When even the middle classes shun marriage, our social cement truly is crumbling
Libby Purves speaks much truth below but she appears to underestimate the effect of feminist-inspired divorce laws. Stories of big divorce payouts are in the papers daily so men can hardly be unaware of the issue. To put it bluntly, the feminists have turned marriage into prostitution. It has become a good way to get big money for sex. But a lot of men don't want to pay. So they don't. A man who marries these days takes heroic risks with his financial future and his future wellbeing. A well-advised man would just not do it
Why get married? Charles Darwin, the great naturalist, took a properly scientific view of the pros and cons of marriage and jotted down his thoughts.
In favour: 'Children, if it please God . . . constant companion and friend in old age who will feel interested in one . . . object to be beloved and played with . . . better than a dog anyway . . . music and female chit chat, good for one's health but terrible loss of time '.
Against it, he put down the loss of freedom, the expense and anxiety of children, the risk of quarrelling, and (quite my favourite) the prospect of being 'forced to visit relatives'. Quite a few men, I reckon, would nod at that last one.
Nevertheless, Darwin married and was happy, and near the end wrote movingly of his wife Emma as a 'wise adviser and cheerful comforter throughout my life'.
I read that again in the light of yesterday's gloomy revelation that marriage is becoming less common and moving towards a curious situation where this most basic and ancient of social habits risks becoming largely the preserve of the rich, and of immigrant communities with strict social rules.
For some time now, in a trend since the Seventies, it has been apparent that the poorer you are in Britain, the more likely you are to be in social housing and financially precarious, and less likely to get married.
By 2001, people in the top financial category were 24 per cent more likely to marry than those at the bottom; now that figure is 48 per cent.
That was worrying enough. Solid figures show that unmarried couples with children are, statistically, three times as likely to separate, with the children facing obvious distressing results, not just emotional but financial and educational.
But it was not hard to see the reasons why the poorest, the people on the edge, were less likely to marry once there was no social stigma about sex outside marriage or just moving in with each other.
If your accommodation and job chances are unstable, perhaps you are less likely to plan, and more tempted by a chaotic, take-it-as-it-comes lifestyle.
Now, however, something interesting but faintly appalling is happening: the latest figures from the Marriage Foundation and the government's General Household Survey suggest that marrying is falling out of fashion among more settled, middle-class families.
Look at middle-income couples with young children: 20 years ago 84 per cent of such people were married. Now it is 59 per cent. Still more than the poorest group, but a definite trend is, in researcher-language, 'spreading up the socio-economic scale'.
We have not yet seen whether the break-up rate will undergo as great an increase in this middling group, but the Marriage Foundation's research director says: 'When a socio-economic group turns away from marriage, we see a corresponding hike in the rates of family breakdown.'
If so, that is bad news all round. Of course, divorces will always happen. Of course, separating couples can be responsible and considerate of the children, though even the best divorces tend to be expensive, disruptive and, to some extent, distressing. But at least divorce is a definite thing, a legal move, a big decision.
Walking out on your live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, even with a child in between, is vaguer, easier, more tempting.
So there is a whole new group (a large one) appearing to go off the idea of marriage. Meanwhile, it appears that the richest group — what statisticians call the 'higher managerial' group, with household incomes over £43,000 — are still heading for the altar, register office or ritzy wedding venue.
One theory about this suggests that if you are definitely well-off, with a mortgage and the likelihood of inheriting a house from your parents, you are more likely to think ahead about money and property and what you would like to leave to your partner and children.
Another is that if you are used to considerable affluence, you are less nervous about the future financial risks of divorce.
Also, in this 'higher managerial' gang, your parents may express some salty views about Doing The Right Thing and not messing about like characters in Coronation Street, or else they will leave the house to the cat's home, so there . . .
Governments are nervous about banging a gong in favour of marriage. They can speak warmly about 'the family', but tend to make it clear that this includes all sorts of families: single-parent, cohabiting, widowed.
They shy away from 'moralising' and praising marriage, not least because every time politicians do so, their party is promptly shaken by some disgraceful (yet hilarious) revelation of adultery.
They back off, only occasionally offering some puny tax advantage which the populace scornfully ignores. Who is going to make solemn vows just in case it saves £350 a year, and a distant prospect of your darling not paying inheritance tax when you croak?
So the strongest defence comes from the retired High Court Judge Sir Paul Coleridge, who saw too much misery in the family courts to ignore it. His Marriage Foundation bombards us with all those telling statistics about the disastrous effects of the decline.
Otherwise, defences of marriage tend to be left to the clergy (but who is listening?) and drowned by bitter jokes for which there are good reasons: about the absurdity of stupidly expensive weddings, when the marriage crashes and burns barely a year later, and about the risk of losing half your property to some scheming, adulterous partner who runs off with someone else.
You hear that great quip from the humorist Lewis Grizzard: 'I won't marry again — next time I'll just find a woman I don't like and give her a house.' Now, successful women feel that way, too.
We all have good friends who never married, whether for some obscure principle or just not bothering, but who raise happy, stable families. Like the politicians, we don't want to upset them.
Sometimes there are chivalrous reasons for living in what used to be called 'sin': one man I know moved on to a new partner in mid-life after a hard time with his wife but never divorced her, so that she could inherit the house and his pension. We don't often praise marriage in case it upsets those who are unmarried. But, to redress the balance, I will.
Marriage can go wrong but is basically a brilliant, useful, flexible, nurturing and enlivening thing. It does not feel like cohabitation (most of us in my generation have done a bit of both).
There is something different, awesome, about making a public declaration that you intend to try to keep this going for life; a buzz in making the tie legal and binding, contractually as well as emotionally.
You stand in front of the world saying: 'This is us. Not a temporary shack-up till we change our minds but a team, for better or worse, for richer for poorer, and let no interfering outsider dare try to break it asunder.'
Just look at the excitement and joy permission to marry brought to same-sex couples: they know its value, which is why they fought for it.
Marriage also makes you accept (no small thing) that you have tied together two families, two tribes. I remember reflecting, the morning after our wedding that from now on we were sort of responsible for one another's siblings, mothers, cousins, all that.
We might not have chosen them, but now had to take them into account, maybe rescue them when needed, consider their feelings more than when we were boyfriend and girlfriend.
A wedding is more than a show-off ceremony: it is public (even our sneaky, publicity-shy one had passers-by wandering in to the church). That declaration and status affirms marriage as a sort of cement, holding the flaky walls of society more firmly.
If every partnership was loose, informal, bound only by the emotion of the moment, we would edge closer to a lawless underworld. Victorian married propriety had its faults, heaven knows, but you could grow up safer there than down in the alleys with Bill Sikes and Nancy.
Marriage is grown-up, marriage is brave and serious: a properly provisioned, planned, hopeful, risky round-the-world voyage rather than a quick sunny trip around the bay.
In that responsibility you grow up. In that security you can relax and blossom. In that fidelity you are both free to develop other friendships and affections, because the basic, unbreakable tie is there.
Long live marriage.