I grew up in the bosom of a very happy marriage. My parents were beset by difficulties, business failure, loss of their home, financial hardship, the death of a child and the serious illness of another, yet whatever life threw at them, their love for one another sustained them. When my father left for work each day they would cling together in the hall, as if he were going to another continent. My sister and I would jeer from the stairs and call out “Hollywood”, but we liked it all the same.
But at an early age I realised that some homes, while outwardly happy, contained a lot of private misery. There was the immaculate house where the husband had to remove his shoes at the door and another where I heard the wife falteringly ask permission to put a match to the fire on a winter’s day.
Those early experiences convinced me that, while a good marriage is the nearest thing to heaven we’ll get in this life, a bad marriage is hell. That’s why, in spite of my own happy marriages, I have been proud to be, for 20 years, President of the National Council for Divorced and Separated. And why I don’t join in the handwringing when the divorce rate rises or the number of couples actually marrying goes down. Statistics tell you something about the state of the nation - but not everything.
Why do so many marriages break down? If I am right in thinking marriages in previous generations endured because the woman, in particular, had no means of escape, it was inevitable that womens’ hard-won economic independence would make them unwilling to stay in an arrangement that had become unbearable. Men, too, have been liberated from feeling they must stay because they are the sole breadwinner.
Careers have given women independence. As someone who has worked throughout three marriages I welcome that. But gone is the tranquil world my mother knew. In most two-career homes, it is women who still bear most of the domestic responsibility. And not always because the man is lazy… there is an in-built compulsion in some women to remain domestic goddesses while holding down a demanding job.
Perhaps marriage breaks down more often today because we don’t work hard enough to keep it together. Leaving simply because you can is defeatist and if our new-found independence makes us less likely to see marriage as a life-long commitment, that is sad.
What I don’t understand is the present reluctance to commit to marriage while entering into the much greater commitment of parenthood. “I don’t feel we need the bit of paper” they tell me. But a marriage ceremony is much, much more than a bit of paper. In the worst-case scenario, it provides a framework for separation. I can’t count the letters I’ve had from people separating after years of cohabitation without a clue how to disentangle their affairs. In the best instance, a wedding lets you tell the world “We belong together”.
I have been happily married three times and widowed twice. My third and last wedding, to the man I dated when still at school, was a gloriously irresponsible affair. Three weeks before the big day I didn’t know what I was wearing, then my niece told me that the worry I would be naked at the altar was keeping her awake.
One of the hymns we sang on our wedding day was Tis the Gift to be Simple. It contains the line “And when you find yourself in the place just right, you’ll live in the valley of love and delight”. That’s what a good marriage should be.
Denise Robertson is President of the National Council for Divorced and Separated, an agony aunt for This Morning and a contributor in the three-part BBC4 series Love and Marriage: a 20th Century Romance
Love and Marriage: A 20th Century Romance starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4.