Is it so terrible that marriage is in decline?

Like a tired old couple nagging wearily away at one another, politicians and the media have been bickering over the great marriage crisis exposed by the Office of National Statistics. In 2005, the number getting married fell by nine per cent from the previous year; 2006 saw another significant fall, this time of four per cent. The national marriage rate, according to the OFT, is now at its lowest level since 1862.

For members of the think-tanks which exist to fret about such things, it is a terrible state of affairs for which the Government is entirely responsible. Labour is “effectively overseeing the death of marriage by killing it off”, Jill Kirby of the Centre for Policy Studies has announced.

At first glance, the verdict seems a little harsh. Few governments of recent years have promoted family values more ardently by example. Unlike the previous two Conservative prime ministers – one a divorcée, the other an adulterer – Blair and Brown have been proactively uxorious while in power. Both have produced children. Blair’s potency as a husband was publicly put on record by his wife. Brown’s progression from bachelor to contented family man has been the perfect advertisement for marriage.

But, according to the think-tankers and the Tories, the smug marrieds in power have also been doing terrible things to the institution. They have failed to give financial incentives to married couples. In official documents, phrases like “spouse” and “marriage” are being replaced by more neutral terms. Politicians are said to be afraid to speak up for married life out of fear of offending that fearsome group of voters, the singles.

For others, it is the media who are at fault. Television, they say, glamorises promiscuity and selfishness. The press is mesmerised by the merry-go-round of relationships of the famous and make such partner-swapping seem normal. Our culture as a whole presents a fantasy world of fame and money in which contentment is something new and ecstatic. In comparison, the satisfactions and small victories of everyday marital life seem tame.

But there is another approach to the great marriage crisis, and that is to deny that it is a crisis at all. If anything, it is a rare indication that we are growing up as a society and taking more care with our personal decisions. An institution, many people now rather daringly believe, does not by its nature bring happiness – indeed formalising a relationship might be positively unhelpful.

If couples require tax breaks to encourage them to get married, or are influenced by whether they can describe themselves as a spouse in official documents, they are likely soon to be looking at the rather more significant costs of divorce. Champions of marriage may complain that couples are put off getting married by reports of high-level divorce payments, but again that seems an obvious sign of good sense and maturity. In an impatient, I-want-it-now culture, living in an institution is tougher than ever. When a recent Church of England report suggested that clergy preparing couples for their wedding should address the question of domestic violence, it sensibly pointed out that “there is considerable evidence that marriage can lead to the beginning or escalation of domestic abuse, as it brings a heightened sense of ownership”. Formalising a relationship, in other words, may sometimes strengthen the bonds that exist between two people but in the wrong way – in a way that leads to misery for them and for others whom they bring into the world. Perhaps it is not such a tragedy that couples are beginning to see the whole thing more clearly. After all, even the newspapers which chunter on dutifully about family values are beginning to recognise that life is complicated, that the end of a marriage is not necessarily a matter for shame, blame and regret.

It was a matter of days since this week’s poster girl Carla Bruni was portrayed in the press as a dangerous bimbo, a ruthless seducer of famous men. Now, as if a magic wand has been waved, she has been transformed. Monsieur et Madame Sarkozy are a sweet and glamorous couple. Carla, according to one newspaper, may become “the new Princess Diana”.

It is time to admit that some marriages – most marriages, probably – have a natural life span, that what France’s first couple have done in choosing change is not by its nature so terrible. There might even be a case for bringing marriage licences into line with driving licences, requiring them to be renewed at specific intervals – say, every 10 years.

That would have the advantage of reminding us that marriage is something which concerns the personal lives of two people and their children, rather than as an institution of state, a representative of solid virtue and a debating issue for think-tanks.