Marriage in the dock after celebrities split

Red card: ‘It’s very easy to get married and very difficult to get divorced’ says Lineker. © PA

A slew of celebrity divorces and quarrels played out in grim detail under the glare of the media has led to a bout of public soul-searching about the institution of marriage itself.

‘Giggs £20m divorce: Footballer faces record payout,’ splashes the Daily Mail. Another week, another high-profile split.

The news of the former Manchester United player’s break up came only a week after another ex-footballer, twice-married Gary Lineker, complained that divorce was too difficult. Instead of a messy legal process, he said, there should be a ‘mathematical equation’ that makes it quick and painless.

The two men are far from alone. This week divorce rumours are also circling Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

And where celebrities go, the rest of us follow. For instance, in the UK around four out of ten people who legally vow to stay with their partner forever will one day realise that they cannot keep their promise.

Why? Around 15% of divorces end with adultery, and most others are put down to ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or a long period of separation. But the philosopher Alain de Botton has another theory: we are simply not very good at choosing the right person to marry.

Marriage, at least in western societies, has been through enormous changes over the last few centuries. It was once treated more like a business deal, a way for families to merge their wealth and secure heirs for their fortunes. ‘We are still traumatised by this,’ observes de Botton.

But it all changed in the 17th and 18th centuries, when Enlightenment thinkers began to stress the importance of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ and personal choice.

This led to more ‘Romantic’ ideas about marriage. ‘Feeling was triumphant,’ says de Botton. ‘To analyse the decision feels un-Romantic,’ and so people get married without really thinking it through.

We don’t really understand what will make us happy; we are more worried about not being single than choosing the right person; we cling to a whirlwind of exciting emotions that cannot last. Yet we make these mistakes with ‘appalling ease and regularity’.

A thing called love

Another philosopher, Simon May, argues that as religion declines, human love has become our ‘ultimate source of meaning and happiness’. Yet it is impossible for a single, flawed spouse to live up to such high standards. Perhaps, say some, we should rethink what we really want from marriage — or, as Lineker hopes, make it easier to bring to an end.

Not at all! We should not give up on true love so easily, say others. Strong, lasting bonds really do exist, and the best last a lifetime. But it takes work and commitment. It needs us to understand what makes us tick and what makes our partner tick — or as de Botton puts it, ‘the specific ways in which we are mad’. Only then will we learn to fit together and stay that way.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree that we expect too much from marriage these days?
  2. Imagine that you could get a starter marriage lasting for a fixed term of three years before a final commitment. Good idea?

Activities

  1. List the top five things you would want from a future spouse.
  2. Research how attitudes to marriage have changed in a country of your choice, and produce a short presentation for the rest of the class. Finish by predicting what marriage will be like in 100 years from now.

Some People Say...

“It is not lack of love but lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages”

Friedrich Nietzsche

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t want to get married. Does that matter?
Of course not — marriage is not the most important thing in the world and people find happiness in all sorts of places: their careers, families, friends, art, religion. Often it’s a combination of all of these. If you have no idea what will make you happy, then don’t worry. You’re still very young — you can look forward to the pleasure of finding out.
I do want to get married one day. What should I learn?
The most important lesson is that the decision should not be taken lightly; the most successful marriages happen when people know themselves well, and have really taken the time to understand the other person and how to communicate with them. The second most important lesson: even if that is true, it will still be difficult sometimes.

Word Watch

Legal process
For a divorce to be made official, the couple must prove that the marriage has broken down permanently, and agree financial and childcare arrangements. This can be an expensive, drawn out process in a family court.
Beyoncé
The star’s latest album, Lemonade, gave an extremely honest account of the problems which can face a marriage — but it is unclear how autobiographical it is.
Four out of ten
The most recent figures from the Office of National Statistics say that in 2011, 42% of marriages ended in divorce.
Alain de Botton
De Botton is known for writing books which discuss how philosophy relates to everyday life. His latest book, The Course of Love, is a novel which discusses themes of ‘happy ever after’.
Enlightenment
A shift in philosophical thought which happened in Europe around 1700. Thinkers began to move away from religious tradition and towards science and reason.
Romantic
The capital ‘R’ means that de Botton is referring specifically to the Romantic period of around 1800-1850 that followed the Enlightenment. It focused on the importance of emotion and nature.

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