Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Happily Ever After...Until Death You Do Part

Marriage. Few words inspire such profound - and often violently different - reactions amongst those of my generation. In previous eras it was more or less regarded as a fact of life - a bit like queuing for the bus, eating fish on Fridays, or looking after your parents in their senility. And, like aforesaid activities, you could either moan about them or extol them when you met your friends to gossip over a cup of tea. Question them you did not.

Like many things in the modern world, however, that has changed dramatically. Sure, people - by and large - still go out and reproduce but the concept of pledging yourself, til death you do part, is, if anything, regarded as a touch anachronistic. Instead, our lives are complex webs related to our own self-image - and this informs much of what we think about marriage. Are we independent careerists, carefree creatives, the mothering type or too picky? Are we ready? Have we met the right person? Will our priorities change? And what about our biological clocks? Can medical science work wonders once we're forty? Who's willing to bet on the advances of the future to save their career today?

Negotiating what was once an unthought transition into a new phase of life is now fraught with philosophical difficulty. Rather than simply choosing someone and living with the consequences - or indeed simply dumping them when it got too much- many of us are anchored in a semi-permanent state of self-inflicted pyschological warfare. Confused by conflicting desires, social pressures and - if we're honest - the experience of an irresponsible yet liberating individualism which permeates our twenties and thirties, the idea of bringing other human beings into your sphere on a PERMANENT BASIS can seem a trifle terrifying. It is the psychological equivalent of being born again, with the same turnaround in lifestyle that religious conversion brings. At least once the kids come along.
Despite our reluctance to get legally involved with the opposite sex until well into our maturer years, we seem to understand, au fond, that there is a 'good age' to do these things, somewhere between 25 and 35, and it's then you have to decide if you're going to do them. Once you reach said age the existential process of banging out your stance on the issue becomes both normal and necessary. In case you haven't followed this rather garbled explanation up to now let me give you a concrete example. Twice this week I ate with a hoard of girlfriends, all aged between 26 and 32. Somehow, regardless of cultural and career differences, all these women had only one thing they wanted to talk about over dinner: marriage.

A year or two ago they were focussed on jobs, travel, degrees, political causes or their latest bedtime reading. Now, it seems, they were either defending their desire to commit - or, conversely, their determination not to. Only one girl was actually married, a fact which provoked a certain degree of incredulity from the others as if she were 16 years old when she walked down the aisle and not 30 years old already! Either way, for what post-modernists have dubbed the great non-issue of the twentyfirst century, the 'm' word has taken over our lives. as successfully as it did previous generations: the only difference being that it is in theory rather than practice.
As for me, not wishing to waste too much more time thinking about men - that's years of my life down the drain already, lost on a succession of suitors I no longer even talk to - I have decided that being single is simply too demanding on one's time. I would rather just make up my mind to be with someone and then think about something else...preferably food, philosophy, or both at the same time.
All joking aside, I am quite unconvinced by so called feminist libertarian arguments against marriage. It seems to me that most women's problems are caused by scoundrels not stepping up to their obligations. Absolving them of their responsibilities towards us completely (as per the 'laissez faire, do what you want' school of relationships) instead of reforming said institution, seems to have handed the more misogynistic variety of male success on a plate.

Why don't we want men to protect us, to care for us and our kids, to earn their keep, and ours too, while they're at it? Why is it preferable to work all the hours Gods sends, AND look after your children, and the house, simply to say you're independent? Why is it better never to commit, all in the name of some formless notion of choice, even though that could mean you never have children or a happy home? Isn't it about time feminists started suggesting more ways to balance our commitments and our careers instead of keeping men out of the picture completely? Isn't making women's lives easier a definition of what feminism should be about?

I understand why the first wave of feminists had a problem with marriage as a social phenomenon at that time. After all, women had barely been let into the workplace by the time Germaine Greer came along. And I do agree that when men felt they could control women financially, have full legal rights over her, or simply take her for granted, there were real problems.
Yet their valid critique of failed marriages in what were, frankly, quite different social conditions has caused us to throw the baby out with the bathwater for, what seems to me, few very good universal reasons. Both men and women are now used to the (concept, at least) of gender equality, human rights and equal ops at work. Why couldn't a better form of marriage now work in our favour?

Perhaps the time has come - with more than 50% of kids born outside wedlock - to rethink the patterns of our behaviour. Whether that means shelving or accepting marriage remains to be seen. But we should at least step back and reflect on our reasons for dumping one of society's main building blocks, lest it should come back to haunt us all in our (potentially lonely) later lives. To be continued...

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