Unmarried couples are people, too

The sickly scent of marital smugness is in the air. Helen Mirren has said the secret of her marriage is loyalty rather than romance. BBC Women’s Hour has been solemnly discussing Michelle Obama’s idea of “date nights” as a matrimonial freshener. A touching but inconsequential interview with an old couple who had been together for 70 years was run on the Today programme, followed by a discussion with Catherine Blyth, author of The Art of Marriage, who explained how healthily married couples would prioritise “we” before “I”.

These periodic spasms of domestic propaganda can be confusing for the rest of us. Those who live together without getting married tend to be less eager to proselytise about our relationships, to give tips, or to interview those who are thought to have done it well. There are no self-help guides called The Art of Unmarriage on the bookshop shelves. The kind of analysis which involves pulling up a plant in order to examine its roots tends to be avoided in the unmarried set.

On the other hand, the temptation to counter this endless pro-marriage nagging with a few arguments from outside the institution is sometimes irresistible. The “we” thing, for example: what sane person could seriously think that it is more psychologically healthy to think of oneself as half of a social unit than an individual? Catherine Blyth describes marriage as “a three-legged race conjoined by a tie called wedlock”, forgetting, it seems, that a person runs more slowly and uncomfortably when tied to another.

Those in successful unmarriages know that there is nothing more withering to the soul for two proud individuals to merge together like a couple of bits of soap and become one conjoined entity. It is not closeness that gives a relationship its strength, but apartness, the sense that something about the person with whom you live will always be an unknowable mystery. There is surely nothing more depressing – spiritually, emotionally and, above all, sexually – than to know everything about one’s partner.

Fear is an important part of unmarriage. Having to survive without the support of the law and the state means that there is not the illusion of solidity which marriage offers. The whole fragile edifice depends on two flawed, fallible people, and how they behave towards one another. It is not in the slightest bit relaxing, this sense that disaster could be as close as the next row or outside flirtation, but it makes the relationship more alive. Nothing is assumed or taken for granted.

To a small but significant degree, unmarriage confers the status of an outsider. At a conventional family gathering, a couple who have not entirely played by society’s rules may experience a mild feeling of semi-detachment, of belonging to the group while keeping a couple of toes outside the charmed circle of social convention.

It is a privilege, this self-reliance, and it is probably why those who enjoy it do not need books to give them guidance or encouragement. No couple who have lived together unmarried for 70 years is likely to have their achievement celebrated on the radio. They are not a part of something that is socially important. They are simply themselves.

It is perhaps for that reason that unmarriage is not always popular. At those moments in the year when capitalism puts the squeeze on the marrieds, and persuades them that the only way to prove their affection is by spending money on cards, flowers, chocolate and underwear, the unmarried way is to stand aside, watch and wonder. There is enough guilt and duty around without dragging love into it.

Perhaps it is better to keep quiet about unmarriage. For a while at least, the old, institutional way of arranging one human’s commitment to another will go on being presented as the best way to find contentment. The three-legged race is what, mysteriously, makes millions of people feel secure.

Independent, Friday, 18 June 2010