"I'm so happy for you," people say when you become engaged, reinforcing their thought with a not-so-gentle squeeze of your hand. The weird thing is that they mean it. Fall in love, get a promotion, a new house or a new car and there can be a tightness in the smile, a smudge of jealousy (or at the very least, envy) in those well-wishers' eyes. Get a ring on your finger and people (women, in particular) ooze such enthusiasm anyone would think it was them getting married. It's just such an optimistic thing to do.
Wedded bliss: Darling, just think of the tax incentives
There's an element of you merely joining the club, of course. But really the congratulations are a heartfelt "hear-hear" for making one of life's most daring gestures. Not everyone agrees: "A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage," Shelley insisted. Yet in defiance of that logic, and the divorce statistics, you're going to do this thing. And perhaps more powerful than both of these combined is the sheer unfashionability of the married state.
The paraphernalia of getting married — the ring, dress, marquee and guest-list — is still very much in vogue. Celebrities, who like cats get several lifetimes to our one shot (getting married, pregnant and divorced in the space of 18 months, before starting all over again), are huge fans of the process. Just ask Katie Price, who recently married her cage-fighter boyfriend for a million-pound fee in Las Vegas. Or Liza Minelli. Or Elizabeth Taylor. Only then there's the conundrum of what to do afterwards. "In Hollywood," the late Shelley Winters quipped, "all the marriages are happy. It's trying to live together afterwards that causes all the problems."
Marriage's rise and decline is charted by politicians and the media like fluctuating hemlines, forever changing, forever in need of redefinition, every word written or spoken about it only serving to reinforce the insecurity surrounding the institution — an institution that, they believe, desperately needs rebranding. Hello! magazine will provide us with celebrity role models to reassure us that it is possible to maintain conjugal bliss, provided you both have sets of matching satinette loungewear. Cynics will hold up Tiger Woods, the golfing nightclub-hostess-aholic, or John Terry, the former England football captain, as proof that no man is able to be monogamous in our modern era. Feminism hasn't helped. The women's magazine editors who decree that a good husband should do the housework, mind the baby and scatter the marital bed with rose petals once a week while remaining a Gerard Butler-style alpha male ("Keep Your Marriage Alive!" — the implication being that marriage is death), aren't doing mankind an enormous service.
Let's leave aside for a moment our desperate thirst for modishness, sentiment and David Cameron's tax incentives. Marriage may be old-fashioned — they first did it a long time ago — but who actually wants a society where it scarcely happens, let alone one where divorce becomes the norm? It would be pleasant to think of marriage as a rare case of individual optimism triumphing over mass, institutionalised cynicism.