This one was set off by yet another article purporting to be about marriage, but from its content clearly about some sort of current fashion accessory. I am not interested in trying to exercise control over the ways people invent of wrecking each other's lives, but I wish they wouldn't call it marriage.

Over the years, the news media have regaled us with a steady stream of misinformation, sensationalism, speculation, and ( occasionally ) downright lies about marriage, and your recent article by Yvonne Roberts ( Weekend Herald, 2002 July 13-14, G1 ) sits comfortably in this tradition. To be fair, I should state that I noticed no lies. The tone was set in the second paragraph, where we learn that someone called Candace Bushnell, who appears to have no qualifications as an expert, has married someone she met eight weeks earlier.

I am an expert. I have been married to my wife, Jean, for over 41 years, and am very happy about it. It seems to me that we would all be better off for the introduction of a few basic facts about the nature of marriage, so here they are.

What is marriage ? Most people had a fair idea of the answer until not very many years ago, when it became fashionable to regard opinions of famous, but totally ignorant, people as superior to those of people who knew what they were talking about. ( No, this is not the GM debate. ) In the British tradition, the standard for marriage was set by the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. That's a bit like saying that the standard for driving is set by the Official New Zealand Road Code; in many cases, performance in practice falls short of the ideal, but the ideal is still there. Not everybody thought marriage was a good thing, but at least they knew what they were criticising. The marriage service has evolved a little, but most of it has remained; the local modern descendant of the Book of Common Prayer is A New Zealand Prayer Book, which offers three variants of the marriage service, all preserving the main features from the Book of Common Prayer.

If you're unhappy about all this religious stuff, I'm afraid that you're stuck with it. For most of Europe, the Christian tradition replaced whatever was there before, and formed the accepted expectations. Europe exported it to all of America, and, with less exhaustive coverage, to a good part of the rest of the world through colonisation. The Christian tradition itself is based on the much older Jewish tradition, which goes back to the creation stories in the Bible. In fact, though, there's very little explicitly religious about the promises made in the marriage service.

These promises express the expectations well. It's very simple. I was asked to undertake to accept and to live with Jean as my wife; to love, comfort, honour, and keep her, whatever our circumstances; and to be faithful to her alone until one of us died. Jean made exactly symmetrical undertakings. ( No, she did not promise to obey me; that disappeared from the Prayer Book service in 1928. ) Then I said, "With this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee honour; and all my worldly goods with thee I share"; Jean didn't have to reciprocate, which was odd because at the time she was significantly richer than I was. That didn't matter; we knew what we were doing. At the time I meant every word of it; I still do.

Then we were joined in matrimony. We did not sign a contract, or agree to cooperate, or abandon our individuality; we were joined, we became one. Neither of us was diminished in any way; both of us were expanded. We don't have separate property or bank accounts; we undertook to share everything. Yvonne Roberts writes earnestly that nowadays "the responsibility is on individuals to negotiate their own customised partnership"; in marriage, it always was, because that's how it's set up. She continues with "perhaps this is easier outside the ingrained assumptions of marriage". What in the marriage service makes it difficult ?

Nothing. How you keep the promises is up to you. But to rely on those promises the two people involved have to trust each other. To trust each other, you have to know each other pretty well. That takes time; that's why I'm sceptical about Candace Bushnell's eight-week courtship. I had a lot more to learn about Jean when we married, but I was sure that she was absolutely trustworthy, and that we shared the same values. We don't agree on everything; we don't have the same tastes about everything; we don't do the same things. We do agree on what's important and what isn't, which is far more significant.

That is what marriage is about. If you don't like it, you can do something else, but why call it marriage if it isn't ? There are plenty nowadays who are quite content to live in partnerships or relationships, which is sensible enough if you don't want to make the commitments implied by the marriage service.

It is unfortunate that there has accumulated a mass of ingrained assumptions about marriage, but they are not part of the institution of marriage itself. It does depend on both people remembering the promises and sticking to them, but because I meant them when we started I found that was easy. It isn't just us; we met at Leeds University in the late 1950s, and all the people we met there with whom we are still in touch are still married for the first time, or never have been.

I haven't tried living any other way, but I see and hear of many who have. Nothing persuades me that anything even comes near to marriage as a way of life. It is noteworthy that nothing in the marriage service is about anyone's rights - it's all responsibilities. That's very unfashionable, and thoroughly practical. It means that you have to do things, not just sit back and moan because the other isn't doing things. Perhaps that's the problem - you might actually have to do some work. No wonder it's unpopular.

( NOTE : this article has been approved by Jean. That's all part of being married. )

Alan Creak,
2003, January.