Marriage has so many meanings

PUBLISHED: 08:00 19 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:02 22 October 2010

The proposals of the Law Commission concerning the rights of unmarried couples - plus a 45th wedding anniversary - have put marriage back on the agenda, and a good thing, too!

The proposals of the Law Commission concerning the rights of unmarried couples - plus a 45th wedding anniversary - have put marriage back on the agenda, and a good thing, too!

Not having a head for figures, I used a corner of the EDP to calculate (in very round figures) that my wife had cooked about 15,750 dinners during the years of our marriage.

Conscious that our family has operated on a minimum of two good meals a day, I was compelled instantly to double that figure - and still the picture was incomplete.

What about the sundry breakfasts, morning coffees (with Marmite sandwiches!), afternoon teas, suppers, and additional hospitality? It was becoming a catering nightmare! In a plea-bargaining frenzy, I settled for an extra 18,500, bringing the total to 50,000 meals (for various numbers of people). That's a lot of washing up!

In return, I've handed over a tiny sum each Friday. Pittance it may have been - but, at least, it's never been varied or delayed arbitrarily.

So, is that marriage? At one level, yes. Marriage is a vehicle for managing the mundane: the essential duties, the inescapable routine, the nitty-gritty of daily life. It's about being in it for the long haul - in fact, "till death us do part".

Yet it is about much more.

The upheavals of world war, mass migration of populations, the independence which flows from material prosperity, astonishing advances in science and technology, and a long period of religious decay - all these have contributed to the shape of modern society. As a result, modern family units come in all shapes and sizes - and there is a maturity and honesty in this diversity which we should welcome.

A wide assortment of factors - including bereavement and divorce - create single-parent families, which are as valid as any other, when love flourishes there. Some couples, for reasons of their own, opt not to enter into a legal marriage. Other people would love to marry but have never met the right person. Gay couples are able now to register a legally-recognised civil partnership - and shame upon all who cannot rejoice at this milestone, reached so recently! (But that is not my theme today.)

It is gross impertinence, therefore, to imply that the lives of unmarried people are in some way deficient. We're all different, and we're all dealt different hands. Those upon whom a long and happy marriage is bestowed are not superior. They are fortunate, and should be grateful.

How well I remember the morning I first set eyes on the beautiful girl who was to become my wife. The picture remains as vivid as ever. The youthful preacher at the village chapel smitten by the shy maiden - it sounds like Hardy or Trollope!

In fact, it's to DH Lawrence I turn mostly for reflections on marriage. (I must stop mentioning him so often: his works, unfortunately, are not included in the canon of scripture. But he does say stimulating and interesting things.)

For example: "Mankind has got to get back to the rhythm of the cosmos, and the permanence of marriage."

A striking passage in one essay would not be out of place in the marriage service itself. It begins:

"Is not a man different, utterly different, at dawn from what he is at sunset? And a woman, too? And does not the changing harmony and discord of their variation make the secret music of life?"

What insight! At morning, noon, and night; through all the seasons of the year; in rain and sunshine, moonlight and darkness, we are the same - yet subtly different.

"And is it not so throughout life? A man is different at thirty, at forty, at fifty, at sixty, at seventy: and the woman at his side is different. But is there not some strange conjunction in their differences? . . . throughout it all, some unseen, unknown interplay of balance, harmony, completion, like some soundless symphony . . . made out of the soundless singing of two strange and incompatible lives, a man's and a woman's?"

I respect those whose orientation, preferences, and circumstances differ from my own. May we all find love! But when men and women fall in love, marriage is the institution God has devised for their highest joy. Its idealism is unfailingly moving. It is a public declaration of their long-term commitment: society knows where it stands.

Among the saddest symbols of divorce are the photograph albums. A shared history has ended. In a second marriage, a beautiful, new composition can be begun; but time has moved on, and those innocent, opening sections of the symphony can never be repeated.

I hinted at 50,000 reasons why I love my wife. But marriage transcends reason. Marriage is about the seasons, and passion, and love which is stronger than death.

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