The battle over the redefinition of marriage has been a long and painful one since David Cameron announced at the Conservative Party conference in October of 2011 that his government was consulting on legalising gay marriage. But during his speech he also said this:
‘Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life. It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value.’
Over the last year and a half there it has been affirming to see such little disagreement with this belief that marriage benefits society. In fact why would so many people fight so strongly for it if they did not hold it in such high esteem? The facts support such a valuation. The Marriage Foundation offers plenty of evidence to demonstrate that marriage can lead to increased incomes, better health and improved well-being for both parents and children. Neill Harvey-Smith on his blog yesterday drew attention to this statistic that highlights the tremendous difference marriage makes to children:
‘For every 100 kids sitting their GCSEs at the moment, 55 still live with both their parents. So – of those 55 kids, how many do you think have unmarried parents? The answer is 4. Intact unmarried parents of older teens are about as common as 90-year-old smokers. If marriage were just a contract, this remarkable adhesive quality would be inexplicable… Children need marriage because, without it, parents rarely stay together, and staying together magnifies their children’s life chances.’
Only a fool would argue against numbers like this and yet marriage is still suffering in the popularity stakes. Between 1996 and 2012 the number of married couples rose slightly from 12.1 million to 12.6 million. In contrast, there were 2.9 million cohabiting couples in the UK, double the 1996 figure of 1.5 million. So what has caused cohabitation to increase so dramatically? Most of the answers are obvious. Rapid social and cultural changes since the 1960s have produced an aversion to tradition and establishment. Being in a partnership but not being married has become increasingly acceptable, partly as the influence of religious belief and the Church has waned. Some are uncomfortable with marriage because of their own painful experiences watching their parents divorce. Others have no experience of marriage within their family and have little appreciation of its benefits. Another reason even for those who would want to get married is the cost of a wedding.
In 2009 the average wedding cost was under £11,000. This has now soared to over £18,000 according to research published last month. This is a scarily large amount of money. The result for those who do go through with it is an average debt of £3,000. Of those surveyed, 21 per cent had to take out credit cards and loans to pay for their wedding day with a further 25 per cent borrowing money from family and friends. 23 per cent put off getting married due to the high costs and 11 per cent admitted that the financial pressures caused them to come close to breaking up.
The actual basic costs of a marriage ceremony are not great and have changed very little. The main reason for increased costs is the ever expanding list of extras that have become ‘musts’. Going back to the survey, 18 per cent blamed the pressure to “keep up with the Jones” as the main reason for wedding costs snowballing, whilst a 33 per cent put it down to an over-sized guest list. Hosting a free bar caused 16 per cent of newlyweds’ finances to get out of control, and 19 per cent felt obliged to fully kit out their bridal party even though they could not afford it.
Francesca Preece writing in the Daily Mail of her own experiences of getting married raises a series of points that will be true for most couples:
‘This is the sad truth. There are so many couples out there, both with and without kids, who would like to say ‘I will’ in front of families and friends but who are put off by expense. Who in their right mind if strapped for cash would pick a wedding over a mortgage deposit for a house? The romantic in us may, but the practical part of us wouldn’t.
‘The problem though is not so much the money side of it, but the expectation. The feeling is that if you are going to get married, you have to ‘do it properly’ – and all that entails.
‘So much to do with modern weddings is posturing, keeping-up-with-the-joneses nonsense. People will happily borrow money to pay for the grotesque trappings of the modern ‘celebrity’-influenced ceremony, when we should all live within our means and remember what it’s really about – two people pledging themselves to each other for the rest of their lives.’
The wedding day, rather than being focused on the commitment of two individuals to each other for the rest of their lives has increasingly become an overblown commercial monster that is likely to do more long-term damage than good. It’s a terrible and unnecessary state of affairs with the costs only likely to increase even higher. For those of us who care about the value of marriage, are we happy to sit back and let this happen without doing something to address it? Government might feel uneasy about telling couples to reign in their spending, but individuals, families and churches should definitely be able to speak up in a helpful way to take the pressure off expectations of the big day without couples feeling that their wedding will be second-rate if it doesn’t have all the knobs and whistles stuck on to it.
It’s a common aspect of our culture that too many people act like sheep going along with things because they perceive that everyone else is doing so and are too afraid to do anything differently. We need people with a voice to offer alternatives who can explain that all this unaffordable extravagance is not worth the financial pain and consequences. Plenty of churches run marriage courses in different forms that can give an opportunity to discuss this matter in a relaxed and helpful way. There are charities such as The Wedding Angels who work with couples, churches and businesses to make wedding days affordable, irrespective of couples’ budgets. This is not an impossible problem.
The position we find ourselves in where couples who would wish to get married feel unable to because of the costs or accept that they will have to run up large debts if they choose to take the plunge is not healthy or intelligent. It’s time we did something to address this perverted situation. Ironically most of the best weddings I’ve been to have been on fairly tight budgets. Paul McCartney wrote that ‘Money can’t buy me love’ and it can’t buy you a perfect wedding day either. For that you need friends, family and commitment. And all of those are free.