Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


Is it outdated to marry till death us do part?

New research says that, as we begin to live longer, the idea of marrying for a lifetime is becoming obsolete. But love should be celebrated even if forever never comes, says Zoë Beaty

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By Zoë Beaty on

The other year, as I negotiated my way through a break-up, my mum gave me some advice. “You’ll know,” she said, when I asked whether I’d find a love to keep. “Something will tell you it’s right, that you want it,” she added, softly, and then – back down to earth. “Don’t hold your breath it’ll be anytime soon, mind. It took me until I was 50 to find someone.”

Right. Just the next 20 years to get through then.

Like most people of my parents’ generation, mum married in her twenties and started a family. She divorced as she approached 40 to start anew. Now, nearing 60, she’s set to marry again, and the happiest I’ve seen her. Mum didn’t do forever, but did she do it right? Is the concept of marrying for life now outdated?

A new study says it might be. An academic has argued in a new paper that, as life expectancy continues to increase, we might need to rethink the way we live – and whether the institution of marriage is a viable option for the next generation. Sarah Harper, a professor of gerontology and head of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, looked at research that shows that, as it became rarer for death to be the primary cause of marriages ending over the last century, inevitably divorce as the primary reason for marriages ending increased at the same rate.

Speaking at the Hay Festival, she said that “we have to look at, with these very, very, very long lives, whether we do want to be together for 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years”, adding that it was “more likely we’re going to have more fluid lives” in terms of issues like retirement too.

A love is less meaningful, so says society, if it lasts just ten years, or twenty years, or two. But it's not easy to come across love worth taking a risk for

And how can you tell you’ll want to be together for 70 years? Or even 40? As my friends start to marry, and I watch them take their vows, I’ve often wondered if Mum was right: that “you’ll know”, and if they “know” – or, if anyone knows really.

While I always imagined myself getting married, the thought has long terrified me. Because, how can you be sure? What if I accept a proposal (or make one) that ends in heartbreak? What if I wind up looking foolish, and silly, for letting myself believe in the love stories I grew up adoring in books and songs – Robert Browning seducing Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet by sonnet, letter by letter; sighing in my bedroom to Etta James’ declaration that, At Last, love has come along; or Randy Newman, who (allegedly) loved “Marie” the first time he saw her. Lucky him.

Of course, love stories are just stories. Yet we each have our own too, and so often we’re told that they’re diminished in some way if forever never comes along. A love is less meaningful, so says society, if it lasts just ten years, or twenty years, or two. But it's not easy to come across love worth taking a risk for, and that shouldn't be underestimated. Doesn’t it count that you stood by, cared, laughed, helped, and saw each other through a time?  Realism jars uncomfortably with romance but isn’t it still romantic, somehow, to know that love doesn’t begin and end with one person, but maybe two or three – or more – over a lifetime, and that your own love story can be plural?

I’d love to believe in love that lasts a whole lifetime, but I’ve always wondered how we negotiate the inevitable ways we change and grow as we age – and how to love someone who might have inadvertently grown in a different direction to you. Instead of vowing to be together “until death us do part”, maybe we should think about whether, as we marry later, and live longer, that’s still a reasonable requirement. And maybe we should put more emphasis on the time we do spend together – and acknowledging that happiness – instead of the time we don’t.


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