Long life

Wedding receptions make me wonder about the point of marriage

But then, they also keep my house running

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

Back from holiday in Italy, I look out of my kitchen window in Northamptonshire to find the country view blocked by an enormous marquee with red pennants flying from the top. People are bustling about, carrying boxes of cutlery, glasses and china. I suddenly remember that there is to be a wedding reception here tomorrow. I let people hold such receptions to help pay for the maintenance of two crumbling Inigo Jones pavilions, the surviving appendages of a 17th-century country house that was destroyed by fire in the 1880s. I charge for these events, but this is but a tiny proportion of the cost of the receptions for the couples concerned. They typically have sit-down suppers for over 100 people, and many more guests afterwards to dance till midnight to deafening rock music. I can easily believe the estimates in the press that the average cost of a wedding in Britain is now somewhere over £20,000.

It’s no fun being here when these noisy parties are going on; nor next morning to find my house surrounded by cars that have been left behind by drivers who have drunk too much the night before. Occasionally, I even find condoms in the flowerbeds. But there are compensations: first, the money; and second, the happiness of the wedding guests, who often express their appreciation in the most generous terms. Sometimes the very couples that have spent a small fortune on getting married even write me thank-you letters for letting them use this place. This makes me feel rather guilty.

On the other hand, the weddings are an essential source of income; so we try hard to get more couples to hold their receptions here. This is not easy. Not only are fewer people bothering to get married nowadays, but also the ‘events’ business is intensely competitive. The hard-pressed owners of country houses and other romantic places are increasingly seeking salvation in the marriage market. And at Stoke Park we don’t even have a licence to solemnise weddings, though lots of other places do, including the old Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, where some show-offs choose to get married on stage.

I sometimes wonder why couples bother with these huge wedding receptions at all, given that they have often been living together for years and have their teenage daughters as bridesmaids. But from America has come an exciting justification for it all. Research by the University of Virginia has found that the bigger the wedding, the more enduring the marriage. Apparently, making a commitment in front of lots of people encourages couples to stay together. According to this research, couples who have 150 guests or more at their wedding are much more likely to remain married than those who have 50 guests or fewer, 47 per cent compared with 31 per cent. One explanation offered was that couples who have plighted their troth before a large audience are more embarrassed about breaking up; another was that those who have lavish weddings are more likely to have large networks of friends and relations and therefore to get ‘more help and encouragement in navigating the challenges of married life’.

This is a selling point that hadn’t occurred to me. Tell people that the more money they spend on their wedding reception, the longer and happier their married life will be. I am not wholly convinced of this, however. It may be so with young couples who haven’t been living together before, but not, I would have thought, with couples who have been co-habiting for years: for them marriage is often a last-ditch attempt to reinvigorate a faltering relationship, and frequently it doesn’t work. And even the researchers in Virginia are not optimistic about the prospects of people who have been sleeping around before their marriage. ‘Having more relationship experience may lead to a greater sense of what the alternatives are,’ said Dr Galena Rhoades, the main author of their report. ‘If you have a greater sense of other options, it may be harder to invest in, or commit to, a marriage.’

Marriage has never been less popular. Statistics published early this year showed that there were only four million families in Britain that consist of a married couple with children, only 15.2 per cent of all families. Yet an awful lot of people still do get married. The main reason, I suspect, is that a wedding is about the only respectable excuse for most people to throw a lavish party that they cannot really afford.

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  • Kitty MLB

    Alexander, darling. You and I are of the same mind, how intriguing,
    and I am also glad you enjoyed Italy ( and decent coffee).
    Absolutely agree, bridesmaids resembling frilly curtains. Music at receptions can be pretty awful, all a bit sloshy. Admittedly Bach at a wedding wouldn’t be quite right but
    what about Jazz.? People ask ‘ what side are you on’ why? is war about to break out.
    Wedding gift lists.. a bugbear of mine. I’ve known people who have been living together for years who ask for toasters, duvet sets, coffee makers, crystal glasses etc
    I wonder how on earth they managed before getting married.
    Then the expense, a lot pay a fortune who cannot afford to do so..but you don’t need
    to feel guilty..it was their choice, not a money spending competition and if it doesn’t
    last, custody battles over the cat and crystal glasses will occur.
    Love and fidelity.. isn’t about materialism, or being showy or doing what society expects you to do.. but never mind !

    • Kenneth O’Keeffe

      The wedding list is an abomination – it’s in appalling taste – very bad form.

  • Doggie Roussel

    To my son’s and his exquisite French bride-to-be’s eternal credit they sneaked off to the local Mairie and had it all done (unannounced) and dusted in an hour with no expense to either set of parents.

    We combined to give them a frills-free, no bullshit shindig at a later date and everyone was happy.