Belfast Telegraph

Will you marry me (for 10 years to see how it goes)?

By Terence Blacker

Couples who are beginning to prepare for a spring wedding would probably do well to avoid reading newspapers at the moment.

The darker side of marriage has been on display. In a law court this month, the former Mr and Mrs Huhne presented a memorable image of post-separation misery, thanks to the court artist.

Then a new book by Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, was serialised in the papers. Every sentence ached with unhappiness and regret.

Marital misery used to dwell behind closed doors, a matter of embarrassment, even shame. Mercifully, those days have gone, but of late something almost as depressing has taken their place. It has become just fine to show public contempt for the person with whom you once agreed to share your life. Trashing your past is commonplace; a way of committing yourself to a bright future.

No poison spreads as quickly as marital hatred. It infects private history, so that the happiest memory is retrospectively stained by the hurt which is yet to come.

"The first time I saw my husband after we separated, I realised, to my surprise, he hated me," writes Rachel Cusk. "It was as though he was contaminated by it, like a coastline painted black by an oil spill.

"During the marriage, she "had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's, and he, like her, claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence."

Cusk is a fearless writer and, while I believe she should not have written it - or at least waited until what she calls "the whole bloodstained past" was more distant - her account of the end of a modern marriage is compelling.

The loss of individuality, unfairness and daily compromises of married life have never been felt more sharply than today. Once there was a sense of a unit, of shared responsibility involving sacrifice.

With our new sense of self and entitlement, it is what is lost from individual lives - time, variety, advancement, freedom to be oneself - which comes to dominate.

"I didn't want help. I wanted equality," Cusk writes. "Why couldn't we be the same?" It is difficult for any relationship to survive this sense of slow personal deprivation, the suspicion that somehow one is getting the worse part of the deal. The feeling of unfairness festers and corrupts.

Just as royal weddings have traditionally provided an idealised, fairytale version of romance, so the post-marriage years of Prince Charles and Princess Diana offered a model of the way these can now be handled. From then on, any idea of discretion, or loyalty, was abandoned.

Perhaps it requires a new approach altogether. Instead of the increasingly absurd illusion that a new union will, or should, last for life, a system providing a marital licence for a fixed period - to be renewed, or not, every 10 years, say - would bring a healthy element of jeopardy to this jaded institution.

The idea of living together, an arrangement in which the sense of obligation is based on love rather than a contract, might also be encouraged.

At the very least, marriage vows could be revised to include this new commitment: If it all goes wrong, I pledge not to hate you.

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