This week, the new UK prime minister Boris Johnson will invite his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, to live with him in Downing Street. They will be Number 10's first unmarried couple, officially rubber stamping the decline of British marriage. If being live-in lovers is good enough for the PM, is it good enough for the rest of us?
Marriage is changing, not dying. I've helped a quarter of a million people get married in the last two decades, and in that time I've seen singletons become more selective, practical and realistic about tying the knot. There are of course many Brits who are content with relationships that are marriages in all but name.
Marriage is becoming less and less popular in the UK. Since the early 1970s, there has been a steady drop, with some years seeing as much as a 4% decrease in the number of marriages. As more people have parents, friends or colleagues living happily out of wedlock, the institution of marriage has become more a thing of the past or a niche activity for particular ethnic or religious groups.
Many commentators suggest the drop is because of the opportunity cost of getting married; it’s the wedding and the honeymoon that people are opting out of, not the committed long-term relationship itself. With the rising cost of weddings, many couples are prioritising education, buying a house or even travel. As this generation faces financial pressures their parents never did, these decisions are understandable.
As people’s households, as well as their working and family lives, have changed, the institution of marriage is still playing catch up. The average cost of a wedding in the UK is £30,355. The average annual salary (before tax) is £29,009. Spending more than a year’s gross wages on a party is an increasingly hard sell.
Furthermore, those couples who do decide to tie the knot often find the logistics and theatrics of the event are mired with controversy. In a multicultural, multi-faith, diverse society, even couples who share similar ethnic or religious backgrounds may find their individual preferences result in divergent wedding plans.
I’ve seen this myself over the last 20 years running SingleMuslim.com. While to the wider society, Muslims are often perceived as a homogenous group, the reality is that this couldn't be further from the truth. Differences in ethnicity, culture, class, language, sect and even religiosity mean that we (and that includes our algorithms) have to spend a lot of time getting to know each singleton and exactly what they are really looking for.
It might take a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. Marriage works. Being married makes you financially better off, less likely to be depressed and means your kids are more likely to go to university and less likely to ever need government benefits.
If nothing else, families are the first welfare state. Much of the developing world survives only because of family support networks. The weaker family units become, the more stress there is on the government to hold together an increasingly fragmented populace.
But how do we make this work for a new generation? “Marriage 2.0” will need to be more flexible, personal and practical than the old model. Perhaps it's time for the institution of marriage to borrow some of the simplicity of the Islamic marriage service. Islamic law puts down simple requirements for a marriage: gain mutual consent, give a gift to the bride and make a public commitment in front of family and friends and you're basically there. If you wanted to, you could get married in Islamic law in a couple of minutes.
There is no specific requirement for a particular dress, party or even registry office. That doesn’t stop many Muslims opting for all these, of course, but they are the icing on the cake. This leaves Muslim couples to focus on the real non-negotiables of marriage: commitment, compromise and caring for each other. Love is not just till death do us part but an eternal bond into the afterlife too.
Across the world, marriage is changing. But the new solutions may be older and more traditional than we think.
Adeem Younis is a relationship expert and founder of SingleMuslim.com
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