Till death us do part?
Weddings may be as popular as ever, but, as Sally Feldman discovers from our own survey, the chimes they are a changing
This summer, Britain's first legally recognised humanist wedding took place in Edinburgh following a relaxation in Scottish law. The British Humanist Association has now written to the Lord Chancellor to demand that the same change should apply in England and Wales.
But why? Why should those who hold rationalist beliefs wish to enter into an institution so deeply entwined with religion - to seek the sanitisation of physical love through the deathly approval of God? Many of the 100 or so of you who responded to New Humanist's online questionnaire cited practical reasons like financial security, "doing the right thing," and "providing a stable background for children". As one respondent tersely put it: "mainly for the contractual dispersion of property and bloodlines. The same as it has always been."
It's a view corroborated by Stephanie Coontz in Marriage, a History, published last month, who confirms that marriage is almost universally an arrangement between a man and a woman for the purpose of regulating sexual behaviour and the apportionment of property. And in practically every culture, women have been traded as part of the goods, which is why feminism has raged over marriage ever since Mary Wollestonecraft famously defined it as "legalised prostitution".
"I am completely opposed to marriage because to me it represents patriarchy," fulminated one of our respondents. "All over the world, in whatever guise it appears, marriage is the overwhelming symbol and living tableau of women's oppression."
But you can't equate today's western version of marriage with the iniquities of the past – when marriage really did mean the removal of all rights and total subjugation to the master of the house.
Nowadays, freedom for a women has very little to do with whether or not she is married, and everything to do with how much independence you have. If you're financially dependent on someone, then why not opt for the extra security?
Because, retorted one of our respondents, "adult sexual relationships should not be regulated by the state". Another maintained: "The government shouldn't care if you want to marry a pig, all it should care about is the legally binding contract inherent."
Far more of you, though, nearly 70 per cent, cited that same private relationship as their main motive for marriage. "A public declaration of my long-term commitment to my lover," was a typical response. "I love my husband, I want to be with him forever and I want him and everyone else to know that and to recognise that."
"It was an event for us, our friends and our families," wrote a UK reader. "Not the state or the state religion." Another explained: "Rather than just drifting into cohabitation by default, it's a way of symbolising that we've made an active choice to be together."
It may seem like the most traditional of reasons. But, argues Coontz, it's only been in the last two centuries that love and marriage started to go together like a horse and carriage.
"Certainly people fell in love during those thousands of years," she allows, "sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love."
It was, of course, the Enlightenment and its inheritors that so radically altered our views of ourselves.
Pioneers like John Stuart Mill voluntarily resigned his statutory rights when he married Harriet Taylor in 1851, opting for a more equal partnership. During the 1790s the French revolutionaries rejected enforced marriage in favour of a freely chosen civil contract, championing a whole panoply of reforms such as equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, including illegitimate offspring.
But yet again, this blow for the liberation of women transmuted into new forms of oppression, as the impetus to marry for love collided with the imperative to marry for security. First you get the chance to choose your own husband, the next minute you're Bridget Jones fretting about whether anyone will ever choose you.
No one understood this more acutely than Jane Austen, with her universally acknowledged truths, who was bitterly aware of the terrible plight of the unmarried woman in the late 18th century - the bleak wasteland of spinsterhood.
Jane's solution was for women to marry for love, but sensibly. Elizabeth did fall in love with Darcy before she set eyes on his estate. But her first view of Pemberly could only confirm that her choice was the right one. Otherwise the book would have teetered into tragedy. For to be trapped in loveless wedlock is and always has been one of the most abiding and universal forms of misery. Marriage involves three rings, goes the Jewish saying: the engagement ring, the wedding ring and the suffering.
Nevertheless, over 80 per cent of those who responded to our survey were in favour of marriage, in line with general trends at least in this country. Although there has been a long-term decline in the number of marriages in the UK since 1972, this pattern is beginning to be reversed. There were over 300,000 weddings here in 2003 - the second successive annual increase. Interestingly, though, only 40 per cent of these have been religious ceremonies.
And for the past ten years, since civil marriages have been permitted in approved premises, there has been a steady rise in the number of weddings taking place outside the registry office as well.
Our respondents favoured simple ceremonies, many disapproving of the commercialisation of weddings and the waste of money - understandably, since the average cost of a British wedding is £15,000.
If you want to know how on earth you can spend so much on a single party you only need to turn to one of the glossy bridal magazines, all practically pornographic in their relentless adulation of whiteness: page after page of shimmering concoctions of satin and beading, netting and organza, feathers and white ostrich fur, accompanied by endless tips on which glass designer chairs to commission for the marquee, or how to transform a gallery into your very own wonderland, complete with tropical rainstorms and icebergs.
Extravagant it may be, but the exorbitant show-off wedding is the one element of modern marriage that remains almost completely universal. In Africa, three-day celebrations are common. Recent films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice are a glorious demonstration of how traditional customs shift and adapt to changing societies. To such an extent that it's easy to forget the dark origins of the rituals.
The bride may be a high-flying city banker who's paid for the whole shebang out of her Christmas bonus and has her own children as flower girls, but she's still happy to be given away by her father from one male custodian to another, untroubled by the fact that her slimline shot silk dress studded with hand-sewn oyster pearls signifies a virginity long since discarded.
When a Jewish bridegroom stamps on the glass at the chuppah to shouts of mazeltov from the bearded half of the congregation, how aware is he that what is being cheered is the symbolic breaking of his loved one's hymen?
The modern wedding has morphed into a truly postmodern affair, its myriad references and allusions utterly distilled from their original meanings and functions. And this splitting of form from content is a reflection of the seismic shifts in our attitudes to marriage itself.
Once it was an essential prerequisite for the raising of families. Illegitimate children would have no inheritance rights, and unmarried mothers would be reviled. But an increasing number of marriages today are unrelated to the desire for children, nor to the alliances of families. By the end of this year, unions for same-sex couples will recognised by the Civil Partnerships Act - offering equal legal and financial rights to gays for the first time. Although this measure doesn't equate to gay marriage, as sanctioned in Spain, the Netherlands and Canada, many couples are planning to treat the ceremony as a wedding and are hiring licensed premises to enact their vows.
Given that around 35 per cent of venues have already said they'll refuse to allow gay ceremonies - and that includes some registry offices - it's clearly more than cosmetic for same sex partners to make their relationships public. It's a claim for human rights.
There are also significant financial benefits. A surviving unmarried partner will face an Inheritance Tax bill if the estate exceeds £263,000. If you're married, you can transfer assets freely between you. Which may account for the steep rise in late marriages - especially among those reaching retirement age.
In the last year six couples I know well, all of whom have cohabited happily for decades, have got married for what they all claimed were these very practical reasons. But that doesn't quite explain the magnificent excess of their celebrations. One couple, for example, snuck off for an ultra romantic ceremony on a remote Scottish island, before the lavish party for friends, family and grandchildren.
There can really only be one reason for all the fuss, overwhelmingly corroborated by our survey. People want to make a public declaration of their love.
But they also want to define marriage in their own way. Which is why couples are increasingly opting to write their own vows - an enterprise fraught with more hazards even than the best man's speech or the bridesmaid's bouquet.
The BHA offers some suggested wording in its helpful publication, Sharing the Future. But there's something depressingly tepid about promises to share joys and sorrows, respect each other as individuals, or to base the marriage on kindness and understanding. They seem so consciously designed to avoid any hint of religious sentiment that they eliminate any sense of excitement and ecstasy, too.
Equally risky are the kind of domestic in-jokes that may seem loveable on the day but will cause you to cringe in later years. If you make it that far. When Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston got married she promised to make his favourite banana smoothies while he vowed to compromise on the temperature of their home. But drinks and heat are obviously not enough: after only five years, the banana split.
On the other hand, you have to applaud the Spanish government's pioneering introduction of a new vow into its civil marriage ceremony, whereby the couple have to commit to sharing domestic responsibilities and the care of children and elderly family members. Although it could be tricky proving how faithfully that promise is being kept.
As one of our correspondents commented somewhat acidly: "I pledge to do my share of the dusting, hoovering, cooking, cleaning, ironing, mowing the lawn, decorating the house and walking the dog. And, if I am still physically able at the end of the day, to love you."
Perhaps the most startling new departure is that couples are beginning to jettison the last bastion of the traditional marriage - the promise to stay together for ever, 'till death us do part'.
In America, a more common vow these days is to stick it out 'until our time together is over', or 'as long as love shall last'. One of our own respondents produced a rather lovely version of this seemingly unromantic sentiment: "I promise to always be your true friend, and to love you and cherish you as long as our love shall last. Should our ways part, I will be your friend forever and will cherish your memory."
Others went even further. "Our vows would state that we reject the traditional roles of husband and wife and that we are equal partners in the relationship," wrote one North American respondent. Another replied flatly: "I wouldn't ask my partner to promise me anything."
But where has all the magic gone? Surely if we're to have meaningful marriage ceremonies, they need to offer as much joy, adventure, promise and exuberance as any of the traditional or religious celebrations?
For inspiration, we should be looking to humanist role models - couples who can demonstrate the kind of marriages we'd be proud to emulate, whose meeting of minds and ideals brought true partnership, with sexual passion kept aflame through shared work and enterprise.
I don't think George Eliot and Henry Lewes - married in all but name - would have bothered much with mawkish promises about individual respect. Theirs was a grand and courageous adventure of the heart and mind. Being Mary Ann's partner, Lewes proclaimed, "is a perpetual banquet to which that of Plato would present but a flat rival."
Or how about the Barrett Brownings? "I love your poems - and I love you," Robert wrote to Elizabeth, with calculated chronology.
"No man was ever before to any woman what you are to me," she replied, recalling "the long wilderness without the blossoming rose...and the capacity for happiness, like a black gaping hole, before this silver flooding."
Salvador Dali was so devoted to his wife and muse Gala that he built his surrealist monument, Teatro Museo, as a tribute to their love and her power - no matter that right until her death at the age of 88 she continued to order in paid young men to pleasure her.
After she died, he drove her for one last ride in the Cadillac that once belonged to Al Capone, in order to bury her embalmed body in a crypt with horse heads, a human torso and a giraffe all made of gypsum.
Rationalists will also thrill to the partnership of Marie and Pierre Curie whose union was enshrined by their joint Nobel Prize. In his letter of proposal Pierre expressed his desire "to spend life side by side, in the sway of our dreams; your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream."
Once humanist celebrants gain the right to conduct legal marriages, it'll be the perfect opportunity to abandon watery, solemn, Anglican-infected caution and reclaim passion, sweep and wild optimism. Let's aim for grand gesture and dreams - for Cadillacs and giraffes, silver flooding, endless banquets and love undiminished by convention, wisdom or reason.