A bride and tested formula for mass entertainment

Stowe Family Law|September 23rd 2009

Jonathan James’ post on the speech by Baroness Deech has attracted a good deal of angry comment from men, who criticize the courts for not upholding their marriage vows, because they did not wish to divorce. In civil law, marriage is regarded as a form of legal partnership, like any other. If one partner wishes to dissolve the marriage, therefore, even if the other does not, this must eventually happen.

But the pain these men obviously feel may be more positively focused elsewhere. In 1992, I wrote a book, “Divorce – A New Beginning”, calling for marriage, rather than divorce, to be made harder. When a marriage has broken down and love has gone, I wrote then and still believe, it should be swiftly ended with dignity and civility, in a process not focusing on the past.

But I also wrote that getting married is simply too easy and should become more difficult in law. I felt then that marriage had become too focused on the Big Day – the dress and the party – rather than what it means in law: a voluntary change of legal status, by consenting adults, to one of joint partnership, with all its incumbent obligations. This is something not to be entered into lightly. I was concerned then that the real meaning of marriage had been lost.

What is our understanding of marriage in 2009? If anything, it seems to have worsened. In the glare and fallout of celebrity weddings, splashed across the media – particularly widely-read glossy magazines – marriage seems to have become even less meaningful than it was in 1992. It has become commonplace to have children before the marriage takes place and, overall, the wedding day itself is an excuse to party.

In Living TV’s “Four Weddings”, the first series of which has just ended, a quartet of brides was asked every week to vote on each other’s dress, venue, food and overall presentation. The couple whose wedding was judged the best won an expenses-paid honeymoon.

Each programme strove to take the word “fantasy” to new heights – from the currently universally accepted Princess-style dress (strapless, with a massive skirt and train, because every woman dreams of being a princess when she gets married) –  to brides emulating a distinctive shade of pink, chosen in homage to their heroine, the former topless model Jordan, and arriving, in one case, in the same pink glass coach.

The eclectic mix featured one bride who was a secret witch and others who engaged in pagan ceremonies. One ceremony took place in an underground cave and another was for leather-clad bikers. Ceremonies at registry offices were frequently dismissed as too dull and one in church was described by a bride as “boring”.

Varied celebrations followed, in indoor and outdoor venues spanning working men’s clubs, hotels and football grounds. Unfortunately, some guests were not at their photogenic best – many of them were shown the worse for wear on an almost empty dance floor. Drunken dancing dads and best men’s bare bottoms were a source of entertainment.

In each programme, there was a vote after every wedding party and the four brides were then filmed, in full wedding regalia, on an airfield, waiting for the winning groom to arrive and whisk his successful partner off on their expenses-paid honeymoon.

Does this programme sufficiently respect the solemn commitment the couple has entered into? Does it sanctify the four marriage ceremonies that have taken place and are the reason for the parties in the first place? But, more importantly perhaps, does it accurately depict the state of marriage within our society today? And, if it does, don’t we urgently need to do something about it?

I know better than most that marriage just isn’t about fantasy dresses and parties. It can be dull and boring. It can be a desperately unhappy place for one or both partners. It’s easy to fail at marriage, even after many years or if one spouse thinks all is well, and the tears of happiness can fast turn to those of sadness and worse. The misery and despair of broken marriages stand out from the comments on the post I mention above, which speak for themselves in all their unhappiness.

But how do you guarantee success? No-one can, although I think that entering into marriage with real and solemn commitment, because the spouses are genuinely suited to each other, want to be together through thick and thin – bad times and good, wealth and debt, happiness and grief – and share the ability to laugh all the way through is a good start. Before marriage, I think couples should be expected to focus on what they anticipate from it and their future spouse. They need to examine themselves deeply, to ensure, as far as possible, their marriage is really going to last. The more the focus on the wedding, as opposed to each other, the more likely the union is to end in tears. I have had several clients who married only because arrangements had gone too far to call it off.

It’s nice to see a funny, lighthearted TV programme – about people having a good time, laughing and enjoying themselves – but as I watched this series, I felt worried, as well as amused. If you want to make a programme about parties, should it be tagged on to getting married? And if that’s indicative of what marriage has now become, isn’t it time to do something serious about it?

Author: Marilyn Stowe

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

Comment(1)

  1. Adrian Savage says:

    Your opening remark was, perhaps deliberately, somewhat controversial and, I think, misrepresents the comments I have seen. Speaking for myself, it is absurd to even suggest that the courts could uphold marriage vows.

    I agree with many of the sentiments later in your piece: whatever the form of the ceremony and celebration, and beyond the legal and religious forms, along with joy, marriage involves, or should, a solemn and profound mutual commitment. I also have no argument with the suggestion that a marriage which has irretrievably broken down should be dissolved with “civility and dignity”.

    I do, I think, disagree on two things. The first is the ease with which one party can declare that a marriage has failed based on a subjective assessment of “unreasonable behaviour”. (I wonder how many enduring marriages are completely free of “unreasonable behaviour” which could be successfully presented as the basis for a divorce petition?) Of course, there will be many cases where there is no possibility of reconciliation – but there will be others where there is. Given the gravity of the commitment and the consequences of divorce, there should be some opportunity for reflection and consideration, rather than rubber-stamping divorces.

    Secondly, I think the criticism of the court was not for failure to uphold marriage vows, but a perceived reluctance of the court to take account of breaches of them. You have a knowledge of financial arrangements on divorce which I do not have. However, I do not think it unusual for a wife to remain living in the matrimonial home with the children whilst the husband moves out into inferior accommodation (and in many cases has greatly reduced contact with his children). I think most men would agree that if it was the husband’s infidelity, for example, that was the underlying reason for the break up of the marriage, then fair enough. However, if it was the wife’s behaviour which was clearly the reason (and I am conscious that in most cases there are shades of grey rather than black and white clarity), then such an outcome appears grossly unjust.

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