NS Essay - 'Marriage has been tragically unfashionable among the left-leaning classes since the 1970s - but what if it's actually our best chance of happiness?'

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First, let's dispose of some myths. The institution of marriage is in terminal decline and divorce rates are rocketing. Right? Wrong. The Office for National Statistics released a startling figure this year: the total number of marriages in England and Wales went up for the third year running in 2004. As for divorce, since 1980 figures have barely budged, fluctuating between 12 and 14 divorces per thousand people. Far from falling by the wayside in favour of cohabitation, serial monogamy, communal living or single parenthood, marriage remains the aspiration and reality for the majority. The National Centre for Social Research, an independent research institute, found in 2002 that only 9 per cent of people agreed with the statement "There is no point getting married - it's only a piece of paper", while 59 per cent felt that "even though it might not work out for some people, marriage is still the best kind of relationship".

While marriage remains the norm (60 per cent of babies are born to married parents), there is no denying that since the 1970s or thereabouts, it has been a tragically unfashionable option among enlightened, progressive and vaguely left-leaning types (in other words, you, dear readers). Its distinct lack of va va voom was summed up in the apologetic title of Garrison Keillor's We Are Still Married, but there's more behind the liberal-left orthodoxy on the institution than plain ennui. Ever since Marx and Engels postulated marriage as a patriarchal structure to secure the legitimacy of children and the safe transfer of property between generations, the left has viewed marriage, along with church and state, as an instrument for social control. The sexual revolution opened up the possibility of a lifetime of free-flowing erotic liaisons and the undesirability, if not impossibility, of confining one's activities to a single partner. Later, radical feminism argued that marriage was merely an arena for the economic and sexual exploitation of women. More recently, the emphasis on individual fulfilment has worked against the compromises that marriage entails, and our longer lifespan makes "till death us do part" a promise ever harder to keep. Bourgeois, constraining, sentimental, naive and politically incorrect - wouldn't it be just as well if marriage did the decent thing and withered away?

Evidence is emerging that marriage is not withering, but cautiously putting out green shoots. Perhaps now is the moment to rescue it from the conservative doldrums. Cultural commentators from all sides have tended to assume that without moral, social and religious pressures to stay together, increasing numbers, human nature being what it is, would part company; hence the anxiety about making divorce "too easy". It was an outcome regarded as a disaster by those who feared social breakdown, and welcomed by those who wanted to extend individual autonomy and freedom. It seems we all began to regard marriage as a dreary but necessary building block of social cohesion, beneficial to society but onerous to individuals, and requiring constant shoring up because the alternatives were so much more appealing.

But what if marriage is actually our best chance of happiness? What if "wedlock", to use a telling word for it, not only makes the usual, pragmatic, financial and legal sense, but also fosters our own deep well-being and contentment; and further, that its very longevity brings advantages of which those lightweight serial monogamists can only dream?

The public perception of marriage may indeed be in transition. Penny Mansfield, the director of the relationship research body One Plus One, says couples too young to remember the ideological battles of the Seventies now regard marriage less as an institution to which one has to sign up than as an individualised contract of public commitment. Attitudes to premarital sex and having children outside marriage have changed hugely; consequently, couples today often buy a house, have a baby and then marry, rather than the other way round. But according to One Plus One's research, an astonishing 89 per cent of young people say they would like to get married at some point in the future.

We have become accustomed to regarding lifelong marriage as an almost impossibly difficult challenge and a happy marriage of 50-odd years as something close to miraculous. Yet if one in every three marriages ends in divorce, the other two must necessarily survive. Furthermore, a substantial body of research has shown that married people are healthier, happier and better off socially and economically than those who are not married.

A long-term, happy marriage may be more feasible than prevailing opinion suggests. But that still leaves open the question of its desirability. When the National Centre for Social Research surveyed the attitudes to marriage of young people between 18 and 25, it discovered that although 42 per cent of young men believed it was "the best kind of relationship", only 34 per cent of young women agreed. This finding may be connected to that mythical beast, the "common-law marriage". More than half of the respondents - 56 per cent - believed that cohabitants enjoyed the same rights as married people, an attitude even more prevalent among the young. It is women with children who suffer most if a cohabiting relationship ends. They have fewer rights to claim financial support from their partners, no rights in a shared property unless they have helped pay the mortgage (as opposed to raising children, paying bills and doing work in the home), and if a partner dies, no automatic right to inherit. Fathers, too, must take out a parental responsibility order to have any rights over their children.

Patterns of cohabitation are changing all the time, with some long, formal, marriage-like relationships proving as durable as their official equivalents. That's why Mansfield and others are enthu- siastic about a report being prepared by the Law Commission on practical ways to extend rights to cohabiting couples. Yet all of this raises the question: why not simply get married?

Despite the many examples of committed cohabitation, plenty of evidence suggests that family breakdown is more likely among cohabitees. In 2000, unmarried couples made up just under three-quarters of the family break-ups involving young children. It goes against my personal grain to argue that, without that "piece of paper", relationships are less likely to last. But campaigners for marriage, such as Harry Benson, who runs the Bristol Community Family Trust, which tries to help couples avoid breakdown, point to research on "commitment theory" by Scott Stanley, professor of psychology at the University of Denver. His "sliding or deciding" model argues that cohabitation is a lousy option for women because of the way the sexes view commitment. For women, it's to do with attachment (the day-to-day intimacy of shared life), so moving in together is a significant statement. For men, it's about a decision ("Will you marry me?"), so moving in together still leaves options agreeably open. Mansfield describes this "contingent commitment" in her report on marriage for the Young Foundation. One of her interviewees is Tony, who has been with the mother of his two children for seven years: "In my mind, I know I'm going to leave, she knows I am going to leave, but we're just sort of get on with it. We know it's not going to go anywhere."

As the product of a "broken home", I know divorce or family breakdown is a survivable disaster for children. Yet it is clear that, for kids and their parents, the optimal outcome is a "stable, harmonious relationship", in Mansfield's phrase. What might be the other bonuses of marriage? Mansfield quotes Robert Weiss, who identifies six powerful social provisions. They are attachment (the emotional bonding which makes us feel secure); reassurance of worth (which makes us feel competent and of value); guidance (advice and information when we need it); reliable alliance (knowing another will meet our needs); social integration (a sense of shared values and interests); and the opportunity to provide nurturance (being needed for love and care). For women, a modern marriage of equals confers another, colossal advantage. In our haste to free ourselves from an ignoble dependence on men, we forgot that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle right up until she gives birth. After that, the economics of childcare being what they are, husbands really do come into their own. At this point, reliable, consistent emotional, financial, social and automotive support is just what's required. Having a husband is no guarantee that you'll get it, but that public statement of private intent which is marriage is one to which you have both deliberately and consciously signed up.

There is one other reason why forward- thinking people have been hostile to marriage. While officially stamped, heterosexual mono gamy is presented by the right as a universal human given as well as a moral absolute, the left prefers to think of it as historically contingent and socially constructed. The nuclear family, in particular, gets a shocking press. Not only does all that Mr and Mrs conformity conceal seething misery and mental and physical violence, but it was invented in, let's see, about 1950. In a fascinating book called The Subversive Family: an alternative history of love and marriage, the Thatcherite policy wonk Ferdinand Mount argues compellingly that, far from being a "historical freak unknown to other centuries and other parts of the world", the small unit of two parents plus children is an ancient, widespread, cohesive and mutually beneficial arrangement. As Bob Simpson, an anthropologist at Durham University, puts it, "Heterosexual monogamy is an enduring basis for constructing social orders the world over. On a social and biological level, that pattern is a stable one which has cropped up in different times and places." This speaks for marriage not as artificial template or recent invention, but as a primal relationship meeting a profound human need. The wish of many gay couples to refer to their civil partnerships as "marriages" would seem to support that view.

Mount goes on to argue that, far from "propping up the established order", the family has undermined the state throughout history, and continues to do so. "The family is an enduring permanent enemy of all hierarchies, churches and ideologies. Not only dictators, bishops and commissars but also humble parish priests and café intellectuals find themselves repeatedly coming up against the stony hostility of the family and its determination to resist interference to the last."

That sense of family and marriage as an alternative power base, a source of strength and a refuge against wider social forces may be the political counterpoint to its psycho logical importance for us. A good marriage means "being there for each other" and, in a society that laments atomisation, isolation and the loss of communality, that is impor- tant. There is even evidence, writes Mansfield, "that the experience of being in a stable marriage nurtures pro-social behaviour. The bonds of mutual trust, commitment and shared values that develop over time in satisfying 'marital' relationships generate social capital."

Interdependence has become a central concept in the work of family policy-makers. The government has tended to focus on members of a family as individuals, it being easier to frame policy that way. Yet families, however conjugated, are by their nature intimately connected, and can function only by being so. Kinship networks, says Simpson, provide "love and affection and care; it is hard to imagine what kind of society we would have without them".

It's a pleasing irony that while marriage may be intended to secure the male line, one in ten children in Britain is raised by a man who is, quite unwittingly, not the child's father. Except that I don't believe that all those men, raising children who look nothing like them, are innocent dupes. Marriage provides convenient social cover for a husband of a forgiving bent to reflect, "What the hey? He may not be one of mine, but he's got to be one of hers," and love the child as his own. A blow struck for non-biological kinships, for marriage as a capacious and flexible institution, and for the ability of men to do without as much sex as they would ideally like? Now that's what I call a result.