I have just clocked up thirty years of marriage. Holy Moly. Three Oh Years. So I guess you could say I’m a fan of the married state – which I am (unless you get me on a crabby day, or when we’re shopping for light fittings).
I don’t feel smug about this. In fact I think it’s a bleeding miracle. There are couples I know who have skipped through these years and more like elderly Startrite twins. But (a) I don’t believe these ‘never a cross word’ couples. I mean, REALLY?? Not even over the truly inflammatory stuff, like whether you have carpet or stripped floors, or how many cushions one house can take? And (b) we Muttons are definitely not that couple. Cross words are our lingua franca. Mr Mutton and I can’t peel spuds together without arguing over who’s doing it better.
In the light of this miraculous marital marathon, Ms. Lamb asked me what advice I would give young women: would I tell them that it’s worth getting married? Ooh. Good question. Setting aside all the cute stuff: like loving someone and not being able to imagine wanting to be with anyone else, would I advise a young woman today to get married? When there are so many options for women nowadays? When the statistics suggest that unmarried women live longer and consider themselves happier than married women (and it’s precisely the opposite for men)? When this Mutton is an old-fashioned feminist who gets shirty when younger women take their husband’s surname?
I’m not starry-eyed about it. There are definitely moments when any married life feels like a hard row to hoe. The amount of compromise required on both sides to keep a relationship above the waterline means swallowing a lot. That’s why it never really surprises me when I hear about Hollywood stars splitting up after a few years: all this putting up and shutting up probably doesn’t come that easily to celebrity egos. To stay married I think it helps to have a cussed, dogged streak that refuses to be beaten. But to get married in the first place? Well, that depends.
There really is no substitute for a long relationship with someone who knows you inside out and likes you anyway; who laughs at your jokes; makes you feel fanciable; helps you out when you need them and isn’t shy about calling you out when you’re misbehaving. But you don’t have to be married to get this. I know people who get all these things from friends as well as from long term partners.
So what would I tell a young woman about getting married? To me the only difference between a long term partnership and getting married, is what you need out of it. We’re all different about security; trust; uncertainty; commitment. It’s deep-dish stuff. Personally, I’m a little insecure; pretty conservative (ie. I always, ALWAYS match my bra and pants.); I like to know where I stand. For me simply living together wouldn’t have been enough. (I’d been through those loosey goosey, “we’re just having a thing” things in my twenties and I was definitely over all that.)
Some people are great on their own. I’m not – though I admit that’s not a good enough reason to get married. As my oldest boy said when we presented him with yet another un-requested sibling: “If I needed other children around, I could have just had play dates”. A long marriage though is companionship on steroids. It can drive you mad, how well you know each other, but when things are tough there’s great comfort in that.
And, as we all know, life does have its challenging times. I’m not sure I could have ridden out some of the less merry moments of the last thirty years without the additional level of commitment that marriage gave me. It seems silly writing this now. After all, what possible difference can a piece of paper and some vows in front of registrar (who got my name wrong anyway) really have made? But it did.
We had lived together for a few years before we took that taxi to the registry office. In all our arguments before then, the ace up our sleeves was that we could just walk away. We couldn’t of course. We owned a flat together and that would have been every bit as complicated to disentangle then as after we’d acquired a marriage certificate. But somehow it hardly ever occurred as an option afterwards. Whether you feel like it or not, once you’re married you have to work things out.
Take having kids together. I had always assumed that two people who agreed on important issues, like what chairs they liked in Conran’s, would find little things like babies easy to negotiate. But if you want to really jam your fingers into the cracks in a relationship, chuck a baby or two into the mix. There’s nothing like co-parenting for turning all those quaint little differences in your upbringings (‘They don’t open Christmas presents until the evening. It’s so civilised!’) into a battlefield. You have to work out together what you agree on or don’t and find a compromise quickly enough so that you’re not still bickering over bed time routines as the kids take their Driving Theory test. But do you need to be married to do any of this? Probably not.
The more I think about it, the more the whole thing is an act of madness. To decide to hitch yourself to another person without any knowledge of what you’re going to pull out of life’s tombola, makes no sense at all. You go in thinking it will be all fun and happiness and lovely holidays and crease-up laughter and brilliant Kodak moments and of course there will be all of those things. You’re probably having plenty of those already. But the disappointments, career hiccups, sadnesses, sicknesses, distractions, existential ‘crises’ are far harder to imagine. It’s an impressive thing to decide to share this journey into the unknown with another person, with absolutely no notion of how either of you are going to react when it gets really hairy, or how that hairiness is going to change you. And that’s what makes it rather awe-inspiring and wonderful and completely bloody mad.
One thing I would tell anyone about being married is not to have any fixed ideas about what it involves. Unlike any other relationship which is judged entirely on its own merits, everyone has an idea about what a happy marriage is. Certainly I’m not sure what I thought it entailed, but at some points, I was pretty sure it wasn’t what I had. It seemed like other couples were gliding through life like Rogers and Astaire, while we were stuck in a three-legged race, pulling in opposite directions. Now I reckon they all thought the same. Working out how to be married to each other takes time. Truth is there are a million ways to be in a marriage. Once you realise that and find your own tempo, you can just get on with it. After all, it is your three-legged race.
So, all in all, call me a sentimental old Mutton, but on balance I wouldn’t deter any young woman from getting married (unless they were really young; marrying an obvious a-hole or both). But I would also urge them not to stress about it. Pairing up is an amazing thing we humans; swans and as “Friends” so pertinently pointed out, lobsters, do. Perhaps everyone needs their lobster, but do they need to march them down the aisle in a tail coat? Nah! No young woman should lose sleep about getting married any more. Even in the last thirty years so many more different, great, fabulous ways of living life have opened up for women. But if being married is how they want to live their lobstery lives, then as a 30 year, happily married, old Mutton, I won’t try to stop them.