‘We’ll be married 31 years. You’d get less for murder’

Hilary Fannin: So many friends tied the knot in their early 20s. How are they still hitched?

Path to marriage: the maze of social mores in the 1980s led to a canter down the aisle at a tender age

Path to marriage: the maze of social mores in the 1980s led to a canter down the aisle at a tender age

 

We were walking fast around the rose garden in the park, sweeping past fat, fading dusty-pink blossoms, their heads bowed and lilting, like bloated bridesmaids after one too many mojitos.

“It’s our wedding anniversary next week,” my companion said. “We’ll have been married 31 years. Thirty-one years! You’d get less for murder.”

My friend is not unhappily married. As far as I’m aware she has no pressing desire to pack up her nonstick saucepans, her air fryer, her family albums and her garden parasol and once again embrace singlehood, a state she hasn’t known since dinosaurs roamed Earth.

It struck me recently that I seem to know an inordinate number of women who married when they were in their early 20s. Gobsmackingly or not, many of those marriages have survived.

It seems to me there was a well-trodden path through the maze of social mores in this country around the 1980s that, for many, led to a canter down the aisle at the tender age of twentysomething. It was a path I myself never quite managed to navigate.

You enthusiastically practised your shorthand and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the back of his rusting Capri or, occasionally, in a wet tent in Lisdoonvarna

The trajectory would begin when, still at convent school, you’d meet some bloke under a disco ball. Then followed the secretarial course or nursing degree while you diligently and enthusiastically practised your shorthand and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the back of his rusting Capri or, occasionally, in a wet tent in Lisdoonvarna. Then throw in another year or two of stolen moments in his Tintawn-carpeted box bedroom while his mother was under a hairdryer in the salon over the butcher’s, having her perm soldered on to her suspicious noggin.

Inevitably, though, all that sneaking around finally gets to you, so, one wet day coming up to Christmas, you visit the Happy Ring House and get engaged. Next thing you know you’re munching a celebratory Hawaiian burger and drawing up the wedding list. And, hey presto, the following summer Auntie Lil and Uncle Ed are eating chicken’n’chips in a basket while the band plays Lionel Richie’s greatest hits, the groom’s mother takes to the floor in her slingbacks and satin bolero, and at twentysomething years old you are the new Mrs McMissus.

30 years ago, when you had to knit your own condoms, sex very often meant marriage, if only to have somewhere private to lie down and take the weight off your ardour

All right, maybe it’s facetious to sprinkle my entire generation with the same grubby confetti. The above would so often be just the surface story, and, of course, other choices were made back in those days of mass unemployment and parachute pants. But get enough fiftysomething women together around a table, throw in a couple of bottles of vinho verde, and many will say that 30 years ago in this country, in an era when you had to knit your own condoms, sex very often meant marriage, if only to have somewhere private to lie down and take the weight off your ardour.

It interests me how many of these marriages have survived. It’s a mystery to me how decisions made at the tender, hormonally supercharged age of 20 could have had the emotional ballast to weight a union of three decades (although, admittedly, many of these unions did prove unsustainable, the participants watching more than a decade slip by before they could be legally dissolved).

Fifteen years ago I moved back to the area I spent my teens in, where I regularly bump into old school friends in bars and supermarkets. Sometimes they introduce me to their husbands – “You remember Paul/Padraig/Peter?” – who is often someone I vaguely recognise, although the last time I saw him he was perched on a Yamaha 125, looking ever so fetching in his AC/DC T-shirt.

The last time I saw her husband he was perched on a Yamaha 125, looking ever so fetching in his AC/DC T-shirt

I ran into one of those friends recently. We’d been in low babies together, and when I look at her now I can still see her in her big grey gaberdine, her brown eyes sparkling. She, too, married young. She told me that her daughters have grown up and left home. She misses them, yes, but she described this juncture of her life as a halcyon time for herself and her husband, a new beginning after three decades of marriage.

“Thirty-one years!” my companion was saying as we walked through the park, watching the roses fading. “Where did the bloody time go?”

Would you make the same choice again, I asked her.

“Would I marry him again?” she said, laughing. “Would he marry me, you mean?”

“Yes,” she added. “I probably would.”

We walked on, looking at the wilting flowers, still beautiful despite their slow, blowsy decay, gamely keeping their heads aloft on their thorny branches.

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