Ring in the changes: Marriage is the big new thing

By Nicola Shepheard

Now that Brangelina, Hollywood’s postercouple for liberal-minded unwedded bliss, have come over all conjugal, you have to wonder why we keep ‘I do-ing’? Research shows that marriage is the big new thing

Teresa Woodham and Ross McLean married after four years together.
Photo / Doug Sherring
Teresa Woodham and Ross McLean married after four years together. Photo / Doug Sherring

Last week, the internet thrummed with news of Brad Pitt's engagement to Angelina Jolie. Who'll design her dress? Will they wed in France? Have they been secretly engaged for months? Have you seen the ring? But an equally pressing question has been overlooked. Why? After seven years together, six kids, a bond so solid not even a 1000 tabloid hacks could rent them asunder, why bother getting married now?

And what about their oft repeated stance that they wouldn't get married until gay marriage was legalised across the United States? Only four months ago, Jolie told Nightline: "You don't have to be married to be committed to a partner or your family. Once you have six children, you're committed."

But it seems those kids wore them down, as Pitt foreshadowed to the Hollywood Reporter in January: "We made this declaration that we weren't going to do it until everyone can. But I don't think we'll be able to hold out. It means so much to my kids, and they ask a lot. And it means something to me, too, to make that kind of commitment."

A University of Auckland sociologist says pressure from children is a common motivation for de facto couples to seal their deals. Last year, Maureen Baker and colleague Vivienne Elizabeth interviewed 40 New Zealand couples who'd lived together for at least three years before marrying or getting a civil union, and 10 celebrants, who between them had performed 1500 marriages and hundreds of civil unions. The partners' ages ranged from 28 to 62; 27 couples were opposite-sex,13 same-sex.

The researchers wanted to know why long-term de facto couples marry when, on the surface, there are few material or social advantages, particularlyin New Zealand.

Since a 2001 law change, couples who have lived together for three years or longer have almost the same legal status as married couples. They're required to support each other financially, and, if they seperate, divide equally any assets accrued during cohabitation. Parents have to support children, regardless of marital status.

Big Wednesday Lotto presenter Sonia Gray is the latest local celebrity to wed her long-term partner. Gray married Simon Chesterman on Friday, witnessed by their toddler twin girls. Baker: "If a couple's been living together for five years and have a baby, and they come to you and say we're engaged, it's hard to get excited. 'Oh that's nice, but what does that mean?'."

I got wondering the same thing after attending six weddings this season, three between long-term cohabiters, including a couple with a child. One was a heterosexual civil union; and two brides I'd never expected would marry. One surprised herself.

In the study, the main reason longterm cohabiters said they got hitched was to make public the commitment they'd already made in private, before family and friends. "And they wanted a party to celebrate an enduring and successful relationship - some had been living together for 20 years." Pressure from children swayed some, a la Brangelina. "The children would ask,'Why aren't you married? All my friend's parents are married'." says Baker. "One 8-year-old asked, 'Does that mean you're still dating?"'

For others it was older relatives - that was broadcaster and Herald on Sunday columnist Kerre Woodham's experience. She got engaged in February to her partner of more than a decade, Tom McIvor and described a spectacular display of emotional blackmail by her ailing grandmother. "Well," she'd say weakly, "if you two got married I might be able to carry on ..." They withstood that, but last summer brought a change of mind. "We'd been meaning to do it for years and then my daughter got married and I admired them for having the courage of their convictions," Woodham explains.

It was no longer good enough to say, we'll do it "one day". "Being at [my friend] Cathy Campbell's funeral reminded me that we might run out of 'one days', and the Leap Year meant I could ask him so he'll be my first husband; I won't be just another one of his wives!" The proposal made the papers - and three days later, McIvor came home grumpy. "Fourteen years I've been able to fly below the radar," he said. "We get engaged and I become a Stuff.co.nz trivia question!"

In some of the Auckland University study's couples, one partner had to persuade the other. In straight couples the woman was usually the persuader but she wanted the man to propose. One woman saw her chance when she and her partner were applying for a loan so he could buy a motorbike. Upon hearing the minimum loan was several thousand more than they needed, she said to him, "How about you get your motorbike, and I get my ring?" Flustered, he agreed. Within 20 minutes, she'd texted her friends announcing their engagement.

For some older couples, inheritance and healthcare considerations also had a bearing. A few older women spoke of wanting security. For some same-sex couples, civil unions conferred the same acceptance and celebration of their relationship that most straight couples enjoy whether married or unmarried.

No one expected Peta Cherry would marry - especially not Cherry. "Marriage was a patriarchal institution, and I didn't see any benefit in it for me at all," she says. Her partner of four years Bryan Gibson, "wasn't averse to the idea, but it wasn't important".

"I woke up one morning and the thought of publicly declaring my undying love for him made me go all funny, and that's how I still feel when I think about the wedding," says Cherry, 37. "It was nothing logical, just a feeling that I really wanted to celebrate us."

Cherry's feminist values shaped her 2009 wedding and marriage."We went to Paraparaumu beach and I got down on bended knee and proposed. The wedding was very unconventional, a big potluck affair with a ceremony on the beach. It was very relaxed and informal, there was no being given away or walking up the aisle."

"[I've realised] Bryan's not a patriarchal institution, we don't have stereotypical gender roles, I didn't changemy name, all those things are not part of our marriage. I guess we figured out we could do it how we wanted."

However, many couples embrace matrimonial traditions with gusto. Baker and Elizabeth were incredulous to hear from interviewees that romantic, often elaborate proposals were virtually de rigueur. "Lots of people propose in restaurants," reports Baker.

"They also propose on the top of Mt Eden . . . Tradition carries on despite modern ways of living." But it's tradition that is endlessly variable and intensely personalised.

Civil Union celebrant Robin Gee has helped couples enact traditions particular to subcultures that would make a traditionalist blanch: a Goth couple sprinkled "dragon's blood" over smouldering charcoal in a cauldron; another couple were bound together by vine.

Gee, who also lectures at Unitec's School of Performing and Screen Arts, captures the wedding zeitgeist. He believes ceremonies, whether for marriage or civil unions, answer a universal need for ritual and rites of passage, and must be meaningful and fitting to the couple and their family and friends.

Aucklander Teresa Woodham is still coming down from the high of her wedding to partner of four years, Ross McLean. Woodham, 61, a psychotherapist and screen actress, met McLean, 71, who runs a small online business, through online dating four years ago.

They had common interests yachting, hiking, cycling (they'd thought of cycling up the aisle, but her dress was too narrow.) They lived together for 2½years before marrying at a Hawke's Bay vineyard.

"It feels like I've been through some kind of rite of passage," says Woodham. "We had it on Easter Sunday,which for me is about renewal, and starting again, what we named in our ceremony as this harvest time of our lives. I do believe in the power of ritual to help us mark rites of passage and to make meaning in life."

If you believe the likes of clinical psychologist Meg Jay, Brad and Ange's engagement could be the beginning of the end for them. In a NewYork Times op-ed last Sunday, Jay warned of what sociologists call the "cohabitation effect": people who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce, than those who marry straight from dating. "I am not for or against living together," she wrote, "but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake, or of spending too much time on a mistake."

Jay's column was seized upon by pro-marriage groups, but the data was from the 1980s when the few couples who eschewed nuptials were probably more likely to eschew other conventions, and be more open to separating.

Subsequent research suggests the effect mainly applies to so-called "serial cohabiters", often financially struggling single mothers who go from man to man. There's evidence living with your spouse-to-be actually protects you against divorce. One American study found divorce rates were 28 per cent lower for women who'd married their only live-in partner as for women who married without ever cohabiting. What matters, says Baker, is"whether you communicate about what you want out of life and out of a relationship.

If you just end up living with somebody because you're spending a lot of time with them and maybe you don't have anywhere else to live, and then you marry because you've been together five years and it seems like the next step . . . those are the relationships more vulnerable to instability." Regardless, marriage, as an institution, seems to be on the rebound:more cohabiters break up than do married couples.

And because most people still take marriage more seriously than cohabiting, and modern ceremonies often call for undertakings of ongoing support from guests, married couples are likely to receive more help through rocky periods.

Opotiki doctor and newlywed Emily Gill, 34, was taken aback at how much her wedding to 39-year-old career consultant Ivor Jones meant to other people. "It's quite astounding the importance other people put on marriage, and how they respond to me and us in a different way."

Conservatives may fret about declining morals and permissiveness, but the nuptial pull is still mighty, even if the conventional route now includes a stay at the premarital loveshack.

- Herald on Sunday

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