Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Why those who call marriage just a piece of paper are so very wrong

I've often been accused of having a perverse streak (which is not the same as perverted so settle down at the back).

Even if, deep down in my gut, I know someone is talking a load of ballcocks, the more they are pilloried in the media, the more I feel an urge to defend them. It's a pathological instinct for contrariness which has stitched me up many times, like all those years I insisted Lembit Opik was a credible politician and Jimmy Cricket was still funny.

So though my first thoughts when Sir Paul Coleridge launched his Marriage Foundation this week were sceptical, as the week has gone on, and Coleridge has found himself at the end of various columnists' derisory barbs, I find I'm seeking out the worthy nuggets in his argument.

True, Sir Paul didn't do himself many favours when he paraded round the usual media outlets championing wedlock as a virtual silver bullet to cure the nation's social and physical ills, trotting out a Widdecombe-esque list of the wonders marriage bestowed upon its devotees.

He blamed a modern 'Hello' culture (the celeb magazine, not our compulsion to jump into bed immediately after that perfunctory first greeting) for deceitfully vajazzling and trivialising the institution, and named and shamed divorce as the cohesive community's great enemy.

He batted off questions about happy, in-love non-marrieds bound by civil partnerships or simple mutual agreements with statistics skewed by all kinds of hidden fudges.

So it was easy to put the boot into Sir Paul's thesis - and numerous journalists and social analysts, including thrice married Ulrika Johnson, did.

The consensus emerging by midweek, particularly among female commentators, was that marriage was an irrelevant hangover from a patriarchal, religious society, often used to curtail women's freedom.

Other popular arguments included weddings being no more than an excuse for a big party with ME at the centre, and the belief that getting hitched offered nothing more meaningful than a 'piece of paper.'

That's when I felt my contrary shackles bristle a little. Because though it might feel modern, sexy and progressive to tell those poor old-fashioned squares who believe in marriage that they're delusional throwbacks, the truth is, in many cases, you'd just be plain wrong.

I'm not religious, and not generally a fan of state institutions. I don't believe that marriage immediately gives a relationship superiority or strength. And I certainly don't support the idea of making divorce harder - I've seen how bad, sad relationships can ruin otherwise happy, optimistic people, and I would fight relentlessly for those people to be able to get out and try again.

But no one has the right to tell me that my marriage is just a piece of paper. That is patronising, smug nonsense.

For me, it was a joyful confirmation of love and intention, substantive and God forbid, deeply romantic. And the wedding itself wasn't just a sparkly party, it was a chance for a lot of usually poker-faced Scots and Irish to stand up in a room and say things about love, family and pride they might otherwise never, ever, have said.

Many of us confessed to embarrassingly positive feelings and profoundly moving memories about each other we'd never shared before, even at our most drunken. Close, unspoken bonds were fostered that night, never to be broken - and not just among the newly-weds.

It might be a stretch to herald Sir Paul Coleridge as a great visionary, but he's an advocate for hope, and for that at least I salute him.

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