Wills and Kate said I do - but do we?

By Ngo Richard

Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, after their wedding. Photo / AP
Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, after their wedding. Photo / AP

The media were blaring for weeks before the big event.

On TV, in the newspapers, even online there was no escape from the relentless publicity surrounding the marriage between Prince William and Kate Middleton. As the hype built, estimates of audience numbers grew. And grew.

One billion, some reckoned. British officials thought two billion. The Sun, a British tabloid, optimistically predicted an audience of three billion.

As it turned out, barely a fifth of that number watched.

Does this comparative lack of interest in what was called "the wedding of the century" show how our thoughts of traditional marriage are changing? If so, it's not the only indicator.

Divorce rates are soaring, up to 40 per cent in the US. Wedding rates are dropping. And the controversy over same-sex marriage is forcing people to re-evaluate their definition of marriage itself.

In a society that's changing at an unprecedented rate, will the institution of marriage be forced to change with it?

It's true that the image of a white-clad bride walking up the aisle is a romantic ideal for generations of girls, and that many can't imagine something they see as fundamental to society ever changing.

But marriage is not as constant as we might believe. It's changed from a purely religious ceremony to a faith-optional state function, and from a lifetime commitment to a union that could last a matter of days, like Britney Spears' 55-hour marriage.

Married women used to be legally ruled by their husbands, unable to own property or earn money - because they and their husband were "one person" under law.

Now, marriages can be arranged on the spur of the moment - think Las Vegas drive-thru weddings - divorces can be granted just as easily and, through common-law marriage, you can have the same rights without ever having said "I do".

These changes are taking marriage in only one direction: towards more freedom. The traditional religious roots of marriage have already been eclipsed by a society that puts tolerance and personal choice first, and increasing support for gay marriage shows that individuals are willing to accept this change.

But there's a different question that is already starting to be voiced: why marry at all?

Marriage is no longer about joining two families together, or forming a financial contract between man and woman. It's not even about avoiding a life of sin.

We're at a point where the typical marriage is entirely about the two individuals involved, and it's their choice to join in what they see as the ultimate expression of love.

Yet more and more people are questioning the idea that a relationship needs validation from an outside authority. If a couple is already ready for a dedicated, long-term relationship, they ask, what is marriage but a formality?

They challenge the view of lifetime commitment as synonymous with marriage - as divorce rates can attest, there is a vast difference.

This, too, is another level of freedom in marriage - the freedom to not have one. Common-law marriage legislation and broadening social attitudes have made this a more viable option than previously; perhaps in the future it will be embraced as much as the other marriage reforms that we take for granted.

For now, though, marriage still has its own charm. It's a tradition spanning millennia, a marker in the life of each husband or wife and an unmatched symbol of romance and dedication. If it's here to stay, perhaps that's for the good.

* Ngo Richard, Year 12,
King's College

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