"Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream" -- Malcolm Muggeridge

It is estimated that by the year 2020, 21% of women over 40 in the US will never have been married. And I think I will be one of them.

I remember being thirteen, stuck in a home ec class at school, and being the only one with my arms clamped firmly to my sides when the teacher asked for a show of hands on who wanted to get married in the future. Every arm in that class shot up in the air - from the widest wide boy to the most intelligent girl, they all wanted the same thing. I just stared in amazement, and all eyes were focused on me. Everyone wanted to know why I didn't want to, and I so wished then that I could have offered them an obvious and acceptable answer like I came from a broken home. But I didn't *at the time ha-ha* so I couldn't.

And now I find myself actually at an age where things such as marriage is a possibility, and it's become no less of a challenge to try and explain my position on the marriage phenomena. I blink, stunned, at the engagement of a friend and her boyfriend of 2 years, somehow now elevated above us all to the mythical status of 'fiancée'. I wonder how I can offer my genuine congratulations at their love, express my delight at their happiness when they are doing something that in respect of my own life, I so thoroughly disagree with. Like the possible intention to remain childfree, it is a sensitive subject, and a hard one to touch. People can be very protective of their life choices, and it is hard to express your desire to remain unmarried without people who have not made the same choice feeling that you are in some way looking down over what they have chosen. They wonder why you don't hold the same opinion as them, why their choice wasn't good enough for you, too.

But there is a lot that I don't understand. I don't understand people's joy and excitement towards this ritual, I don't understand the fuss and ceremony that surrounds it, and I don't understand, plainly and simply, why people feel the need. Oh I know all the arguments, about commitment, stability, a home for children, moving the relationship into a deeper standing (sort of like quicksand, that one. Once you've got in, hard to get out.....) etc etc, what I don't understand is the need for public and lawful declaration of this. As if these things cannot be done without the white dress, (or in my friend's case, a white vinyl no doubt) arguing relatives at the reception, and $19,000 (the average cost of a wedding these days in the US).

I am told that marriage is a logical progression once the 'right person' comes along. It is certain that 'love' seems to be the most cited reason to trip down the aisle (well, now that the married couple's tax allowance has been stopped, anyway), it feels natural, it feels 'right'. "I know you want to spend the rest of your life with me Darling, but do give me an extremely expensive diamond ring to prove it." Show me ten blushing married couples to be and in ten years I'll give you back eight who have said that marriage permanently changed the other. People fall into roles, get complacent, and try to live up to what is expected of them as a husband or wife and fail. A popular myth about marriage is that it is more likely to make you work at a problem, rather than just pack your bags and leave when things go wrong. Ha. Only if you would have anyway, and it often has the opposite effect of making people (especially women) feel trapped in a violent or simply loveless relationship. The memories of your vows hang over your head... As if we need anymore reason to make people feel incompetent and stifled.

Feminist arguments abound, of course, against the tradition of marriage. Marriage was originally a union conceived as a way of passing property, land and wealth to a male heir when there were only biological daughters. Marry them off and their bodies, rights and property all become possessions of their husband. Nothing to do with love. Consider a wife's official (in the eyes of the law) title these days, unchanged since the beginnings of marriage - 'Mrs. John Smith' - the whole of the woman's identity consumed by her husband's. She is nothing without him. These ideas are continued today in the customs and traditions surrounding marriage, especially in strict religious or developing countries. Dowries, prohibitive divorce laws, draconian punishments for adultery (for the woman - restrict her sexuality and bingo - never the man), absurd 'virginity tests', all serve to bind the woman to the wills of her father and husband.

In Western countries these traditions are more subtle, but no less evident. Consider the meaning of the veil, for example, the 'giving away' of the bride by her father, the woman's vow to 'obey', or the desire for brides to wear white, that symbol of blessed virginity in these co-habiting days, where 85% of couples have lived together before they tie the knot? (Ever wondered why it's called that, by the way? Remind you of nooses at all?)

But that all leaves me with a problem, because it is never the people who follow the trodden path that have to explain. I still want to know why, but I don't think I'm going to get any answers. Perhaps I'll just have to stick to a quote from Four Weddings & a Funeral that has stuck in my mind for the last few months: "Couples wake up one day and realize that they have exhausted all available topics of conversion, they simply have nothing left to talk about whatsoever. So they get married, in order that they will have something to talk about for the rest of their lives."

Marriage has been on the decline during the early 1990s. In 1992 46,000 couples were married; during 1992-95 the number of weddings fell by one third. In 1993, there were 299,197 marriages and a record 165,000 divorces.

'A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards.' George Eliot