“The middle classes are turning their backs on marriage in their droves” a Marriage Foundation report noted last month. Only 59 per cent of middle income families with young children were marrying in 2012 – compared to 84 per cent just 18 years earlier.
Those who say, “So what? A piece of paper makes no difference”, are arguing against overwhelming evidence. Married parents often break up – but far less frequently than parents who decline to marry.
As the Marriage Foundation’s Sir Paul Coleridge explained: “The single most important factor in a child’s development is the stable relationship of the parents and the fact is that long term stability is almost entirely confined to married couples… The simple fact is that if you marry today you will probably still be married to the same person on the day you die. If you merely cohabit, by the time your child is 15, you almost certainly will not be living as a couple with them.”
It would be a lifetime’s work to identify all the reasons for this and similar figures on the decline of marriage. This article is not going to do that.
I am only going to suggest only one thing as a contributing factor – how much a wedding now costs. The insurers Sheilas’ Wheels recently calculated that the average wedding and honeymoon cost more than £18,000. The UK Alliance of Wedding Planners put the figure at £21,000, as did You & Your Wedding. Brides Magazine estimated it was just under £25,000.
I ran for Parliament this year and on the doorstep I met many nice young couples who a couple of generations ago would almost all have been married. Again, there will be plenty of reasons many of them weren’t. But how many couples who would love to be married feel priced out of marriage? How many felt they could either put a deposit down on a house or get married – but not both?
One friend I spoke to about this said he knew people who “would rather put off the cost” or “they decided they just couldn’t afford it at all”.
Another thirty-something I spoke to reported that: “Friends who married usually spent about two years saving for the wedding first. Or they got married then spent three years after the wedding paying back the debt.”
Another talked about a couple who “saved to buy a house first, and then after that they saved for two years for the wedding – and their wedding was modest. If they’d had a full-scale modern wedding, they would have taken a lot more time.”
These anecdotes correspond well to basic economics. If the entry price for being married is high, no one should be surprised if demand is constrained. Demand falls for any normal good as the price rises.
But does it need to cost so much? Is there a better reason than simple conformism that leads couples to think they have to choose between cohabitation or spending tens of thousands in an afternoon? How much happier, really, are couples who have £25,000 weddings than those who spend £5,000?
Someone told me, grimly: “One friend was about to lose her house and still spent £20,000 to secure her fairy tale wedding. The most depressing thing was asking her about it afterwards. She didn’t enjoy it at all. After spending all that money, she didn’t enjoy it because of the stress all day of making sure it was perfect.”
The BBC reality TV show Don’t Tell the Bride does a great job illustrating this strange dynamic. None of the episodes I saw were very different.
Each time, a very ordinary couple is offered the money for their wedding and engagement parties – just so long as the disorganised, easy-going groom plans every detail without the bride’s involvement. After tearful arguments and disappointments, on the wedding day the bride is pleasantly surprised by the groom’s uncharacteristic competence.
Of course, it is wearying to have yet another element of popular culture relentlessly showcasing the men-are-useless dynamic. But the programme also unwittingly does much to showcase modern views of what a wedding is. The viewer is pushed strongly into thinking that if the groom fails to deliver the expected party of a lifetime, the blame lies with him. But don’t ever stop to ask if the expectation itself is a bit shallow! Just get with the programme and write the £25,000 cheque.
Or, just as often, decline to marry – either for years or forever.
I am short on solutions, and would welcome comments that have any. With Corbynism suddenly all the rage, it probably does need stating clearly that government subsidy for weddings, or nationalising them, would be far from a success!
But I would venture that as marriage means less and less, the wedding itself seems to mean more and more. Overturning this inversion of good sense is a worthy goal. It is marriage that matters, not the fairy tale wedding.