In July 1943 my father got weekend leave from his war service as a ground crew mechanic in the Royal Air Force in the North of Scotland, took a train journey, which took some eight hours to his home town in the North of England, and on the Saturday morning married my mother at one of the local Methodist churches. After the briefest of honeymoons – there was no way, given the circumstances at the time, that a trained mechanic could be spared from his duties for long – he was back on the train to Scotland. They would not see each other again for four months.
They were undoubtedly fond of each other, and stayed together through thick and thin, before he succumbed to heart disease in 1988. They were married, happily, then for over 44 years, and despite all the travails that you encounter in any marriage, there were never any obvious disputes and there was always a very obvious affection between them. They successfully raised two very different children (my sister left school at fifteen, married at the age of nineteen and went on to have a family of her own. I was the first member of our extended family to get a university degree), bought a small house, stayed on good terms with all members of the family on both sides, and generally served the community as the good citizens that they both were.
After his death, my mother would spend hours musing over the many small gifts that he gave her, and reminiscing about his kindness and generosity of spirit. In the twelve years that she lived as his widow, she remained devoted to his memory.
Was their marriage really worth it? I think that there is no question about it, of course it was.
I would add at this point though, even though I am obviously biased, that they were by no means exceptional. It may have been a “generational thing”, but all my uncles and aunts seemed to be in similar relationships. We came from a modest working-class community in the North of England, where nobody had any great pretensions, but devoted affection and commitment to marriage were the norm almost without fail. They may have had ideas which reflected their generation which would be difficult to accept now (women were expected to stay home and bring up children, at least until they could cope on their own – which meant in their teenage years, not before), but this seemed to cause no strains upon their relationships.
So have things changed that much since? My generation seems to have encountered many of the problems that were not features of married life before – infidelity, spousal abuse, high divorce rates. For all that I can still quote success stories. As of the time that I am writing, my sister has been married for 44 years (not least due to her commitment and her ability to fight for what she believes in). Her daughter, my niece, has been happily married to her childhood sweetheart for over 10 years. One of my closest friends at university married at the age of 21, had four daughters, several grandchildren, and had built a highly successful career as an IT Manager before his life was tragically cut short by liver cancer in 2007.
I can quote so many good examples. Yes, it is never easy to make all the sacrifices, to compromise over issues which are maybe too important to you personally, to battle constantly against ever-increasing financial difficulties – but a lot of people do manage it, and are worthy of our praise for doing so.
I do not see it as a question of “marriage not being worth it”, of marriage being a failed institution. It is more a question of making bad choices, often when we are still immature, and rushing into relationships without giving ourselves time to find out if we really know the person that we are choosing to marry. It also seems to be a fact that people have become far too impatient, and expect too much.
My parents’ generation were inclined to have longer-term expectations, to find fault in themselves when something went wrong (it is amazing how significant the word “sorry” can be in a relationship), and to make more allowances for their partner’s needs. Maybe young people need now to talk to their grandparents before embarking upon committed relationships. Perhaps they can learn and adapt, and make their marriages worthwhile experiences.