Happily ever after? How a new generation are redefining marriage

Posted by
The Stylist web team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Until recently, saying “I do” seemed incredibly old-fashioned, but now marriage is enjoying a renaissance. Stylist investigates why

Photography: Amy Currell

In any given weekend this summer, at least one person from the Stylist office will be heading off on nuptial-related activities – from hen parties and bridesmaid dress shopping expeditions, to attending the big day itself (one staffer even has invitations to weddings in New Zealand and India – and is going to both). For all the talk of the “Netflix and chill” generation, who like nothing more than a casual hook-up via Tinder or a commitment-free flirt on Snapchat, we seem to know an awful lot of people getting wed.

Intrigued by this contradiction, we commissioned a survey to discover what marriage means to you. And, well, there must be a lot of secret Pinterest boards out there. For while the marriage rate has dropped to its lowest since records began, a whopping 87% of millennials we spoke to (those born between 1980 and the mid-’90s) said they hope to get married in the future, compared to just 68% of 35-44-year-olds. We might not be shouting about it (59% admit to secretly planning their dream wedding, even when single), but for many, saying “I do” remains as much of a fairy tale as it was for our grandmothers. “To me, it’s a beautiful and special thing that gives me so much strength – to know someone has my back and I have his,” said Stylist reader Naomi, 29.

“Millennials might put off marriage because the priority these days is finding somewhere to live and developing a career,” says Janice Hiller, consultant clinical psychologist at Tavistock relationships clinic in London. “But it remains an aspiration because it gives a feeling of security in a very uncertain socio-political climate.”

But perhaps the real reason we’re still wedded to it is because marriage in 2016 isn’t actually as old-fashioned as we might think. You can write your own vows, there’s no pressure to take your partner’s surname and as of 2014, same-sex couples can marry. And there’s no denying weddings are magical, with a joyful atmosphere that softens even the hardest of hearts. So, as the bells ring out for wedding season, we ask seven writers to reveal why marriage still matters. Confetti at the ready…

“Getting married can be a feminist’s fairytale too”

Rhiannon Cosslett, 28, is a writer and author of a feminist blog and book. She’s engaged

“Oh, I thought you’d happily cohabit forever,” a friend said on hearing of my engagement on Valentine’s Day this year. As a vocal feminist who has written books and blogs on the subject, it seems there are still people who don’t expect me to get married. Never mind see it as a thoroughly feminist thing to do.

Admittedly, in our relationship I am the one who vociferously rails against traditional gender roles, and the role of bride is about as traditional as you can get. Even my dad once asked me why I was so into the idea, considering it was an institution rooted in patriarchy – his words, not mine. Furthermore, I’m a child of divorce, whereas my fiancé is not. My parents split up when I was 12 and it broke my heart to see my already-small family shrink. Yet it was my fiancé, not me, who wasn’t entirely sold on marriage. So when he produced an art deco emerald ring on Hampstead Heath and proposed, it felt even more poignant.

So far, so traditional. But I think there are strong feminist reasons for getting married, especially if you plan to have children. Marriage protects you legally and financially. I’m constantly surprised by how many people believe cohabitation gives you the same legal rights. Like it or not, women so often bear the bulk of the child-rearing responsibilities, it makes sense to protect yourself in case the worst happens and you’re left vulnerable. Why should I buy a house or have children with someone who won’t even sign a marriage contract with me?

But it’s not just practical. Ultimately, I want to marry because I’m a romantic. He’s the person I want to be with for the rest of my life. I’d never judge another woman for choosing not to marry, but I do see it as a statement – a powerful one – that we intend to be there for one another as equals, no matter what.

“It’s one of the most radical things you can do”

Daisy Buchanan, 31, has been married for seven months

It sounds perverse, but I decided I wanted to marry my husband the moment I realised I didn’t need to.

I met Dale the day after my 27th birthday, following some terrible relationships. There was the bossy banker who really loved me, as long as I didn’t interrupt the football. The obsessive boy who made me cry more often than he made me tea. And the older man who revealed, while putting his shoes back on, he was “more married than he made out”.

Then I fell for a man I could be sure of. He didn’t manipulate me, or withhold affection. I finally had the commitment I’d craved and loved the idea of celebrating something we already knew. We felt married, so we got married.

Unless you’re doing it for religious reasons, arguably no one needs to get married in 2016. Therefore, to me it’s one of the most radical things you can do. You simply don’t bother unless you’re determined to do your best for each other.

Many millennials are in debt, struggling to save for a house and anxious to kick-start our careers in a time of economic upheaval. Our lives are full of unavoidable uncertainty. So it warms my heart that we still take a chance on love.

We’ve seen our parents and grandparents struggle, but we still want in. We don’t care about being a “princess” for one “special day”. But, against all odds, we still believe in forever.

“Getting married is the ultimate leveller”

The Guyliner, an anonymous male blogger, is 40 and lives with his boyfriend

Growing up, I was a matrimonial refusenik, almost glad the law then prevented me plighting my troth. And when civil sponsored_longforms came in, I was disdainful. Why the hell did we want to be like everyone else, I’d wonder.

But like most things, once it happens to those close to you, it becomes real. People I loved finding love was an irresistible combination. I began to see what marriage could do. How it brings families together, makes people closer. And how, for gay couples, this can be truly life changing.

Steeped in responsibility and symbolic of love and commitment, marriage can help promote the relationship to less enlightened parents who might have thought their child ‘lost’ to outdated gay stereotypes of heartache, hedonism and loneliness. Families once reluctant to accept partners are overruled. We’re together, we’re not ashamed and no, Mum, this isn’t a phase. I know many families whose prejudices were crushed when they begrudgingly attended a gay wedding; years of angst beautifully dismissed with a simple “I do”.

Do we need, or seek, this validation? There’s no reason why we should. But if straight couples feel an almost tangible swell of support on declaring their love in front of their nearest and dearest, imagine the impact for those of us who at some point have hidden or denied our loves, or had our relationships cheapened, disregarded or worse?

In my opinion, the popularity of marriage may even ease some young people’s struggles with their sexuality. Knowing you can ‘conform’ as much or as little as you like could make closet doors fly open all the sooner.

So yes, I believe in marriage. For me, it’s not about assimilating or chasing the heterosexual ideal. It’s a reminder and a celebration of the very thing that unites us all – gay, straight and everyone in between and beyond. LOVE.

“A wedding is just a brilliant excuse for a party”

Bella Younger, comedian and creator of Instagram parody account Deliciously Stella, is 28 and single

So 87% of millennials plan to get married. Do I think they’re romantics or traditionalists? Erm, how about hedonists? Because I’ll be honest, for me, it’s all about the knees-up. I don’t wear dresses, can’t stand being spoken for and fear bursting into flames every time I set foot in a church. But I definitely want to get married – it’s literally my last chance to get my dad to pay for a party.

OK, I know it doesn’t work like that any more. And of course I hope there’ll be a terribly dashing groom in there somewhere and that, you know, we’ll have a long and happy marriage. But the main thing I lust after when I contemplate getting married is throwing the ultimate party for all of my friends.

While other female guests make mental notes of flower arrangements and dress designs, I circle the cheeseboard, plotting how I’d avoid playing Brown Eyed Girl simply to keep the drunk uncles happy. Happily, after watching friends have their first dance to liquid drum’n’bass and hearing Aretha Franklin’s Respect read between Bible psalms, I know tradition is not the only way.

If nobody wakes up with one shoe and no knickers then it either finished too early or there wasn’t enough booze. Neither of these things will be happening to me. After all, you don’t get many excuses in life to fill an overpriced tent with all of your best mates and loads of booze. This will be mine.

“It’s the perfect antidote to 21st century life”

Nirpal Dhaliwal, 42, was married for four years and is now divorced

Life today provides a blizzard of opportunities to experience new things. Living in a lightning-fast international city filled with influences and people from all over the world, there’s every reason to live a rootless life of footloose freedom. We can have a new and attractive sexual partner every week, enjoying dates at the latest new restaurant, discussing the interesting new movie we’ve just seen, before going home to enjoy the kinkiest new position that we’ve read about online.

And because I can live a life of such limitless opportunity, I believe in marriage and commitment more than ever. Having one person who I can depend on as the one certain, unchanging component of my life will give me greater confidence to leap into life and taste its many flavours. The older I get, the more I recognise that monogamy doesn’t inhibit freedom, but adds to it.

When I got married 14 years ago, aged 28, I hadn’t put much thought into it. As a result, I found myself frustrated by a need to rebel and find myself, which led me astray in all sorts of ways. But since I got divorced in 2007, I’ve increasingly realised what I want from life and from a companion: friendship, mutual support and fun. Single for two years, the miracle of middle age is that I think more clearly about my relationships now – I have enough experience and heartbreak behind me not to act on impulse. When I do find a partner, it will be a union that’s founded in companionship.

Single life, by contrast, is repetitive, much of it taken up with the mission – consciously or unconsciously – to find a mate. Having someone frees you to do all the things you were only half-inclined to do before: try those strange recipes, see those obscure foreign films, go to those oddball folk-band concerts. My wife might not come along with me but, freed from looking for one, I could relax and indulge the quirky fancies of my life instead. People think modern life makes monogamy and marriage more difficult, and they’re right. But we should also pay attention to how much marriage has to offer our experience of life, too.

“Getting married will be the most solemn thing I’ll do”

Author and blogger Laura Jane Williams, 30, has been single for five years

My dream wedding? I planned it years ago. I meet a guy and, with a lust all-consuming, we stand in front of an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas to say “I do”. I’m in biker boots and something short and white, he’s in jeans and yesterday’s crumpled linen shirt. Afterwards, we have lobster buns and champagne by the slot machines, laughing because we don’t need anybody else. And if it doesn’t work out? No big deal.

That my father had an affair in 2006, when I was 20, played no small part in this twisted fairy tale. I convinced myself no marriage was built to last. It didn’t help that my high-school sweetheart of a decade dumped me to marry my best friend around this time, too. No man was capable of staying true in my eyes and all I expected from marriage in the future was a great party and a familiar body.

Yet my parents stayed together, working on their relationship for five years, while I sneered at them for not calling it quits. But as I stood in church the day they renewed their vows and saw their friends’ beaming faces, something clicked. I got it.

Marriage isn’t just about the couple, it’s about community. We need the support of family and friends, their input, wisdom and guidance, in the good times, to celebrate, but also in the bad because as my parents showed, there will be bad times, too.

When I do finally marry, the most special people in the world to me will be there. I still want champagne and lobster, but the occasion will be solemn. I’ll give the day the gravitas it deserves. I now realise marriage isn’t something you commit to once – you do it daily, over and over. That’s phenomenal and deserves more than an Elvis impersonator.

“Marriage is so good, why would you just do it once?”

Julie Burchill, 56, is a writer and lives with third husband, Daniel, 43. The’ve been together 20 years

As a girl, I never dreamt of a fairy-tale wedding. I could think of nothing more vulgar, as I sat in my bedroom reading Oscar Wilde and practising smoking with a candy cigarette, than being part of the endless parade of heterosexual coupling.

But I did dream of being a divorcee – the word seemed unspeakably glamorous. And I realised that to be one, I’d have to do the dreadful deed – say “I do” – at least once. As it turned out, I took to it like a duck to orange, having been married three times since the age of 19, with a few sapphic months off for good behaviour between the second and third husbands.

In the first instance I married a friend who I didn’t fancy, in the second a lover who I didn’t like, but hopefully I have the best of both worlds now.

I’m not surprised to hear 87% of millennials say they hope to marry – but I do hope they’re not especially wedded to the idea of only doing it once. As Peter Ustinov once said, “Friends are not necessarily the people you like best, they are merely the people who got there first.” This is even truer of those with whom we become romantically involved. I see marriage almost as a utility. Am I getting the fun, sex and companionship I was promised? If not, I’ll change providers. But don’t step out too soon. When I wish I was somewhere else, I know that without my husband, freedom would feel like a trap, and I’d be counting the days until I could see him again. So far, third time lucky.

Models: Erica and Yoav at Hired Hands
Manicurist: Tinu Bello at One Represents using Dior Vernis Manicure Collection and Capture Totale Nurturing Hand Repair Cream