In western nations, fewer people than ever are getting married, yet studies show that tying the knot will make you happier, richer and healthier. But, asks Louise Carpenter, is it really so simple?
Any time marriage is talked about, it is always in sentiments of gravity, happiness, certainty and long-term commitment.
Research also suggests it makes you richer, healthier and your children more successful. For example, in a project carried out in Britain in 2002, called "Does Marriage Affect Physical And Psychological Health: A Study Of Longitudinal Evidence", academics found that, in material terms, a happy marriage was equivalent to an annual income of $154,000. In health terms, it has the equivalent impact of giving up smoking.
None of us wants to die alone and most of us, if honest, strive for a life of private intimacy with someone - the kind Karl Marx meant when he asked his wife in 1856: "But where could I find a face whose every feature, even every wrinkle, is a reminder of the greatest and sweetest memories of my life?"
Statistically, at least, marriage seems to be the best way of ensuring this. Research conducted by Kathleen Kiernan, professor of social policy and demography at the University of York in Britain, shows that couples who cohabit but do not marry are two-and-a-half times more likely to split up than married couples. It is not the marriage certificate itself, she stresses, that keep such couples and families together, but the attitudes of the people involved and how they view their commitment.
In my own case, there was enough of the traditionalist in both my husband and me to want to make a bigger statement. Why did we feel that to be necessary? For me, it was more an emotional pull towards family belonging - by the time we married I was pregnant with our second child - than anything to do with conservative morality. Would getting married make our family more likely to stick together?
Apparently so. My instinctive emotional feelings will act as the glue that binds my family together: "The kinds of people selecting marriage create better family environments," Kiernan says, "but that's nothing to do with 'marriage' - that's to do with the people involved and how they view their commitment."
Given that there is so much divorce, and so few marriages now, how can marriage bring more happiness? In Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace With Marriage, the follow-up to her international best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert tries to answer why we make such a hash of it. She uncovers sobering facts about what sociologists call the "marriage benefit imbalance", showing that marriage is an institution that greatly benefits men, not women. A partial list: married men live longer than single men; married men accumulate more wealth than single men; married men are far less likely to die a violent death than single men; married men report themselves to be much happier than single men, and married men suffer less alcoholism, drug addiction and depression than single men.
For women, however, marriage means more depression, less career success and less good health and, until recently, a greater chance of dying a violent death - usually at the hands of the men they love.
Early this year another study came out of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, which showed that women who are seven to nine years older than their husbands have a 20 per cent higher mortality rate than if they were the same age. Marrying an older man shortens a woman's life span, but having a young husband reduces it even more, the study found. Reasons were unclear, but some explanations might lie in the quality of friendships men and women form throughout their life. Women, goes the argument, have more close friendships outside marriage and so benefit less than men from having a partner.
There could be another reason, too. I grew up the product of a "model" family, with two parents and a mother who stayed at home. My sister and I were healthy, happy, educated and stable. But my mother did not work beyond meeting the needs of her family.
Today, modern women are subjected to a whole new set of strains, juggling multiple issues of children, home, work, love and sex. They are the emotional architects of a family life that is far more complex now.
As Gilbert asks in Committed, when politicians start talking about "ideal" family environments, can we have "a larger conversation about how we might work together as a society to construct a world where healthy children can be raised and healthy families can prosper without women having to scrape the walls of their souls bare to do it?"
The assertion that marriage makes you happier and healthier is more controversial than ever. In the past decade, clinical trials in America have proven that, whatever your sex, ending up in a bad marriage, or even in a marriage in which marital stress is high, has effects on your health beyond the psychological. Being married is good for you only if it's a good marriage. In one study in Ohio, immunologist Ronald Glaser and his wife, clinical psychologist Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, recruited 76 women, half of whom were married and half divorced or separated. Using blood tests to measure the women's production of antibodies, they found the immune systems were decidedly weaker in women who were either unhappily married or emotionally hung up on their ex-husbands.
They followed this through with a study of 90 newlyweds who were made to sit face-to-face, discussing "volatile" subjects such as housework, sex or in-laws. Many of the seemingly happy couples quickly descended into hostile behaviour and in these couples the scientists found the largest declines in immune-system function over the 24-hour period. Fascinated by the implications, Kiecolt-Glaser went even further. She had read about a strange tool - a small plastic suction device - used by her dermatology colleagues which left eight small blisters when used on the arm. Forty-two couples had their arms "blistered", then talked to each other for half an hour, the first time on easy subjects, then the following day, after more blistering, on topics that might create a row.
Kiecolt-Glaser found that after the episodes in which the couples bickered, the blisters took a day longer to heal and in the couples in which the bickering was particularly nasty, the wounds took a full two days longer than that.
The message was clear: if you fight with a loved one, it isn't only bad for your relationship, but bad for your body. Kiecolt-Glaser was unequivocal: "Learn to fight without hostility and derision, but if staying married means constantly fighting, from the point of view of your health, you're better off out of it."
Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, A History, says that the findings teach us that: "It is the relationship, not the institution, that is the key." She also raises other questions surrounding how, as a society, we have managed to end up in a position in which marital breakdown now costs tens of billions of dollars a year: "Historically it wasn't until the late 1800s that it only became respectable to marry for love," she tells me.
"When the love revolution happened, social conservatives were horrified because of the rights people would demand of it as a result - in other words, if people married for love, they would want to stay in love. It took 150 years for social conservative fears to play out, largely because of lack of birth control and the stigma of illegitimacy."
In other words, it has taken 150 years for people to work out that if they marry for love and then fall out of love, they don't have to be married anymore. "I'm not saying we have to lower our expectations of marriage," Coontz continues. "But the romance is only one part of the love. I prefer to think of it as a day-to-day repair of a bridge constantly in construction. It is precisely because now, culturally, we marry for love that you can not expect love alone to carry you. In the past we never did. When a marriage works today, it works better than at any point in history, but when it is bad, it is so much less bearable. I'm not sure how you stop that except to understand it and what is required to keep it going."
Kate Figes is author of the recently published and critically acclaimed Couples: The Truth, which is based on 120 interviews with "committed" couples. The book explores the reality of modern love and is incisive on how, culturally, societal change has made it difficult for us all and has contributed to a feeling that marriage is to be avoided, or must be abandoned at the first hurdle. "It feels in some ways that society is 15 years behind the nature of our relationships," she tells me. "We really are the pioneers. It is hardly surprising that there is divorce and depression. The traditional assumptions of father and mother are disappearing - men want more emotional involvement; women want to work - few can survive on the father's salary alone. Women have to return to work, and yet workplace attitudes and practices have not shifted adequately enough to accommodate the new needs of families. Families live too far away. It's parents who bear the brunt of this seismic change, with no route map to tell them how to be a 'happy' family any more as they grapple towards a new way of being which sort of works - on a good day."
What is more, Figes says, few are really honest about how damn tough being in a long-term relationship is. For many reasons - anything from loyalty, shame, pride - we rarely confide any more, not with our friends, not with our family, and so go about our business thinking everybody else's relationship is better until we can no longer bear our own. The truth is that it's hard for us all. It is not the benefits of "marriage" we need to be told about, or even guided towards with a paltry sum of money each year that is barely enough to do one weekly shop, but the skills of ensuring enduring commitment. Friends need to talk about the bad times as well as the good times so that we all don't end up living in a bubble of expectation.
It is here, perhaps, that I should declare an interest. During my talks with Figes, I tell her that for so many people entering marriage - including me, first time round - they have no real idea what it truly means. I got married at 27, after six years of happy cohabitation. By the age of 30, I was divorced, scarred by the failure of it all (no children, crucially). My wedding five years ago to the man who is now my husband was my second (in Britain, 37 per cent of the marriages recorded in 2008 were remarriages, a fall of four per cent in 10 years). The failure of my first marriage was not enough to put me off doing it again, although second time round I thought long and hard about what it really meant. Today I am very happy, although it is by no means always easy. I think Gilbert gets somewhere close to it when she quotes Kant in his assertion that we humans are so emotionally complex that we go through two puberties in life: the first when our bodies are mature enough for sex, the second when our minds are. "I do wonder if perhaps our emotional maturity comes to us only through the experiences and lessons of our youthful and romantic failures," she writes. "To ask a 20-year-old girl to somehow automatically know things about life that most 40-year-old women needed decades to understand is expecting an awful lot of wisdom from a very young person. Maybe we must all go through the anguish and errors of a first puberty, in other words, before any of us can ascend to the second one."
Figes points to Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving: "Loving is an art, just as living is an art," he writes. "If we want to learn how to love, we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, carpentry or the art of medicine or engineering."
What Figes learned, she says, echoes Coontz's thesis: a good marriage today - for its freedoms and equalities - makes you happy, a bad one desperately miserable and with feelings of unbearable loneliness. The message seems to be that, rather than blindly encouraging a society into marriage only to find unhappiness a few years down the line, we should widen the discussion even start the discussion - about what it takes to keep a marriage or "commitment" going. As Tara Parker-Pope discovers in her book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, "the goal is to diagnose and treat marital problems just as a doctor would diagnose and treat cancer, diabetes or any other important health concern".
"One of the most shocking things for me that came out of my research," continues Figes, "was that it takes six years for a couple to get to marriage counselling, and by then it can be too late." Happiness, she says, lies in the small things, the daily kindnesses and courtesies, the shared and growing sense of history, not going nuclear in arguments with cruel insults. There's no secret.
Inevitably, in any discussion of the value of marriage, the issue of the health and wellbeing of children comes up. Children, the research seems to suggest, are happier and perform better academically with two parents. The London-based Centre for Social Justice think-tank that was responsible for recommending a proposed marriage tax break in Britain, has issued some stark statistics on child welfare and family breakdown. Original polling for their report, Breakdown Britain, revealed that children whose parents were no longer together were 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely be drug addicts and 50 per cent more likely to have alcohol problems.
The centre also used Kiernan's research showing that couples whose children were born outside wedlock were two-and-a-half times more likely to split up than those couples who got married first (statistically, then, my second marriage is more likely to break up given we'd already started our family).
"Crossing the line and making the commitment makes a big difference to stability," said Dr Samantha Callan, the centre's chair of Family, Early Years and Mental Health.
But Kate Pickett, co-author of The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone, a book that has influenced many policies, is clear that at an international level there is no link between child wellbeing and being the child of a lone parent. In the latest edition of The Spirit Level, she and co-author Richard Wilkinson use the Unicef index of child wellbeing, which measures around 40 different elements, from immunisation to the presence of bullying, to illustrate that: "There is no connection between the proportion of single parents and national standards of child wellbeing.
This, however, contrasts sharply with the strong relationship between child wellbeing and income inequality." They found that in countries that provided state support to protect single-parent families from poverty, the children's wellbeing was unaffected as measured by the index. What really blighted children's lives, they found, was having a mother who was depressed or a life shaped by poverty - in other words, a mother who was unable to give them emotional stability and where living conditions were equally unstable.
"It is quite clearly completely unrelated to whether the parents are single or not," Pickett confirms when we speak. "Given the political controversies around the provision of state support to single parents, two points are worth noting. First, that it seems to be possible to safeguard children against most of the adverse effects of being brought up by lone parents, and second, that denying state support does not seem to reduce the proportion of single parents." A top-heavy, unequal society with extremes of wealth and poverty is what really threatens child welfare, not children born out of wedlock.
What makes all this confusing is that everybody broadly agrees that children do do better with two parents and there is no doubt that divorce can leave lingering psychological scars, especially on children. But equally, as Figes points out, the damage of divorce on children can be mitigated by careful handling. The bottom line of the research into parenting and relationships is that the best way to take care of your children is to take care of your marriage.
Which brings us back to square one: "Moments of intense frustration, hatred, loneliness and irritation exist in every long-term relationship," Figes states, "but when the whole is sound, when there is enough love and respect to keep things moving forward together, a committed relationship offers us the best crucible there is for psychological growth, contentment and a sense of self and place."
So where does that leave us on the marriage question? Well, if you try and fail, it will bring you more misery than almost anything else at any point in history. But if you can move beyond overblown feelings of romance (nice while they last), invest in daily kindnesses and see it as a difficult journey rather than an instant hit of sexual and emotional gratification, your life and the lives of your children will have a better chance of being happier. Are you prepared to take the gamble?
Marriage in New Zealand
The general marriage rate, or marriages per 1000 unmarried adults, was 13.2 last year, down from 16.1 in 1999. The latest rate is less than one-third of the peak level of 45.5 per 1000, recorded in 1971.
Americans Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher, 104 and 102 respectively, are the oldest living married couple. They wed in 1924. The couple who have the longest recorded marriage were Daniel and Susan Bakeman. They wed in 1772 and were married for 91 years and 12 days.
Biggest wedding cake
The Mohegan Sun casino's 5m high wedding cake weighed 6832kg and produced 59,000 slices.
Most marriages in a lifetime
Glynn Wolfe, who also holds the record for the most divorces, married 29 times during his 88 years. His shortest union lasted 19 days, his longest seven years. His first marriage was in 1926, his last was in 1996, to Linda Essex, who held the female record for the most marriages.
Oldest bride and groom
Francois Fernandez and Madeleine Francineau married in 2002 at a retirement home in France when the two were 96 and 94.
Most expensive wedding
Vanisha Mittal, daughter of the world's fifth richest person, married investment banker Amid Bhatia in Versailles. The six-day party, which included a performance by Kylie Minogue, reportedly cost $55 million.