Don’t sweat the decline of marriage

A decade has passed since I last attended a wedding. In that church in September 2012, I knew I stood to lose perhaps one weekend in four of my thirties — the prince of decades — to these things. So I recused myself ever after. The edict was handed down from Hampstead to a shocked city. In the end, the hurt caused has been small (the key is to make exceptions for no one).

What isn’t small, in a timeline where I kept trooping to people’s nuptials, is the weight of forfeited pleasures: the books unread, the restaurants untried, the continental trips not taken on a Friday-night whim.

However much freedom you think I have, it is more than that. I am an odd case of individualism, and these columns trade on that fact.

But how odd? In 2019, 213,000 opposite-sex couples got married in the UK. That is half as many as in 1972. And this is despite the country adding about 10mn in population over the period. US data suggest the same gradual decline in marriage since about the same time. Birth rates, too, are down on mid-20th-century levels.

It is eerie — and Marxian — how hard people will try to pin all this on the property bubble, childcare costs and other material barriers. Liberals, who should be hailing the flowering of the self, go about with “housing ladder” on their lips. This doesn’t even have the virtue of empiricism: family decline persists through asset boom and asset bust, from South Korea to Bolivia.

How much mileage is there, really, in ducking the obvious? A shift in mores in the 1960s removed the social pressure to settle down. Free to choose — de facto, not just de jure — people want to do it all later, if ever. These are our revealed preferences. There is no reason to think that the trend has or needs a technocratic fix.

It isn’t news, at my age, that marriages are either ending or surviving in nominal form all around me. The surprise is that more aren’t. Flaubert’s advice was to hew to convention in personal matters, the better to be fierce and original in work. But the average person doesn’t do anything artistic for work. What is it to be a fierce and original loss adjuster?

To self-actualise, the broad public have to use their personal lives. In most cases, yes, raising a child will be the “opus”. But for a vast minority, it will be travel, social contact, mental cultivation: things obstructed by the pram in the hallway. There is no fiscal tweak that is equal to this urge. I am struck — moved, in truth — by the high-mindedness of the frustrations with marriage that I hear. Sexual boredom doesn’t feature. There are ways around that.

Social atomisation has costs. Partisanship is one. Political tribes provide the sense of belonging that family did two generations ago. Public grief is a more episodic but no less troubling tic of a society of individuals. In what moral or aesthetic world is it fitting to cheer a hearse as it carries a dead monarch past? One in which the point of being there is the rare collective experience.

Whatever atomisation does, though, it isn’t forced on us. It isn’t an exogenous shock from which society needs saving. It is the result of millions of free choices since the loosening of moral norms half a century ago. If we could see it straight, we would call it emancipation: one that, by no longer pressing marriage on those who aren’t ready and might never be, cured as much private misery as gay rights and race reforms.

As one who hears it from time to time, I notice that the case for family life is often as transactional as Pascal’s wager. “Who will look after you when you get old?” In the rich world, at least, it is an impoverished account of why people embrace domesticity.

And why they don’t. Freedom and selfhood aren’t the prime human urges, no. (Not next to security.) But they have turned out to be stronger than was foreseeable in, say, 1950. And plainly too strong to be bought off. For those who act on them, and are treated as a public policy glitch for their trouble, come on in. The water’s lovely.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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