marriage, is there a danger of stripping it of its romantic mystique and even its moral worth?

Listen to session audio:


Jennie Bristow
senior lecturer in sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University; author, The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges and Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict; co-author, Parenting Culture Studies

Dr Samantha Callan
chairman-in-residence for family, early years and mental health, Centre for Social Justice

Giles Fraser
canon chancellor, St Paul's Cathedral

Fiona Shaw
award-winning actress; director, major new production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the ENO

Abigail Ross-Jackson
speakers' agent, Ed Victor Speakers Bureau LLP

Produced by
Abigail Ross-Jackson speakers' agent, Ed Victor Speakers Bureau LLP
Recommended readings
Is monogamy making us miserable?

Marriage can be tough. But one expert believes it doesn’t have to be – that our ‘one mate for life’ rule is unrealistic, unnecessary, even unnatural. We dare to ask if, perhaps, he has a point.

John Preston, Daily Telegraph, 11 October 2011

Mexico City plans 'renewable' marriage

Couples in Mexico City could soon use

BBC News, 30 September 2011

Why marriage is worth the effort

As a report suggests that boredom, rather than infidelity, is now the main reason for divorce, staying the course is more of a challenge than ever.

Angela Neustatter, Daily Telegraph, 1 September 2011

Making a mockery of marriage

On countless occasions, David Cameron has declared that he is a tremendous fan of the institution of marriage. So big a fan, it now becomes clear, that he generously intends to bestow its status and privileges far beyond what most people consider marriage actually to be.

Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail, 15 February 2011

Women are better off married - that's why so many men want to cohabit

Break-ups are worse for women than men — with 1.4 million children born into these relationships, the responsibility for caring for them and running a home will generally fall on a mum.

Janet Street Porter, Daily Mail, 8 February 2011

The marriage report: why do we do it?

It was thought to be an institution in terminal decline. But marriage refuses to go away - in fact it's getting more and more fashionable.

Blake Morrison, Guardian, 15 October 2002

Session partners