Norfolk views on the Marriage Foundation

The lavish weddings of celebrities are often splashed across the news, but sadly they increasingly seem to be heading towards the divorce courts just months later.

The situation has led to Sir Paul Coleridge, who sits in the Family Division, to speak out about the 'unprecedented scale of the problem' and make the case that stable, long-term marriages are best for individuals, for families and for society.

He argues that celebrity magazines such as Hello promote unrealistic expectations about marriage and people need to understand the importance of working at relationships to make them work.

But Norfolk church leaders, academics and marriage advisory groups say that people do take marriage more seriously than what might be thought.

Sir Paul's comments came as he launched the Marriage Foundation – a national champion for marriage, strengthening the institution for the benefit of children, adults and society as a whole.

He said: 'What I criticise – what I call the Hello magazine, Hollywood approach to this whole business – is that there is still, or maybe more than there was, a completely unrealistic expectation about long-term relationships and marriage in particular, that if you find the right ideal partner that's all that matters and things will just carry on from there on and you will be divinely happy.

'We all know, all of us who have been in relationships – whether married or unmarried – for a long time is that the only way that they are made to work and the only way that they become really qualitatively good is by absolutely grinding away at it.'

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Liz Farrow, managing director of the Norfolk and Suffolk branch of relationship counselling charity Relate, welcomed the Marriage Foundation and called for more people to seek help before it is too late. She said: 'Relationships are much more likely to be repaired when both parties still have hope. We want to encourage people to come and get help sooner rather than later. It is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.'

But Dr Simon Hampton, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of East Anglia, argued that the courts made it too easy for people to get divorced.

He said the fact that people can come up with 'trivial' reasons for getting a divorce, suggests that the courts do not take it seriously enough.

Dr Hampton said: 'Marriage is a Victorian phenomenon; people without money didn't get married until the late 1800s and the notion of marriage that most of us have grown up with is a confection of the Victorian period and more especially after the war.

'But it's always been a celebrity thing. The most common form of genre we watch is rom-coms; you see it everywhere, in soap operas, movies.

'I think that ubiquity has set up this notion that relationships are rather simple and that's misleading. But I do not think that people actually think life is like that and the evidence is that people are not taking relationships and marriage too lightly at all but are taking them too seriously – they are not getting into them.

'What's going on is that we are setting the bar for what's Mr or Mrs Right so high that we are not getting into relationships and marriages.'

According to the Office for National Statistics, the divorce rate in England and Wales in 2010 was 119,589, nearly five per cent up on the previous year.

But, for the previous six years, the divorce rate had been going down, from a high of 153,065 in 2003, and the current divorce rate is almost the same as the rate in 1972, after the introduction of the Divorce Reform Act.

However, 22pc of marriages in 1970 had ended in divorce by the 15th wedding anniversary, whereas 33pc of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period of time.

Meanwhile, the number of marriages in England and Wales in 2010 increased by 3.7pc to 241,100.

However, the overriding trend since 1970 has been a decline in both the number of marriages and the marriage rates.

Father James Walsh, dean at the St John the Baptist Roman Catholic Cathedral in Norwich, said: 'In many cases, celebrities have taken over that role of role models for young people and sometimes the celebrities in magazines such as Hello are not the best of role models, particularly their sense of commitment in marriage.

'Furthermore, we have a society of instants – instant coffee, instant food. People find it difficult to work at anything, whether it's preparing a meal or building a relationship.

'Relationships are certainly one of the things you have to invest a considerable amount of time in.

'But I do think people take marriage more seriously than you would imagine and most of them intend to commit themselves to each other for life. People are thinking more carefully and waiting longer before making that life-long commitment.'

The Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven Jan MacFarlane, added: 'Where you have your wedding says something about the seriousness of the vows you are about to take.

'If people have said they are getting married under water or at a theme park, the question I would ask is how seriously are they taking it?

'We have to put so much more into preparing couples before they get married so they can think through all the issues before they make that commitment.'

kate.scotter@archant.co.uk

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