Edwina Currie, speaking at a lunch last week, made her contribution to the leading intellectual question of our era: why the apparently universal obsession with Posh and Becks? Answer: they appear to have solved the mystery that has eluded so many of the rest of us – they’ve discovered how to live happily ever after.
Last week, too, Theodore Zeldin, for many years dean of St Antony’s College, Oxford, called for a new agenda for the 21st century in which we tackle the most important issue of our time – one, he argues, that has precedence over politics, economics and all other intellectual endeavour – the matter of how we sustain love and inject longevity into relationships.
Zeldin was giving a lecture to mark 30 years of One Plus One, a charity that researches marriage and partnerships. He has already set up the Oxford Muse, a group that will “develop original methods to enhance the quality of work and personal relationships”.
Next month, meanwhile, the Institute of Ideas will publish a collection of essays, Marriage and Commitment in the Singleton Society, examining the notion, proposed by Jennie Bristow, that we have become a nation in flight from commitment, averse to risk and fearful of intimacy. Such disconnectedness in society, Bristow maintains, may have dire consequences for the community and politics as a whole.
Academics everywhere, it would seem, are concentrating their efforts on salvaging relationships in our very cold climate. Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics argues that flexibility and short-termism in the workplace – the American graduate, for instance, can expect to move jobs up to a dozen times, unlike his dad, who held a post for life – are bound to have an impact on personal relationships. His fears are borne out in a survey conducted last year by the magazine Management Today. Half of those questioned said they were too exhausted to do anything but work and sleep; 76 per cent wanted more time with their families, while 43 per cent reported that they had adopted a strategy of ruthless self-interest, a loyalty to their own careers rather than to their employers.
At the same time, the right-wing press fans paranoia: marriage is at its most unpopular for a century; divorce is an epidemic; promiscuity rampant; brief cohabitation increasingly the norm. By 2020, half of all men and a third of women will remain unwed for life (although not necessarily uncommitted).
So, is long-term love really on the skids – and what might be the consequence for the body politic? Have we really become distracted from the “big” issues in public life because, privately, we’re completely absorbed with little old me?
Certainly, love is more vulnerable now than ever before. As Zeldin points out in his book An Intimate History of Humanity, this is not least because of the rise in large numbers of two types of women: the educated and the divorced. A husband is merely a part of life now, and no longer the only key to status, respectability and an income.
Marriage in the western world has, broadly, moved through three phases: “I must”, propelled by a sense of duty; “I ought to”, motivated by a sense of obligation; and “I want to”, a voluntary pact based on a contradiction – the irrationality of passion, the pilot light of relationships, hitched to a need to keep a clear head and customise a relationship so it works for two individuals, unimpeded (or supported) by the strictures of family, property, church, state or what the neighbours might say. The weight on personal responsibility is huge.
Still, studies show that the majority still believe in marriage. Men flourish as husbands. One study found that three-quarters of men would choose the same wife as they have now, but only half of women would opt for the same spouse.
Studies also show that the children of the divorce decade have learnt from their parents’ mistakes. Men and women are marrying later, having first acquired material assets and lived a life – three factors that improve longevity in love. (The poor and illiterate, in contrast, will continue to drift into cohabitation, marry young and divorce often.) In future, a “starter” childless marriage followed by a permanent relationship with offspring may become a trend. Successful relationships will be formed by those who develop the ability to transform themselves several times over the decades, defying the main drive of the consumer society that says anything a little chipped should be traded in for something newer and “better”.
An optimist might also challenge the narrowness of the definition of “commitment”. Gay marriage will inevitably become accepted in law, while independent but strongly connected lifelong networks of friends may also figure.
Today’s thirtysomething Bridget Jones could well become tomorrow’s newly married fiftysomething, or long-term cohabitee (or happily single by choice) – confident, fulfilled and willing to connect with others precisely because she (or even he) is anchored in a way that empowers her. As Zeldin argues, individual and collective action are two sides of the same coin.
In an age of uncertainty, trust in ourselves and our abilities to relate to each other – if not the politicians who govern – should not be underestimated as a catalyst for change. The old hippie slogan “All you need is love” has become very much more complex in the 21st century – but it continues to be close to the truth.