Will COVID-19 make marriage fashionable again?

How couples have changed their views on marriage in a post-Covid world

Artillery Row

The Covid pandemic has seen weddings forbidden for the first time since the days of the Great Plague. Besides the inconvenience, exorbitant cost (wedding insurance plans have not covered for most elements of Covid) and travel ban preventing both friends and family flying in for the celebrations, there has been the emotional distress for thousands of couples of simply not knowing when they’ll be allowed to marry. That remains for many, even following reports in the Sunday Times this week that small weddings of up to 10 will be able to resume in July.

Covid has instituted a unique shift in attitudes to wedding ceremonies, with family the focus of every postponed celebration

I happen to be one of the many currently jilted by Covid. With a large wedding originally planned for June 19 2020, mine and my fiance’s plans have been scuppered by the ban on ceremonies and the fact my immediate family are unable to travel from Australia where they reside to attend our nuptials which will remain an issue until international travel opens up. For now, my wedding dress hangs in the utility cupboard, shrouded along with the day we had spent more than a year preparing for.

We, for one, will be more glad to marry than ever before when the moment comes. But will other people flock to wed after Covid? Just as Britain saw a trend for so-called ‘hasty marriages’ during the Second World War, will this chastened generation decide that there’s little of more importance to them than tying the knot when possible? Or has the financial and psychological vicissitude dissuaded a generation for good?

Firstly, there is an historical precedent for a boom in marriages, as Historian Emily Brand, author of The Fall of the House of Byron puts it. “Historically, we do often see spikes in marriage rates around times of national trauma”, and this applies not just in times of war, “but following a severe, restrictive epidemic, such as with the waning ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic in 1919 (probably twinned with the return of surviving soldiers), and after the plague outbreaks of the 16th and 17th centuries.”

That said, in bygone days an increase after a catastrophic event didn’t just constitute delayed weddings, but “more grimly, new widows and widowers taking the opportunity to start again.”

“Today, though, our values are very different. The religious element is less pervasive and society no longer demands marriage to legitimise an accepted, committed relationship. So while there will probably be an uptick – from postponed weddings, a desire for some positivity, and perhaps even a wave of ‘lockdown’ engagements – I’m not sure we’ll see the large spike often historically seen.”

Harry Benson, Research Director at the Marriage Foundation and author of Commit or Quit – The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance, is potentially more optimistic. “If the world is going to change post-covid, one of the ways it might do so is by looking for security closer to home, whether that’s a domestic build-up of key industries and supplies, greater reliance on domestic food production, or greater reliance on the family unit at home.”

For celebrant Tamryn Settle who has worked in the wedding industry for 17 years, Covid has instituted a unique shift in attitudes to wedding ceremonies, with family the focus of every postponed celebration, whatever someone’s initial priorities. “It’s always just been a given that you’ll be able to hug your mum or have your grandparents in attendance or be able to invite any number of friends and family on your wedding day,” says Settle. “Covid has totally destroyed that certainty for people – if your parents are elderly for example, are you really going to want to put them at risk by going ahead with your day but can you really countenance a day without them? Couples have told me that  when they’re allowed to marry, they don’t care if they can’t have a disco or if their bar has to limit drinks but they do care, really care, about having those they love with them. Couples have even cancelled their weddings, and lost money, because the thought of going ahead without their family just isn’t acceptable.”

Couples are increasingly approaching celebrants to marry them even where the ceremony may not be legally recognised, so ushering in a new popular era of a separation of the legal component from the social gathering, sometimes by a number of years. As Jennifer Clare Constant, Founder of the Celebrant Directory points out, “celebrant-led weddings are becoming much more popular due to the flexibility of location and content.”

Meanwhile Tamryn Settle recently conducted a focus group with brides and grooms to be whose weddings are now delayed and found that, beyond those issues posed by the law, there were also a number of pressing practical issues affecting the decision to separate out the two aspects. “Some of this is being prompted by the worry that, with essentially two years-worth of couples getting married next year, there simply won’t be enough registrar spots available. Then again, some couples don’t want to wait to be legally married so they’ll do that soon and then look forward to ‘the wedding celebrations’ a bit later.”

Lots of brides described how Covid has essentially put their lives on pause because their marriage was such a stepping stone to the next part of it

For others, seismic life choices such as starting a family or having IVF treatment, buying a house or starting a new job must now take precedence, “but they don’t want to forgo the party entirely either. Lots of brides described how Covid has essentially put their lives on pause because their marriage was such a stepping stone to the next part of it. So, by seeing the two elements in isolation, they’re able to begin to move on without giving anything up.”

But like Emily Brand, celebrants like Settle are cautious about predicting a ‘marriage boom’. “I have a feeling that any increases in the marriage rate post-Covid will soon flatten, I don’t think this is going to reverse the trend of a century of decline in the marriage rate or radically alter large numbers of peoples’ perceptions about the wider institution of marriage and everything that comes with it.”

That said, Settle does think that attitudes to commitment will shift for the good, and that the tribulations brought by Covid have for many couples been bonding. “Most people, when they look back at this period, are likely to talk about how hard it was to not see others and they’ll remember how important it was to have someone by their side to love and support them. Humans need other humans and frankly, if you can get through lockdown with your partner and make it out the other side still loving them, that’s probably a pretty good indication that you’re a good pairing.”

Psychotherapist and broadcaster Lucy Beresford is in agreement. “It’s become clear that in the face of threat, we go back to some primitive instincts around needing to feel supported and wanting to love and be loved.”

“In recent weeks, people have had more time to get their priorities in order and love and relationships are top of the list – and people have been harder working at their relationships. The fact you now have to work through your problems face to face, rather than just go off to the office stewing is very important.”

Certainly, learning to work through intimate problems is a skill that will set people up well for married life, and possibly Covid has saved some marriages that were rocky before the pandemic struck. But what about those from whom the constant proximity and tension of money, employment and health has brought to the surface deeper, irreparable grievances?

As China eased out of lockdown, news reports noted the increase in petitions for divorces, with many British media outlets seizing upon these reports as cautionary tales for the UK. But even Family Law barrister Paula Rhone Adrien feels the predictions of a comparable wave of separations may be premature. “When we were heading into lockdown, a massive event that nobody had ever experienced before, we were actually expecting that it would result in a divorce spike. But the research suggests that requests for divorce have actually gone down by more than 60 per cent, which leaves us wondering if people are really ‘finding’ their relationships again and reevaluating what they have in their lives.”

While the temporary hiatus could be a result of a general perception that the courts are closed – “the cynical divorce lawyer in me wonders if the delay is just going to be longer coming”, says Rhone Adrien – she is also convinced that lockdown has been good for some marriages: “If you’re locked in, you can’t scream and shout and walk out – people have really had to drill down deep and access patience they’ve never had before. I think people are accepting that their marriages don’t have to be perfect to work.”

But while those working at the marriage coalface seem optimistic about its future, individuals grappling with the decision to marry or not paint a more complex picture.

26-year-old Olivia Petter, lifestyle writer at the Independent and host of the Millennial Love podcast, is circumspect about Covid and its effect on her generation’s inclination to marry.  “Lots of people [my age] are happy in long-term relationships but see marriage for the next, older stage of our lives. I think a lot of our generation are still afraid of it and afraid of making a commitment to that one person. It’s never been easier to meet someone, and even if someone is not a good date, the opportunity to meet others immediately is right there. I want to have children so I wonder if the reason I want to get married is more about providing a stable life for them, and less about wanting to marry in and of itself.”

As someone who has long campaigned for marriage as the ultimate sign of commitment, Benson is concerned that “covid will increase the demand for [legal marriage] rights to accrue to cohabiting couples – a move that I have long argued against because it undermines the need for a clear act of commitment.”

31-year-old Sarah Barnett*, meanwhile, has had a significant change of heart.  Barnett was previously ambivalent about marriage, considering the institution itself to have a “problematic” history and the concept to be outdated. But in recent weeks, she has “changed my mind entirely” about wanting to marry. Due to the vagaries of Covid, Barnett found herself temporarily separated from her partner while he moved in with his ex-wife to help with care of their children.  For Barnett, “being separated and not knowing when we’d see each other again was heart-breaking. I realised that, in legal terms, our relationship didn’t ‘count’. Suddenly that ‘piece of paper’ felt very important. I suddenly realised that anything can happen, the law can change overnight, and I never wanted to be stuck on the wrong side of that again.”

That said, Barnett feels strongly about the need for a reform of the divorce laws before she can press on. “Divorce laws need a total overhaul. It is insane that no-fault divorce is still not legal.

As for people who say it should be a lifetime commitment and are opposed to divorce at all, if we really believed that as a society, we’d make it harder for people to get married in the first place, rather than trying to make them stay married against their will.”

Harry Benson also supports the need for reform to both the marriage and divorce laws, describing it as a “social justice issue” particularly when it comes to the conflation of the wedding industry with the legalities of marriage.

“What needs to come next is marriage reform so that the state registers the entrance to marriage, encourages and promotes the stability that it brings, and regulates the ending process of divorce. Greater state regulation in how and where couples celebrate their marriage has led to ramped costs at ‘approved venues’. Covid may help remind the state that only five people need be present for the legal wedding ceremony. That’s what the state should regulate and no more.”

While the debate about whether marriage and divorce are fit for purpose roars on, it seems that Covid might indeed provide the stimulus to update them

While the debate about whether marriage and divorce are fit for purpose roars on, it seems that Covid might indeed provide the stimulus to update them, at least in part. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has already hinted that outdoor ceremonies may be allowed in England and Wales in July prior to indoor ones being reinstituted, while there’s also been a campaign to allow for virtual registrars. As Emily Brand puts it, “Marriage laws have historically been imposed to enact firmer state control, but have also frequently evolved and adapted according to changing values and requirements”, quoting the 1836 act that saw marriages conducted in non-conformist and Catholic places of worship, and non religious register offices as just one such example of demand propelling reform.

“Modern technology always brings new opportunities – legally recognising digital wedding ceremonies seems an entirely logical first step to resuming some semblance of normality. As with previous legislative amendments, the demand is likely to be there – and if passing such a law also protects public health, why not?”

For those like Emma Gray who was due to marry her fiance five days after lockdown was announced, a digital wedding ceremony may have saved her aborted plans, had she been so inclined. Determined to wed now as soon as she and her fiance can, Gray now feels the frustration they have faced has only confirmed their commitment to their marriage. “I think some place too much emphasis on the day itself rather than the relationship and person they’re marrying. But our situation has solidified my previous feeling – that the most important thing isn’t the wedding, it’s the marriage.”

And for myself? Well, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never been more sure of my desire to marry, in a celebration that includes my family, in a legally binding ceremony that stands the test of the time. Whatever the emotional cost of Covid, perhaps a new swathe of happy marriages might just help to counter some of them.

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