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Trial marriage on trial

Stylish, classy, tear-jerking and ultimately discouraging, is a sociologist's verdict on the Royal Wedding.
Paul Adams | 2 May 2011
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How many people watched the royal wedding? I have no idea, though I see numbers in the billions (with an ‘s’) – impressive since the entire world population is less than seven billion.

Even though I was up anyway, given the time difference, I could not make it past the first ten minutes. What got to me was none of the usual things – the extravagance, the royal family as symbol and legitimation of class and privilege, etc. And compared to the embarrassing display of mass emotion by the supposedly reserved English surrounding Princess Diana’s funeral, the event was (from what little I saw and the more I have seen since in pictures and reports), stylish and classy.

As one who studies the devastating effect on children, above all poor children, of the collapse of family structure over the three decades since the Charles-Diana wedding, I was depressed and appalled, though not really surprised, by the English announcers’ enthusiastic endorsement of the couple’s life of “shacking up” prior to marriage.

Yes, I know that cohabitation prior to marriage is very common – and I claim no special virtue myself - and that, in any case royals and aristocrats have often behaved no better than they should.

What made this event unique, I suspect, among such royal occasions, was the public endorsement of behaviour that would in the past have been passed over in tactful silence – if only because the couple were being married in a church of which the monarch is head and which condemns fornication.

So it is not so much that the behavior was new as that the announcers approved it so warmly. The idea of getting married before you set up house is just so old-fashioned. The living together out of wedlock in a sexual relationship outside marriage – “unthinkable,” an announcer said with a chuckle, in the days of Charles and Diana, just 30 years ago – was now taken for granted. It was, she explained, a good way for the couple to get to know each other and their ways before committing to marriage. So unlike the immature teen Diana and the emotionally challenged Charles, they were entering marriage in a mature way and therefore, the implication was, with a better prospect of success.

The problem is that cohabitation doesn’t work like that. Cohabitation in general lasts an average of two years and is popular precisely because it provides easy access to sex without the legal,moral, and social commitments that marriage entails.

True, not all cohabitation is the same. The most unstable is the kind of serial cohabitation of those for whom cohabitation is an alternative, rather than a prelude to marriage. But the main justification given by the announcer for cohabitation was that it gives the couple a chance to try out the relationship, a kind of unofficial trial marriage. The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. The chances of such an arrangement being followed by a lasting marriage are lower than for a couple who do not live together prior to marriage. The results are closer to all the other alternatives to marriage in their effects on the relationship’s longevity and the outcomes for the children.

Cohabitation after engagement – a kind of live-in engagement – does not have these negative consequences, according to one piece of recent research. But the clear message of the now substantial body of research on cohabitation is that there is no evidence whatever that, in any form, it has any positive effects on subsequent marriage, as the announcers seemed to think. Indeed, the longer a  couple cohabits prior to marriage, in general, the shorter the time the marriage will last.

Of course, all such statistics deal in averages and point to risk and protective factors for children and the adults who have them. They do not determine outcomes with any kind of inevitability in individual cases.

What particularly appalled me, though, was the message given to the billions who (apparently) watched, that living together prior to marriage – for years, not weeks, even – is the preferred and mature way to approach marriage.

The one bit, of what I have seen, that I liked was the red L plate prominently affixed to the front of the car in which Prince William drove away his bride. Knowing that this is the sign that learner drivers have to display until they have passed their driving test – and having read that William was a car enthusiast – I was at first puzzled.

I had forgotten that this was an old, if feeble joke that brothers or male friends of the groom played at weddings – thepoint being that the groom was as yet supposedly inexperienced in his marital duties. A cute touch, but rather flat given the lack of restraint with which the announcers had been discussing the couple’s sex life in their years together prior to marriage. The joke depends on the normative assumption of premarital chastity – however much more honored in the breach than the observance.

Paul Adams is professor of social policy at the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawai'i.  His blog, Ethics, Culture, and Policy is at http://ethicsculture.blogspot.com.

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