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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 11:49 GMT
From this day forward...
EastEnders actors
Romance was in the air on Valentine's Day, but getting hitched has never been more out of fashion. So, are love and marriage heading for the divorce court, asks BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

Flares, snake belts, lava lamps - for some time now, 70s style has been the epitome of cool. But one trend that has failed to make a similar leap across the decades is marriage.

Mass wedding
3,500 Moonie couples are to be married at once on Saturday in Seoul Olympic Park
If you like weddings, then 1970 was your year. Helped along by the post-war baby boom, it marked an all-time high for first marriages in England and Wales: 390,000 in total.

Since then the lure of tying the knot has receded, resulting in a year-on-year decline. There were just 179,000 first-time marriages in 1999.

Jamie Oliver on his scooter
Not exactly a horse and carriage
Things picked up a little in 2000, but figures released at the end of last year revealed that the proportion of women aged 18 to 49 who were married had declined from nearly three-quarters in 1979 to just over half (51%).

At the same time, divorce rates in England and Wales heave soared, peaking in 1993 at 180,000.

In little more than a generation, Britain, like all western countries, has seen some momentous changes in lifestyle choices. Circumstances that were once strictly taboo are nowadays commonplace.

One in three children is now born out of wedlock. Homosexual relationships are more widely accepted and among young heterosexuals, cohabitation is often preferred to marriage.

Divorce solicitors advert
Recent advert by a firm of solicitors specialising in divorce
This may be National Marriage Week, but is the idea of matrimony now doomed?

The omens don't look promising for traditionalists.

This week the government took up the cause of civil partnership agreements - a sort of "marriage-lite" that would give co-habiting couples legal recognition without the need for solemn vows.

I want to be alone

Conservative peers and bishops frown on the idea, seeing it as a dilution of the sanctity of marriage.

Even the financial advantages of getting spliced have all but evaporated, after the abolition of the married couple's tax allowance two years ago.

Gay couple in Germany
Will gay marriages ever be legal in the UK?
But co-habitation is not the only rival to getting hitched. Increasingly individuals want to be just that: individual. The trend for living alone has doubled in the last 40 years and today nearly one in three households are single occupation.

But social commentator Helen Wilkinson says despite the damning statistics, the end is not nigh for marriage.

Certainly, the ideal of a life-long commitment is still held in high regard. Almost 60% of people believe while marriage might not work out for some, it is still the "best kind of relationship".

Modern marriages

"The idea that civil partnerships will put an end to marriage is ridiculous," says Miss Wilkinson, author of Give Marriage Back to the People. "If that's how weak people's attachment is then we shouldn't be propping it up for the sake of it."

Norway's Princess Mette-Marit with her son
Bring the kids: Norway's Princess Mette-Marit with her son
Marriage will survive, but not in the conventional white wedding guise, she says.

Society's drift from the church and religious values has thrown up new challenges and, in some respects at least, government has risen to them. Until the mid 90s, weddings in England and Wales were restricted to religious venues or register offices.

Today, couples can marry in hotels, country mansions, even football grounds. Recently the government announced plans to relax these laws even further, to allow weddings in private homes, gardens... in fact, just about anywhere.

Such changes are a manifestation of the different ways we come to marriage these days, says Miss Wilkinson.

Altar-ations

"It used to be part of a very linear structure to life. You'd leave school, get a job, get married, have children, retire at 65 and that was it. Today, people's lives are more complex, and marriage needs to be a part of it.

Moonie bride
Is a revival on the horizon?
"You might go out with different partners, move in with one, have a child or two and then get married. You could say it's a good thing - people are marrying today because they want to, not because they feel obliged."

Among more radical changes Miss Wilkinson would like to see are fixed-term marriages and a law to allow anyone to conduct the ceremony, including best friends.

And she cautions against harking back to a "false idyll", pointing out that in the pre-industrial society "cohabitation was commonplace".

"We have this debate in the media and politics which says marriage is immutable, unchanging. Whereas the history of marriage has been very flexible. If we give it that flexibility, it will come back into vogue."

See also:

13 Feb 02 | England
Couple say: 'It's good to talk'
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