An ever fixed mark
This may be one of the more personal blogs I write. It seemed wrong, however, to pass over the milestone of our 25th wedding which we celebrated last week, without reflecting on this most significant of institutions which has been both, in some ways, the hardest and, most certainly, the most rewarding endeavour of my life.
Over the last 100 years marriage has been in significant decline. Rates of marriage are now well more than 50% lower than in the 1950s and the overall numbers of marriages in recent years (recognising changes in population) are at their lowest levels since 1892. Marriage has been a major issue in political and wider public debate, not unsurprisingly so given the central role it plays in how we live our lives as individuals and as a society.
Being traditionalists (at least in our love of language) we chose to be married to the words of the 1662 Prayer Book. It provides three famous rationales for marriage: the procreation of children, a remedy against sin and fornication and finally the provision of mutual society, help and comfort.
My sense is that the decline on marriage reflects in many ways the controversy over the second of these. There is a perception of marriage as an instrument of social and religious control of individual behaviour. Despite attempts to liberalise our view of marriage, including very positively, the introduction of equal marriage in recent years this legacy remains. That is a great shame given the contribution which the other two purposes make to individual wellbeing and positive societal outcomes.
Marriage as a contract of commitment between two individuals and as the bedrock of long term support for any children should be cherished and encouraged. Personal freedom and, in particular, the freedom to escape from loveless or in some cases abusive relationships is important but long term commitments also have their place in underpinning the stability of families and wider society. Those long term commitments should be celebrated and supported although not at the expense of those groups such as single parents who already carry some of the heaviest burdens in society.
The skills of successful relationships are hard to teach and, at times, are hard to learn. It is a shame that our culture devotes as little attention as it does to reflecting on this topic and to creating a positive narrative of shared lives rather than focusing on only either the saccharine sweet myth of the perfect match or its polar opposite.
So in 25 years what have I learnt? Three things stand out.
That relationships need working on. There is a lovely image in one of RS Thomas’ poems about “how his wife is always at work mending the garment of our marriage”. It is very apt. Relationships are put under strain by events and pressures or sometimes just the relentless pressure of routine and life. Like our favourite garments they can become frayed and torn. If we have the skill, the space for reflection and recovery, there is the possibility of repair but without that they can become broken for good.
That a good marriage is nurtured by what one has in common and by what is different between you. That has, at times, been a hard lesson to learn. I am lucky in that my wife and I have many shared perspectives and interests but we do not agree on everything. I have been slow to appreciate the importance of respecting differences, not trying to impose my view on every issue and finding the means of living with and not being resentful of those differences.
That finally the principal currencies of a good relationship are loyalty and commitment, though good times and bad, through sickness and health. Love in spite of as much as love because of. When we, as a society, place so much emphasis on choice and personal fulfillment it can be easy to forget the importance of these somewhat old fashioned qualities but they are very precious and fundamental to the institution of marriage.
So I will leave the last words of this blog to the ever perceptive William Shakespeare and the sonnet which my wife read out at our wedding and which I have cherished in the quarter of a century since:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.