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Harry Benson: Marriage – down but not out


Marriage may be down. But it’s a very long way from out. And judging by a new survey, there’s a few more years left in the old girl yet. That’s because younger girls remain big fans of marriage.

According to a survey by Interflora, two thirds of single women have been planning their wedding day since their teens, in most cases long before they ever meet their future husband.

Maybe all of the women interviewed also buy flowers. I have no idea if this survey is representative. But it certainly rings true.

My oldest daughter got married last year and told me she’d been planning the event since she was three. So if the typical girl thinks about her future wedding for the first time when she’s a teenager, she’d be a late starter in our house.

Annual surveys by The Guide Association show that teenage girls quite rightly also have doubts about marriage as a cure-all. But very few teens indeed are prepared to rule out marriage for themselves.

Somewhere along the line, however, for many the dream fails to become reality. Nearly half of all births today are to unmarried parents.

Cost plays a big part in the reason so many don’t marry. Marriage Foundation and the law firm Seddons commissioned a survey a year ago that included 689 cohabiting adults. The single biggest reason for not getting married – for 50 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women – was the cost of a wedding.

The creeping normalisation of cohabitation also plays a part. Because couples can move in together, have a life together, have children together, all without getting married, there is far less pressure or need to marry. In our survey, around 30 percent of both men and women said marriage wasn’t necessary – at least not to their current partner. So why bother.

But there is a gender issue in play here as well. Young women may dream of getting married some day. But young men dream of getting the girl. Cohabitation fulfils the dream for men in a way that it simply doesn’t for women.

Whereas 32 percent of unmarried cohabiting women in our survey ticked the box marked ‘waiting for him/her to ask’, only seven percent of unmarried cohabiting men did so. Some of this could be about men popping the question. Or it may be that men are the ones who least see the need to marry because they can get what they want by cohabiting.

A growing body of evidence shows that young men – on average – are doing worse at school and university whereas young women – on average – are doing better. Amongst various theories for why this is happening, one highly plausible explanation is gathering steam.

Young men no longer have to try so hard to ‘get the girl’. It’s all so much easier with cohabitation.

Despite its decline, marriage retains tremendous popularity. But there’s a real problem facing young women who want to get married yet assume that cohabiting is a stepping stone to marriage. Instead it’s more likely to become a giant boulder that blocks marriage.

So here’s the advice I give my daughters. Pick a marriageable man. Say ‘no’ to moving in until he says ‘yes’ to commitment. And follow your dream.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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