4 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 12


People just aren't getting married any more, but Toby Young is.

He sees the institution as a 'barrier to exit' — and even a sacred union, unfashionable though the idea is

ON 21 July of next year I'm going to do something deeply unfashionable: I'm going to get married. According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of people getting married between 1988 and 1998 declined by approximately 25 per cent, dip- ping below the 300,000 mark in 1993 for the first time in 50 years. In the same peri- od the number of divorces fell by less than 5 per cent. On current trends, divorces will start outnumbering marriages by the year 2025, though I hope Caroline and I won't be adding to that statistic.

There are two possible explanations for this: either women are turning men down more or men are proposing less. Now it's true that Caro- line refused me at least half-a- dozen times before finally succumbing; but I think men are probably popping the question less. Judging from the presence of Bridget Jones and her pale imitators on the bestseller lists, women certain- ly seem more anxious about remaining single than men do. Indeed, the reluctance of men to get married — our so-called `commitment phobia' — is one of the main themes of contemporary popu- lar culture, from EastEnders to Men Behav- ing Badly.

Is it really fear of commitment that's holding us back, or something more ratio- nal? According to Dr Jonathan Scales, a research fellow at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, men are financial- ly better off if they remain single. 'Men's disposable income drops when they get married, while women's goes up,' he says. Indeed, men's disposable income falls by an average of 15 per cent, whereas women's goes up by 28 per cent. For a man, getting married is like entering a new tax bracket without any corresponding increase in income; it's like moving to Sweden.

My accountant confirmed that there was no tax benefit in getting married, at least not since the government abolished the married couple's allowance last April. `Start saving is the best advice I can give to you,' he said drily. The only advantage he could think of would be if I transferred some of my income-earning assets into Caroline's name in order to equalise our incomes, thereby reducing our joint tax burden. However, he quickly pointed out that I don't have any income-earning assets and, even if I did, there'd be no guarantee that Caroline would return them to me if we got divorced.

My only asset is my London flat and, fol- lowing a landmark decision by the Law Lords last week, that won't be safe either if things go pear-shaped. It's a common mis- conception that wives have always been able to lay claim to half their husbands' assets when, in fact, that's only been true of Scotland and not of England and Wales. However, the Law Lords have now decided that judges should regard a 50-50 split as a `yardstick' when dividing a couple's assets. This means that women are now much more likely to be awarded half in a divorce settlement.

Then there's the cost of the wedding to consider. I've done the sums and, even if Caroline and I restrict ourselves to a fairly modest affair with 150 guests, I can't see us getting away with less than £20,000. Tradi- tionally, this cost was borne by the father of the bride, but not any more. This conven- tion, along with all the other things that used to make marriage attractive to men — like nice fat dowries — is now decried as `sexist'. Caroline has already made it clear that she has no intention of changing her name. It's little wonder that most men of marriageable age would prefer to remain single. From a purely financial point of view, getting married is about as sensible as investing your life savings in lastminute.com.

So why am I doing it? Why would any man in possession of a good fortune — or a bedsit in Shepherd's Bush — be in want of a wife? Well, one reason is we're likely to live longer. Linda Waite, a sociology professor at the Uni- versity of Chicago, has just published a book in America called The Case for Marriage, in which she points out that 90 per cent of married men alive at 48 will still be alive at 65, whereas only 60 per cent of single men alive at 48 will make it to retirement age. Married men are half as likely as single men to commit sui- cide and single men drink twice as much as married men the same age. Perhaps most alarmingly of all — at least for singletons — is that a married man with heart disease can expect to live on average 1,400 days longer than a single man with a healthy heart.

Still, the fact that there's a statistical cor- relation between physical health and mar- riage doesn't necessarily imply a causal relationship. The kind of men who get mar- ried may simply be healthier to begin with. In any case, promoting your own physical wellbeing seems like a fairly uninspiring reason to get married. I expect monks live even longer than happily married men, but I'm not about to go and live in a monastery.

No, the only compelling reason to get hitched, it seems to me, is to make it hard- er to split up. To paraphrase Shakespeare, marriage binds you together with hoops of steel. In the less romantic language of eco- nomics, it creates a 'barrier to exit'. Should Caroline or I wish to leave each other, there'll be all sorts of hurdles in our path once we've taken our marriage vows. From my point of view, that's quite reassuring. Caroline's dumped me twice already and, even though there's no guarantee she won't do it again, she's less likely to do so after we're married. Since I'm in love with her, that's a powerful incentive.

In general terms, creating a 'barrier to exit' is a better reason for women to get married than for men, particularly if they want to have children. Contrary to popular myth, there's no such thing as a 'common- law wife'. As Jerry Hall discovered to her cost earlier this year, an unmarried woman has a weaker claim on her partner's assets than a married one, even if they have four children together. In this respect, the Law Lords' decision, while providing men with yet another incentive not to tie the knot, may end up strengthening the institution of marriage since it makes it much more expensive for husbands to leave their wives. This is one of the reasons Scotland has a lower divorce rate than England and Wales.

The fact that married couples are more likely to stay together than unmarried ones is often cited by Conservatives as Exhibit A in the case for marriage. They point out that children born out of wedlock are more likely to be brought up in one-parent fami- lies and, as a result, will place a greater burden on the state. This isn't just in terms of social security. There's a well-established correlation between illegitimacy and crimi- nal behaviour. The eminent African-Amer- ican sociologist, William Julius Wilson, has long argued that one of the reasons young black men are responsible for a dispropor- tionately high percentage of violent crimes is because of absentee fathers.

However, it's possible to address this problem without necessarily strengthening the institution of marriage. For instance, next April the government intends to replace the married couples' allowance with the children's tax credit, whereby any couple with one or more children will be eligible for a credit, married or not, provided they stay together. Another solution would be to change the law to make it more expensive for unmarried men to leave their partners, particularly if they have children. Scottish law is about to be reformed to strengthen the rights of female cohabitees and next year the Law Commission plans to publish a consultation paper which will effectively propose that the legal privileges and obliga- tions of married couples in England and Wales should be extended to cohabitees.

The net effect of these changes will be to impose the same 'barrier to exit' on cohab- itees as on married couples. The decision to start living together will be as significant as the decision to get married. Once a man has lived with a woman for long enough she'll become his wife, whether he likes it or not. The proposed changes in the law will, in effect, create the institution of the `common-law wife'. From a legal point of view, marriage and cohabitation will be completely equivalent, just as they are from a tax point of view at the moment.

What should the attitude of conservatives be to these legal reforms? Given the high illegitimate birth rate — 33.9 per cent of all births in England and Wales took place out- side of wedlock in 1995 — they seem like a sensible response to the inevitable. At the very least, they may result in fewer absentee fathers. However, they will also end up lim- iting people's choices. David Willetts, the shadow social security secretary, points out that as the law stands there's a hierarchy of commitment, with couples able to choose the level that suits them. Living together is one step; getting married is another. If the law is changed, couples will either have to go the whole hog or go their separate ways. There'll be no intermediate stage. 'If people choose not to get married, we should respect that,' he says.

Is there any other reason to preserve the unique legal status of marriage? Tories are in an awkward spot because, while they would like to make a good, Christian case for the institution of marriage, they don't want to risk antagonising non-Christians. The Conservative party has decided that in order to win the next general election — or at least the one after that — it must extend its appeal beyond the white majority of Middle England and embrace minorities. Appealing to the Christian sacraments to defend marriage would be out of place in the new, inclusive, touchy-feely Tory party However, it's possible to make a moral case for marriage without bashing people over the head with the Bible. In spite of the economic disadvantages, I've decided to tie the knot and yet I wouldn't describe myself as a Christian. Why? Because it's a very pub- lic way for Caroline and me to express our commitment to each other. If we had chosen not to get married, but simply to live togeth- er in perpetuity, there's no recognised way in which we could communicate that decision to our families and friends. We could have a party, I suppose, but it wouldn't be the same as taking solemn vows in front of our nearest and dearest. There's something about the formality of a wedding, its official nature, that makes the decision to stay together that much more binding. On 21 July of next year, when we promise to love and cherish one another, in sickness and in health, till death us do part, it's a promise we both intend to keep, and the fact that we'll be making it in front of 150 witnesses will make it that much harder to break.

This is the greatest 'barrier to exit'. If the law is changed to make marriage and cohabiting legally equivalent, it may make it more inconvenient for unmarried couples to separate, but it won't make it any more shameful. For a married couple to split up, by contrast, they have to break their vows. By anyone's reckoning — Christian and non-Christian alike — that's unethical. It's this moral component that makes marriage such a unique institution. It isn't just a partnership conjoined for two people's mutual benefit; it's a sacred union founded on a promise.

Oh, and one other thing: Caroline's training to be a solicitor, while I'm a free- lance journalist, so 1 fully expect my dis- posable income to increase after we've tied the knot.