When Frank Sinatra recorded the chart-topping song "Love and Marriage" in 1955, it captured the mood of the post-war western world's infatuation with love and its then logical conclusion.
Ol' Blue Eyes (pictured below marrying Ava Gardner) himself seems not to have got too far beyond the "ele-men-tary" level mentioned in the lyrics when it came to his own experiences of love and marriage - two of his four marriages lasted less than two years. The contrast between the blithe soppiness of the song and the harsh realities of his matrimonial history reflects the problem with marriage generally: the yawning gap that exists between the pervasive myth of wedlock as eternal bliss (think Bridget Jones and the Sex and the City "girls") and the inevitable disappointments of flesh and blood relationships (Britney Spears and Jason Alexander's 55 hours of matrimony; Elizabeth Taylor's nine trips down the aisle and the marital track record of three of the Queen's children).
While the post-war world was one of hopefulness and rebuilding (the baby-boom generation is a living testament to all that inspired reconstruction work) our world today is a very different one, characterised not by building up, but by refashioning conventions to fit contemporary life. And that fashion has positioned marriage as heading towards minority status.
Between 1970 and 2003, the number of first-time marriages in England and Wales fell by more than half. In 2000, nearly 40 per cent of babies were born to unmarried parents, more than quadruple the proportion 25 years earlier. Even though there has been a slight increase in marriages that have taken place in the past two years, when you set the 158,000 registered in 2003 against the 166,700 divorces in the same year, you don't have to be a mathematician to see that marriage is in deep trouble. Two in five in this country end in divorce and if current trends continue, according to an Economic and Social Research Council report, single-person households will account for nearly 40 per cent of all homes in this country by 2010.
More and more, men and women are choosing to live together or as single people rather than get married. If and when they do tie the knot, they do it later than their parents. In the early 1970s, the average age for grooms was 24 and for brides, 22. Today, men are marrying at 35 and women at 32.
But while marriages of older people have a statistically better chance of survival than younger ones, the odds against them are still high. So are remarriages: with about 56 per cent ending in divorce.
Clerics, politicians and social commentators of different persuasions present these statistics as incontrovertible proof that society is falling apart, that we have come adrift from moral values, that we have entered an unprecedented era of social bankruptcy. But to put all our social ills down to the demise of marriage is to imbue the legal bonding of "man and wife" with properties that are clearly not there. If they were, why would so many be opting out of it in their droves?
Hearkening back to a halcyon age when Britain was a model of morality for the rest of the world won't get you far. The reality is that marriage was essentially co-habitation for centuries, often signified by vows made to each other as a form of social contract. The Anglo Saxons had a beweddung - a public ceremony led by the father of the bride, to whom the groom's family offered "weds", or guarantees that she would be cared for. Scots and northern English folk who wanted to get hitched plighted their troth, joining hands in a handfast to signal the union. Even the Catholic church was laid back about marriage in the early Middle Ages. Pope Innocent III declared in the 13th century that the essence of a marriage rested in the free consent of man and wife. Anyone exchanging vows who was over the age of consent (14 for males, 12 for females) and witnessed by two people was considered married.
Another common domestic arrangement bound by vows was known as betrothal.
It was considered a transition between singledom and marriage, rather like co-habitation today. Marriage usually came later, after a couple stuck together long enough to show that they had "continuous accord" or permanence in their relationship. Children born during a betrothal period were considered legitimate as long as their parents married at some point.
Over the next 200 years, priests took on a more prominent role and conducted marriage services at the altar rather than on the church porch, where they had previously taken place. But it was only made compulsory for priests to witness marriages in the middle of the 16th century.
Interestingly, among those the Catholic church was involved in blessing were same-sex "spiritual" unions. As social historian and Catholic academic Alan Bray writes in Homosexuality in Renaissance England: "Some of these wedded brothers (as the church called them) had platonic friendships and some had physical ones. The Church was giving its blessing to the friendship, with all the potential good there, rather than to anything else within the relationship. But sexual potential wasn't a bar to the blessing."
Meanwhile, for the higher social orders of Europe, matrimony was a form of power-broking and cementing alliances. Aristocrats and royals were masters of devising politically and financially expedient matches for their often pre-pubescent young. Arranged marriages complete with pre-nup style marriage contracts ensured that the families were happy and prosperous even if their poor offspring were not. The ill-fated coupling of Charles and Diana was a modern-day throwback to those practices. No wonder courtly love was such a widespread practice. From the medieval through to the Renaissance period, when marriage had nothing to do with love and everything to do with power blocs and procreation, noble ladies were emotionally and physically serviced by passionate knights while their husbands were off slaying dragons and infidels and negotiating suitable marriages for their children.
It wasn't until the Marriage Act of 1753 that the state took control of marriage, making weddings a legal requirement and invalidating those marriages that took place outside of the Church of England or synagogues.
With state regulation came a series of prohibitive measures against women, including the removal of a wife's right to live where she pleased. Under the law, she had to live in her husband's parish. If he flew the marital coop, neither his nor her own family's parish was obliged to look after her.
The moral climate that blew in with the 1753 Act led Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the 1792 feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, to famously denounce marriage as "legal prostitution" for the way women were forced into dependency on and subjugation by their husbands. Wife-beating was legally sanctioned, as was rape in marriage. Those wives who fell out of favour or tried to run away from violent husbands could, until 1774, be indefinitely shut away in a lunatic asylum, ... la Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre.
While the 1753 Act was responsible for ushering in a new set of oppressive measures against women, large numbers of people initially refused to conform to the law that forced them to marry under the jurisdiction of the relatively new Church of England. They happily carried on the tradition of DIY partnerships that had existed for centuries before the state's intrusion. The resistance was, in the end, a success. Less than 100 years later, the 1836 Marriage Act did away with the compulsory religious ceremony, but it didn't do away with the oppressively male-oriented legal framework that had characterised marriage for centuries.
Until the 1882 Married Women's Property Act was passed, all property belonging to a woman would pass to the ownership of her husband when they married. Divorce was as unequal as marriage. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 gave men the power to divorce their wives on the grounds of adultery, but when the shoe was on the other foot, a husband's love-rattishness became another one of the many things a wife had to put up with. Even the custody of children was skewed in favour of men; on divorce, offspring automatically became the property of their father, just as the wife and her worldly goods had been the property of the husband.
While there is now equality between married men and women, in law at least, that is clearly not enough to lure into matrimony those whose parents grew up during the heyday of the women's movement. What feminists in the 1970s lambasted as patriarchal attitudes institutionalised in marriage continues to mark the way we think about marriage. The high divorce rate is testament to how difficult it is to achieve truly equitable marriages, especially when children come along (see Love on the rocks, left).
Even though marriage is in decline, there is something that still propels 300,000-odd of us down the aisle every year, impelling us to lavish an average of pound;12,000 on the whole caboodle, although the literal aisle is becoming increasingly passe. (Since the Marriage Act of 1994 allowed civil ceremonies to take place in approved places, such as parks, castles and restaurants, fewer and fewer are opting for religious weddings; in 2003, nearly 70 per cent of all weddings were civil ceremonies.) So what is it? What is its enduring appeal?
It could be sheer optimism or, as Oscar Wilde memorably called marriage "the triumph of imagination over intelligence"; remarriage he defined as "the triumph of hope over experience". There is the enduring belief that your marriage or remarriage will be different to the tattered dreams scattered around you. Results of a 1999 poll show that despite the high divorce rate, 68 per cent of the 2,000 people aged over 15 who were questioned by MORI said their preferred lifestyle was being married with children and three-quarters of them denied the statement that "marriage is dead". Another study conducted in 2000 based on the British Household Panel Survey, a study of more than 5,000 men and women, shows that just under three-quarters of co-habiting people under the age of 35 expect to marry each other. Interestingly, among those who have never been married or are childless, between 15 to 20 per cent have no expectations of marriage.
One Plus One, a UK-based independent research organisation concerned with marriage and relationships, has looked into the question of what inspires people to marry. Their findings show that people's reasons go way beyond the "love and marriage" romantic view of matrimony: fears of loneliness, unhappiness with singledom and a sense of being "ready" for marriage were cited as much as a positive desire to get married to the person they love.
The popularity of dating agencies and websites is a reflection of the drive so many have to find partners. One in five of the 11 million single adults in this country contribute to an industry that rakes in about pound;600m.
Whether they find a mate for life or not is another matter for which there are no available figures. What is known is the depressing, but perhaps not altogether surprising fact that 40 per cent of frequent users of online dating sites are married already, according to the US-based Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News.
Whatever we think of marriage, research shows that it has beneficial effects on our mental and physical health - at least for some. Numerous studies show that statistically, allowing for age and socio-economic factors, married men are healthier than unmarried men, no matter how lousy their marriage. For women, the benefits are only equal to men's when they are satisfied with their relationships. According to Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, authors of The Case for Marriage (Broadway Books), men live longer married than unmarried: in America, 9 out of 10 husbands live to 65, while only 6 out of 10 single men do. For women, 8 out of 10 of those single or divorced will reach 65, while 9 out of 10 married women do.
According to the endearingly-named Timothy Loving, of the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Texas, "Wives don't gain as much from marriage on a psychosocial level as a husband would". Still, women in good marriages have lower incidence of heart disease and lead healthier lives with fewer emotional problems than single or divorced women, according to Dr Linda Gallo of San Diego State University, who followed nearly 500 women in their 40s.
However, when marriages head for the rocks, so do some of the benefits.
"Women in distressed marriages suffer the negative effects of being in a less than happy marriage. The women in happy marriages were thinner, gained less weight over time and had lower cholesterol levels. The less happy women tended to exercise less."
The disparity between women and men's health in relation to the state of their marriage is explained by the fact that, according to research over 20 years undertaken by psychologist Deborah Belle of Boston University, women are often more sensitive to the negative aspects of relationships than men are.
She also found that women put more into supporting their husbands than vice versa. While women have strong friendship networks outside marriage, men often rely on their wives to organise their lives. While women juggle domestic responsibilities, children and their careers, men still tend to do less housework and childcare.
With all its problems, no wonder marriage as an institution appears to be foundering. It makes you wonder why there are still nearly 160,000 marriages a year in Britain. But I'm the last person to ask. I'm getting hitched again this weekend myself, so you'll have to excuse me while I rush off for my second fitting...
LOVE ON THE ROCKS
According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the most common reasons marriages fail are:
lack of commitment to the marriage
dramatic change in priorities
To this, the Australian Institute of Family Studies adds: "higher expectations of self-fulfilment in marriage and decreasing tolerance of unsatisfying relationships, combined with greater social and personal freedoms."
* The Vikings celebrated marriages with huge feasts that lasted up to a month or more, at which guests ate and drank enormous amounts. The marriage was only considered official after consummation, which had to be observed in the bedchamber by neighbours and local dignitaries.
* In medieval Russia, a bride-to-be would bath before the wedding. Some of the water would be saved for the groom to drink after the ceremony. As she walked up to the altar, pins and needles would be thrust into her dress to protect the couple from evil spirits.
* An old Welsh ritual that is still practised by some people in Cardiganshire today is called jumping the besom. This involves first the groom, then his bride, jumping over a birch broom made of twigs suspended in the bride's doorway. If either touches the broom in any way, the marriage can't be recognised.
* Another throwback to ancient ritual that is still found in some French towns and villages, is one in which newlyweds are escorted home by friends after the wedding feast. Instead of being left alone, the couple are serenaded by banging pots and pans outside their bedroom window. Protocol requires the groom to invite the potbangers in for a drink.
* In the Jewish tradition, the marriage ceremony ends with the groom smashing a glass with his foot (pictured left). There are numerous interpretations for this, the most cogent being that it is done to remind people, even at a time of celebration, of the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem.
THEY DO SOLEMNLY DECLARE ...
In the 16th century, the French Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne described marriage as "like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in and those inside equally desperate to get out".
In John Boswell's Life of Johnson, the good doctor is quoted as saying: "I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter."
Three centuries later, and perhaps most memorably of all, the Hollywood actress and renowned wit Mae West (right) said: "They say that love is blind and that marriage is an institution. Well, I'm not ready for an institution for the blind just yet."