Reader, don't marry him

No one ever quite managed to popularise the idea that marriage itself is unfeminist

Reports would often have us believe that marriage is on the increase. We have survived the busiest day of the international wedding calendar - 7/7/2007 - on which three times the average number of Brits and Americans tied the knot. One US website had 38,000 couples registered to marry on this auspicious date: the usual figure is around 12,000.

People must love hearing that marriage is on the rise, because it's always in the news. Maybe it appeals to our sense of romance? It's a lie, though. The number of marriages in England and Wales, religious or otherwise, is at its low-est since 1896. Even on the busiest day of the year, in the UK our comparatively small popu lation meant that the numbers crept up only marginally. Despite the country's register offices being fully booked, this was hardly a moment of cultural significance. In Brighton and Hove, for instance, 31 couples got married, compared to 17 the previous year.

The Conservative Party, however, appears to have taken this romantic news somewhat to heart. It plans to introduce tax breaks for married couples to the tune of £20 a week. The family and marriage should form, apparently, "the basis for social progress". Marriage is important as an institution, it says. This seems odd in the face of all the little-vaunted statistics: when it comes down to hard numbers, how can it be a vote winner when there are fewer smug marrieds than ever?

The thing is, though, in some ways the Tory marriage fans and the loved-up headline-makers have not got it completely wrong. The numbers may not add up, but marriage has never seemed more popular, if you think of the importance that people accord it and the time they devote to discussing it. Not to mention the amount of money they spend when they actually do it.

According to BBC1's new documentary show The Big Day, the average cost of a wedding is now £18,000. So why the desire to big up marriage when so few are doing it? The cult of the photo opportunity plays a huge part. And never has the gargantuan appetite for coverage of celebrity weddings been more generously indulged.

When Victoria and David Beckham married in 1999, their extravaganza was derided as unusually over-the-top and vulgar. It now looks positively restrained, next to the excesses of Liz Hurley's multinational celebrations, held over the course of a month, and the display of competitive nuptials last month during the infamous Wags Wedding Weekend (when four footballers married over a 24-hour period).

It has become the norm that if you are even vaguely well-known, you should have absolutely no hesitation in dropping £1m on carriages and footmen, Vera Wang silk and Cristal by the crateload, safe in the knowledge that a gossip magazine will refund the costs in full. We are blinded by bling and desensitised to images of hair ex tensions, mountains of tulle and fifty-foot lily displays. Pity the average person planning their own modest affair in the village hall.

Not that it will be any old person doing the planning. To men, weddings are just another expensive day when they have to wear a suit. To a certain breed of woman, however, they represent the culmination of the hopes and dreams of a lifetime. The princess industry thrives on the perverse lie of the wedding statistics. In a world where you are ever less likely actually to have a wedding, it seems all the more important to make yours extra special, pretending at the same time that this is what everyone does - thereby justifying the expense and the fuss.

This has spawned the rise of the Bridezilla phenomenon: the young woman who plans her nuptials with military precision and an obsessive attention to detail that suggests she is perhaps underemployed in her chosen profession (which will have rapidly taken second place to the full-time job of planning for the Wedding of the Year). This stance has even become a badge of honour for the ambitious and upwardly mobile. One recently engaged young woman proudly told me that she was looking forward to "doing the full Bridezilla": her wedding truly would be something to look forward to.

The closer women edge to equality (and on rare good days I am persuaded that this might actually be happening), the more hungrily the inner Bridezilla rears up in every bride-to-be, demanding a louder harpist, bigger hair and higher Jimmy Choos. No one ever quite managed to popularise the idea that marriage itself is unfeminist. But Wag-style weddings that encourage competitive princess behaviour are definitely against everyone's best interests.

While the spirit of Bridezilla is alive and well, the true statistics behind the headlines are a blessing. If fewer people are getting married, thank God.

Kira Cochrane is away