With That Wedding fast approaching, OU psychology lecturer and therapist Meg Barker considers what we know about the state of modern marriage, in the first of a two-part post.
Whilst Kate and William’s situation is rather an extreme one, it illustrates very well some wider patterns present in relationships today. Many commentators have linked their wedding to the recession, and certainly marriage is often found to be an almost 'recession proof' industry. When things are bad economically, people still want to get hitched.
The desire to wed survives
Also, the desire to wed remains despite our knowledge of the high chances of the marriage ending at some point. In the UK, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations. There is probably even more pressure on in the case of the royal wedding, due to the high rates of separation in William's family (three out of four of the Queen's children having been divorced).
So why are people still choosing to marry? Perhaps it speaks to a great deal of hope being placed on romantic love, to the extent that some have suggested that it is almost a new religion in its own right. At a time when work is precarious, and when many people do not have strong religious beliefs, relationships are often the place that they turn to seek out validation, meaning and belonging.
Love and marriage didn't used to go together
This is quite a change from past times when relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it in her 2005 book Marriage, a history 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. These days we do try to live in a love story, seeking out The One and hoping for a happily-ever-after despite all the evidence against this being the most likely outcome.
The pressure is on relationships to fulfil us in every way throughout our – increasingly long – lives. However, we also know that relationships are a point of great potential struggle and pain. Living up close alongside somebody for many, many years may be one of the most difficult things that any of us do. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Mistakes were made (but not by me) (2008), argue that romantic relationships are the most dangerous places to be because they are where we are forced to confront ourselves and to learn about how we are capable of behaving. It might be possible to keep up a shiny, happy veneer with our work colleagues, our neighbours, and even our families once we are no longer living with them, but our partner gets to see us when we are at our most tired, stressed and ill.
The burden of perfection
This is something that is well captured in the Christian wedding vows. It really will be for better for worse, richer for poorer, in sickness and in health – and at the worse, poorer and sicker times we all have the capacity for cruelty, coldness and cowardice. There will be times when we find ourselves frustrated, angry and bored with the love of our life and scared about what that may mean, as well as times when we see the loving gaze slip off their own faces to be replaced by something else. Such times can be terrifying if we have invested in this relationship the idea that it is a constant validation that we are okay and secure. It can be even harder if what we were expecting was some kind of constant perfection and happiness.
This may sound depressing and defeatist: an argument for not marrying at all, but it is not. Even if we didn't get married, or form romantic partnerships, we would still get intimate and connected to people, and these struggles would still arise. What I am arguing against are the industries that continue to sell us dangerous myths of perfect people and eternal happiness: the ever-smiling billboard, television and movie couples, and the self-help books and magazines that promise to reveal the secrets of 'successful' relationships which will lead to impossibly happy-ever-afters.
'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'
This is what so many publishers, advertisers and film-makers sell, because they know that people want to hear it. But our constant saturation in these messages is the very thing that is leading to so much pain and struggle and heartache. And the image of the perfect love may well result in us leaving a relationship too quickly assuming that there must be something wrong with it, or staying in a tough relationship too long because we don't want to admit to 'failure'.
Take the pressure off
Perhaps instead of loading all these expectations and pressures onto Kate and William, and every other marrying couple, we could offer something different: a recognition that relationships will be tough at times and that there aren't any simple tricks to constant happiness. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have pointed out in The normal chaos of love (1995), along with wanting a great deal from relationships, relationships themselves have changed so much in the last few decades that we can feel lost and uncertain.
Old rules, for example about rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules out there for us to follow either. As they put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.
If love is a blank then the thing that is, perhaps, most needed to fill in that blank is communication. The wedding gift that we might give to Kate and William, based on all the relationship therapy and research about relationships, would be Communication. That will be the topic of my next post.
To be continued ...
Meg Barker is an OU lecturer teaching mainly on counselling courses, and is also a therapist specialising in relationships. She has recently finished writing a book on this topic, Rewriting the Rules, which she hopes to have published by the end of the year. Meg has her own blog.
Cartoon by Catherine Pain