It was November 1994 and it was my wedding day.
I stood at the front of the church with my best man and fidgeted. Then the organ groaned into action and Wagner’s Here Comes The Bride began playing.
I looked back down the length of the aisle towards my bride-to-be as she came through the church doors and advanced with her father towards the altar.
She looked glorious and excited. Even her usually grumpy father had a smile on his face. But I felt absolutely nothing.
I was marrying the wrong woman
I was expecting joy to flood through my veins, a delicious buzz of anticipation at the thought of a long and happy life together. This was my wedding day, for heaven’s sake.
But I felt nothing.
There was no buzz, no warm glow, just a steady trickle of panic as I realised that I was doing the wrong thing.
I was marrying the wrong woman.
That day was 24 years ago but I can still clearly remember the numbness I felt as my fiancee advanced down the aisle towards me with a big grin on her face, clearly enjoying her wedding day.
I suddenly felt lost. I couldn’t back out now.
I knew her father had spent a vast amount on the day’s celebrations, that her mother had spent months organising them, and that my parents had flown from overseas to be there.
Every relative I had ever met (and some I hadn’t!) was there, as were all my friends. I was trapped. I remember that my hands were clammy on a cool, winter’s day. There was no way out.
I only had myself to blame. I’d let myself be talked into marrying a woman of whom I was very fond but who I would never truly love.
We’d been a couple for two years and rented a flat together. But I’d lived with a woman before – it didn’t necessarily mean forever. Not for me, anyway. I was a serial monogamist before such terms became common vernacular.
I started to feel the heat
However, I was at the age where many of my friends were getting hitched. On average we were attending a wedding a month. Time was getting on, roots needed to be planted, a family considered.
But I felt in no great rush. I liked a little freedom; I didn’t feel ready for domestic bliss. However, my girlfriend started to drop heavy hints after every wedding.
I started to feel the heat. I may not have particularly wanted to get married but neither did I want to split up with her.
I even bought her an engagement ring, hoping to buy myself some time. There was external pressure too. My friends couldn’t understand why I was reluctant to marry her.
My girlfriend was very attractive, they said – I surely couldn’t do any better. I’d played the field enough, it was time to settle down.
I eventually, rather pathetically, buckled and proposed. She was so deliriously happy for a while I thought I’d done the right thing.
On such flimsy, ill-conceived notions are life-changing mistakes made.
Now, 20 years after the dissolution of that marriage, I am happier than ever. I am 54 and have two five-year-old daughters with Donna, my partner of 17 years.
We’ve been together for four times as long as my first marriage lasted. We’ve endured any number of setbacks and emerged stronger each time.
I adore her. She is the love of my life. Yet it is very unlikely that we will ever marry.
Why not? Well, there are a few reasons.
Why, for instance, would I want to mess with a domestic arrangement that works so well? Why waste money on a big wedding? Why risk all that I have by marrying?
I have become scared of marriage
Why do I use the word ‘risk’? Because that’s how I view marriage now, as a risk, as a hazard to avoid. I no longer see it as a bond that strengthens – I see it as an unnecessary administrative complication, as an institution that can cause relationships to fail.
I’ll go as far as saying that I have become scared of marriage.
Of course, my own marriage didn’t provide me with the most encouraging view of matrimony.
I entered into married life already knowing that I’d made a mistake. I was resentful because I’d felt pushed – pushed by my wife and my friends.
I hadn’t been ready. Neither, if she’s honest, was my wife. She was barely in her twenties when we married and hadn’t really lived. We very quickly developed quite separate lives.
She’d spend whole weekends away with her friends and family while I stayed at home working.
I supported her when she decided to go to college but, when I decided on a career change from working in the financial sector (great money but boring work) to helping set up a business in the music industry (terrible money, long hours but exciting work), the support was not reciprocated.
If that was marriage, I thought, you could stick it
She then embarked on an affair and I was brutally and summarily dumped, broke and homeless. If that was marriage, I thought, you could stick it.
I wasn’t the only one. Of the 21 marriages that I attended in the early 1990s only five have survived.
Most of the marriages only lasted long enough to produce a child before collapsing.
Two dear friends who had hitherto cohabited happily for five years didn’t even manage that – they separated suddenly after just 10 months of marriage.
Why had two people who seemed so suited fallen out so disastrously once married?
It really was matrimonial carnage in my circle of friends. And these people were not frivolous, flighty fly-by-nights.
Most of these couples were solid middle-class, conscientious types with good jobs and good hearts.
And then there were the subsequent divorces. Oh my, the savagery was fierce, the bloodletting profuse.
Our group of friends was splintered by the acrimony, never to recover.
My own divorce wasn’t that bloody as I couldn’t afford a solicitor to fight my corner – consequently, my ex-wife was merciless, leaving me with but a fraction of what I was due.
She wanted to be friends thereafter and didn’t seem to understand why I was reluctant to stay on friendly terms with someone who had deliberately made me homeless and then taken advantage of my impoverished state to fillet me in the divorce settlement.
Those were grim days indeed.
Divorce also triggers a sharp increase in the rate of suicide by men
Given that context, is it really so surprising that I have become terrified of marriage?
I have been so deeply scarred by my own disastrous attempt (and those of my friends) that I just cannot see past the horror that occurs when a marriage fails.
I know there are huge benefits to being married but logic doesn’t kick in when I think about the topic – fear does. But, contrary to all available evidence, I’m not stupid.
I do know that men benefit the most from marriage.
Surveys have shown that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce. Married men also live longer than men without spouses and the longer a man stays married, the greater his health advantage over his unmarried peers.
Married men also tend to make more money, perhaps because they have the incentive of having to provide for another person or a family. Furthermore, single and divorced men have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse and depression than married men.
This all makes perfect sense.
But I also know that research has proved that marital discord can take its toll on both happiness and health. Studies have linked stressful relationships to a 34% increase in the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Divorce also triggers a sharp increase in the rate of suicide by men, but not women.
This is an important detail.
Women are often portrayed as the touchy-feely sex but are much tougher than men when it comes to dealing with a failed relationship. They will be rational and sensible and just get on with things.
Men, however, tend to fall apart once our little world changes for good – we just don’t always care or dare to admit it.
I know from my own experience of divorce that there often seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. We do not deal well with wholesale change. The darkness really does descend.
If some men capitulate in the face of that misery and pain, I fully empathise.
Do the expectations of marriage weigh too heavily for some?
The benefits are inarguable but so are the downsides should a marriage disintegrate. And because I have seen few of the benefits and all of the downsides of marriage is it any wonder that I’m not its biggest fan?
Many argue that being married offers another layer of reinforcement to a relationship – that those who are married will fight harder to save their relationship should it founder.
That’s not been my experience.
Indeed I’ve seen enough marriages collapse to wonder if being married places extra pressure on a relationship to succeed to the point where it flips over into failure.
Do the expectations of marriage weigh too heavily for some? And are there many people, like me, who get married simply because they think they ought to?
Now I’m in a situation that many would suggest demands marriage.
I’m 17 years into a stable relationship with two young children – why not get married?
What would that change? For me, it would change everything. It would take this fantastic and happy relationship and immediately make it comparable to my dreadful first marriage.
It would place it in the same bracket. Why would I want a constant reminder of my past failure and weakness? What good could that possibly do?
Anyway, it’s clear that I’m not your typical male commitment-phobe (if there really is such a creature). I’ve been with Donna for 17 years. Like most couples we’ve been through incredibly rough patches. We struggled to have children for example – after years of trying we finally had twins in 2013.
And Donna nearly died after suffering a head injury while we were on holiday in America seven years ago.
We’ve both had career crises, fallen out with family members, and had stormy periods during which we’ve barely spoken to one another. I can’t speak for Donna but, however tough it got, at no point did I ever consider ending the relationship – we’ve both worked too hard at it to give up now.
But will I marry Donna?
Not just yet. I’m not totally ruling it out but I’ll need to master my fear first.