Can a couple really be happily unmarried?

By Harry Yorke

Marriage would strengthen the family bond, but is it really necessary? Photo / 123RF.com
Marriage would strengthen the family bond, but is it really necessary? Photo / 123RF.com

Smart, wholesome and guaranteed to solve your property dilemma - who wouldn't want to marry Kirstie Allsopp? So why is it that she and her partner of 12 years (and the father of her two children), Ben Andersen, have not actually walked down the aisle?

"Ben has been married previously, so initially it was he who was reluctant," the TV presenter revealed this week. "And then I was reluctant to get married, because I just think: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

We all know a couple who, like Allsopp, claim to be "happily unmarried" - figures from the Office for National Statistics show that one in eight adults are now living together out of wedlock. But I'm increasingly unconvinced by these sorts - and I should know, because I'm one of them. Actually, I'm the opposite of Kirstie: I'm unhappily unmarried.

I've been with Diana for so long - 13 years - that I fondly call her "the wife". Yet we've never married. This didn't used to bother me, but now, even though I desperately want to marry Diana, I am too scared to do it.

My terror of tying the knot stems from witnessing my parents' painful divorce when I was a boy. My dad was 24 and my mum 17 when she became pregnant. As society expected in the early Sixties, he did the "right thing" and was married within weeks. He still jokes about their "shotgun wedding", saying: "It wasn't a shotgun I was afraid of, it was your mother's mum's rolling pin." So, from an early age, I thought of marriage as something you were expected to do, even if perhaps you didn't want to.

Like all children who go through the trauma of divorce, it hit me and my sister hard. I can still remember taking my impotent rage out on the world via my fists, aged eight, and getting into fights most days at school.

As I grew into a man, my heart hardened; I took the coward's route and shut down my emotions towards marriage, figuring: why take the risk? After all, if you don't get married, you can't get hurt, right?

The fact that, to their eternal credit, my mum and dad became the greatest of friends after they divorced and met new partners made me think: "What was the point of them even getting married in the first place?" I felt that society had strong-armed them into it. So I cocked a snook at expectations and rejected marriage altogether.

I wasn't alone. By the Nineties, living together was no longer seen as "living in sin". The shame of cohabiting out of wedlock was eroded, and for many it became almost square to tie the knot. Anyway, I was too young for all that, and had a string of relationships that lasted no longer than two years.

When, in my late twenties, many of my university friends began tying the knot, I congratulated them and meant it - but teased them in my best man speeches with barbed comments such as "another lion stops roaring".

Then, 13 years ago, I met Diana and knew she was "the one". After three years, against my better judgment, I proposed. Crushingly, she refused. Pointing out my hedonistic, self-centred lifestyle - I was editor of the lads' magazine loaded at the time - she witheringly said: "You're not ready to marry yet, and neither am I."

She was right: I spent my waking hours at the office or in the pub, and I'd badly let myself down by sinking several pints of Dutch courage to pluck up the guts to pop the question.

Diana's deserved rejection of me hardened my resolve against marriage. While we stayed happily together and decided to have children, I concluded that the cliched happy-ever-after of marriage was something that happened to other people.

The arrival of our first child, Sonny, in May 2009, reduced my desire to marry further. Why spend pounds 20,000 on an elaborate party now I had an extra mouth to feed? That was underlined later that year when our life's savings went on a deposit as we bought our first house together.

Then came the gentle, if amusing, pressure from Diana's parents, who have been happily married for 46 years. After our London house doubled in value in six years, Diana's father declared: "Right, you need to get a will drawn up. And, I hasten to add, for tax purposes it makes every sense to be married. You get greater death duty allowance as a married couple, meaning your children will inherit more of your estate when you die."

While we all chortled heartily at his characteristically ham-fisted good intentions - and while he was obviously right - the thought of the tax man metaphorically frogmarching me down the aisle somewhat quashed the romance of the act. A three-letter word ending with X had forced my dad down the aisle. The idea of tax doing the same to me was too tragic to comprehend.

By 2013, I was the last of the bachelors in my social circle. One by one, my friends had married, and every time they'd tease: "Will you guys be next?" But what had been a badge of honour became, if not a badge of shame, then one of secret sadness, especially after we had our second child, Dolly, in 2014.

I was inching towards marriage, and what sealed it for me was seeing my two-year-old daughter walk down the aisle as a flower girl with Diana, who was a bridesmaid, at her friend Sarah's wedding in France this summer.

Whereas in our parents' generation, the concept of having sons as ring bearers and daughters as flower girls would have brought a societal shame, now it is a common sight - and it's one that pulled at my heartstrings. I found myself tearfully thinking: "That should be me up there. Why am I not walking down the aisle, too?"

I'd had an awakening. I realised that marriage isn't about stupid, selfish me. It's about other people and, for me, that most difficult thing of all: allowing yourself to be vulnerable. I think - hope - that Diana has begun to warm to the idea, too. I know that she wants the same surname as our children, because she once said "it just feels the right thing to do".

Marriage would strengthen the family bond, now that my children are old enough to understand. And, let's face it, both sets of our parents - all in their seventies - aren't getting any younger. It would mean the world to them: out of my parents' four offspring, I'm the only unmarried one, so it would be a completion of sorts. I'd also love the chance to formally thank everybody: Diana's parents and mine, our friends and, of course, "the wife" - simply for putting up with me.

So, I'm ready to marry, but is Diana? I guess there's only one way to find out, and this time I'll stay sober. Ish. I've been deluding myself all along. For me, the concept of being "happily unmarried" doesn't exist. It's just a self?protection mechanism against sadness and rejection. In her heart, I suspect Kirstie Allsopp knows what I mean.

Happily unmarried with children

Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell

An item for more than 30 years, the Hollywood couple have one child together - 30-year-old son Wyatt Russell. When asked why they'd never walked down the aisle, last year, Hawn said: "I would have been long divorced if I'd got married."

Richard Curtis and Emma Freud

The Four Weddings director is constantly referred to by his script-editor partner as "my current boyfriend". After 25 years together, they have four children - Spike, Scarlett, Charlie and Jake.

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling

Gosling has been with Mendes for six years, but has yet to go down on one knee. Mendes - who recently gave birth to their second child - says she likes calling him her "boyfriend", as it sounds "more contemporary". "I think [marriage] is a very old-fashioned, archaic kind of thing," she has said. "We did it for land originally - how unromantic is that?"

Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet

Scotching rumours of an affair with Brad Pitt, Cotillard announced that she is expecting her second child with French actor Canet. They have been together since 2007 and already have a five-year-old son together.

Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

The Sherlock actors, who met in 2000, live together in Potters Bar, Herts, with their children, Grace and Joe. Lately, rumours have swirled that the couple were married in secrecy. When asked about future plans, Freeman said: "Mind your own business."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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