Happily ever after: Marriage in age of 'modern family'

Marriage has come a long way since Molière’s play The School for Wives debuted in 1662, reports Stephen A Russell

It has been 350 years since French playwright Molière’s work The School For Wives opened at the Palais Royal in Gay Paree. It tells the story of an older man so intimidated by smart women that he resolves to marry his young ward. Of course he assumes she will be bowled over by his intelligence, but the young woman turns out to be far cannier than he anticipated.

Next month, Bell Shakespeare stages the play under the direction of Lee Lewis, who has shifted the setting to the roaring 1920s, another age of strong-willed women.

But even in 2012, in an age of female heads of state and stay-at-home-dads Lewis says there’s an energy to Molière’s play that still rings true. “I don’t think he was inciting people to revolution; nor was he foreseeing today,” says Lewis. “He was writing in an age of smart women who had power, and portraying men’s fear of that. It was quite shocking back in the 17th century.”

Skipping over the uncomfortable references to arranged marriage in the original, the 1920s setting finds many women unexpectedly in control following the death of so many men during the First World War. “They were forced to take charge of their own lives,’ says Lewis, “though they didn’t necessarily plan to.’’

Lewis herself has been happily married for 12 years and says her husband, a roving photographer, is comfortable with her touring the country with the show. “When you look at where we’ve come from in such a short time it’s incredible,” she says. “The way I live my life would have been extraordinary even 20 years ago. The fact that it’s actually quite ordinary now, and you don’t have to be an aggressive or radical feminist to live it, is a great refiguring.”

Indeed the shape of marriage has undergone a seismic shift even in the past 50 years. In 1961, according to that year’s census, about 45 per cent of eligible adults in Australia were married and fewer than one per cent divorced. At the time, the minimum wage for men factored in support for a wife and three children. A woman working in the public service had to resign if she married, and few couples lived together out of wedlock. Before 1972, you could not divorce without proving fault, and there was a five-year cooling-off period for estranged couples.

In contrast, the 2011 census revealed that almost 48 per cent of eligible adults are married, the divorce rate has increased to almost 8.5 per cent, and 9.5 per cent of all cohabiting couples are in de facto relationships.

Dr Lixia Qu is a senior research fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which was established in 1980 to research issues that affect family well-being, such as the impact of divorce. She says one of the most noticeable changes over the past century has been the closing of the age gap between brides and grooms. Gone are the days of Molière’s much older husband. In 2012, spouses are likely to be around the same age and share similar interests, careers and desire for financial stability.

We’re interested in programs set in the 1950s and ’60s, such as Mad Men, but the shape of marriage for women has changed so much since then, says Qu. “In the past it was down to the man to earn money, while the woman ran the household,” she says. “It hasn’t been that case for quite some time. Women are no longer financially dependent.”

Many women put off marriage until later in life, although Qu says this doesn’t mean fewer relationships. Today, almost a third of Australian babies are born outside marriage. Of them, only 10 to 15 per cent are to single mothers.

Our attitudes to cohabiting outside marriage have changed dramatically, even since the 1970s. In 1976, when a survey asked parents what they would think if their daughter lived with a man without marrying him, 68 per cent responded they would be “extremely horrified, considerably upset or would consider they had failed as a parent”.

But Qu says the rise of de facto relationships does not necessarily mean the downfall of marriage. “The majority still aim to marry, but at their own pace,’’ she says. ‘‘There is still a sense of tradition attached to it, but the structural barrier for women has been removed. You can travel, have your own apartment and a good career, and you don’t have to marry to have children or financial stability.”

Sue Yorston, from Relationships Australia Victoria, who counsels married couples, says most relationship problems relate to a lack of discussion. “Often people don’t communicate early on about what it is they want out of life, their shared goals and values,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s only when something comes up, like how many children they want and when, that it becomes an issue.”

Yorston recommends couples sit down and talk through everything before getting married. She notes a rise in the number of stay-at-home dads, but says some gender stereotypes still linger in the home. National surveys in 1986, 1993 and 2005 have consistently found that although more women are in paid work, they still spend more time than men doing housework.

Still, things are on the up, Yorston believes. “When I look at my mother, then my marriage, then the marriages of my children, there’s far more discussion now,” says the 62-year-old counsellor. “I can remember when I got married, it was a given that I would lose my name and take on my husband’s. That’s now a choice.”

Karen Pickering, creator of Melbourne’s monthly digest of feminist culture, Cherchez la Femme, has an unusual perspective on marriage. Her parents separated when she was young, and have since clocked up six marriages between them. Pickering eloped at 29 and divorced a few months later. “I didn’t take it very seriously,’’ she says. “I just thought it was synonymous with getting into a relationship – when it gets serious, you get married, then when it doesn’t work out, you get divorced and marry someone else.”

She learned, however, during a messy and expensive divorce, that the law takes things more seriously. “Since then I’ve thought about it much more, what I think is wrong with marriage, and why people still do it.”

These days she is in a committed relationship with a young widower, but says neither of them plan on marrying again. “We’re serious about the commitment we’ve made; we just don’t see the need to place that legal framework over the top of what’s essentially an emotional thing that has nothing to do with the government or the law,” she says.

While she respects others’ right to marry she says she’d be happier if no one bothered. “I love going to weddings — they are a joyful, performative, theatrical day,” she says. “But the average one costs around $30,000, which is absurd. You act out this abstract role that’s quite removed from your everyday love, then there are all the rituals that are really sexist, like fathers handing over daughters to husbands and white dresses to show they’re virginal.”

She says she’s glad that young people increasingly give marriage a lower priority, but she also recognises that societal influence is a hard to swim against. “We’re presented with strong narratives in film, TV and literature telling women you become a full human being when someone wants to marry you. The same narrative tells you women are sitting around desperately waiting for someone to put a ring on it. It kills me, because that’s a great song, but a terrible message.”

Marriage now:

It's all about the food, the wine and the atmosphere

Marketing executive Jemma Beames, 28, married her husband, Drew, a sales manager, late last year. They first met as colleagues over the phone seven years ago. “He was really cute because he was quite shy, but once he got on to topics that excited him, you couldn’t shut him up. I thought that was pretty adorable,” she says.

Though they were already living together in Glen Iris, Jemma says getting engaged gave her a stronger sense of security. Neither wanted a religious ceremony, so they asked a celebrant friend to marry them, and both Jemma’s parents walked her down the aisle. “I’m not traditional in the sense of a white wedding, but I never thought I wouldn’t get married. It was all about the food, the wine and the atmosphere,” she says.

Eight months on, Jemma is still calling Drew “husband” at every opportunity. “I’m happier than ever, after a seven-year relationship. Our timing is obviously good. We’re still on a high so hopefully we can skip that itch.”

....and then

40 years of commitment

Maureen Fryer met Richard Gill, now the music director of Victorian Opera, during her first teaching appointment. He taught music; she was hired to help with extracurricular activities such as school musicals. ‘‘As they say, the rest is history,’’ she says.

The pair (pictured above with daughter Claire) were married on her father’s 70th birthday in 1973. “At nearly 40 years, you don’t get that for murder, do you?” she jokes.

So what’s the secret of their success? “There has to be humour. Richard is bright, funny and the most generous creature on Earth. For me, that’s the magic mix.”

She says any marriage involves commitment. “Apart from that whole love and respect thing, you have to like one another enough to be bothered working at it.”

She maintains that for any strong woman, it’s vital to maintain a sense of self-identity within the relationship. “If you don’t have that, the imbalance very quickly breeds insecurity and then you’re in trouble”.

And what does Richard think? “I asked him what makes our marriage work and he said, ‘Trips to Europe’. I don’t know whether that was with me or without me.”

The School for Wives, Fairfax Studio, September 11–22. Tickets from $33. Details: call 1300 182 183

or visit artscentremelbourne.com.au.

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