Congratulations to Cheryl Cole on her marriage to dishy French restaurateur Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after a whirlwind romance of just trois months. Being myself a rather less flighty type, who took 11 years to be persuaded that actually I couldn’t do any better, I thought I wouldn’t approve of such heady precipitousness. But to my surprise, there is just enough romance in my soul to think that if a girl is going to experience a classic coup de foudre, then let it be with a quadruple-barrelled Frenchman.
They met in the glitz of Cannes; they shacked up within weeks; they married in haste. What elan! What passion! What could possibly go wrong? In truth, nothing any more cataclysmic than what can happen to the rest of us who live together for years first. Those who rub along through happenstance or habit, then suddenly realise no one’s getting any younger and scramble to get married and pregnant are no more or less likely to make a success of their relationship than the eyes-across-a-crowded-room brigade.
“There are no rules about what is right or wrong when making decisions of this sort,” says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “The two factors that come into play when it comes to timing are your personal experience of previous relationships and instinct. Some people are in touch with their instincts; they listen to them, they trust them and they allow them to play a powerful role in determining what they do and when they do it.” Official figures show that couples in the UK now have on average three “try before you tie” years living together before getting hitched. Conventional wisdom, previously backed up by longitudinal studies, was that cohabiting before marriage puts couples at greater risk of divorce. But more in-depth research from the US, published in March, revealed that this was not the case. The deciding factor was the age of the bride and groom; those who get together young are most likely to live together first and only get married when she becomes pregnant. The younger the couple, the less likely the union is to survive. For every year a woman waits beyond 30, the greater her chances of staying married. Assuming, that is, she gets married: the unhappily unattached can vouch for the fact that after a certain age finding a perfect mate is no longer a given.
Cole, 31, may be divorced but if anything she is even more alluring than when she was teetering around town, relegated to little more than her footballer ex-husband Ashley’s eye candy. I’ve always had a soft spot for Cole, the nation’s doe-eyed sweetheart, with her extravagant hair extensions and soft Geordie accent and such reliable-and-pretty crying on The X Factor (bearing in mind that she wasn’t actually a hopes-and-dreams-crushed contestant, she was a judge).
Given the overnight nature of X Factor fame, perhaps it was only fitting that, when she met Jean-Bernard, 33, at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the effect of Cupid’s arrow was instant. It really was love at first sight. The pair apparently wed on a white beach on Mustique, in front of a handful of friends and family, in stark contrast to her flashy, £1 million (Dh6.2 million) OK! Magazine deal when she married Ashley in 2006. She filed for divorce four years later, when she discovered the defender had been playing away from home, and subsequently dated a couple of male dancers but — I don’t know about her — our hearts weren’t in it.
Star in ascent
Professionally, her glittering rise to fame as a member of Girls Aloud was followed by a solo career. She was such a popular addition to The X Factor that she was brought over to the US to appear on the 2011 American version. But, humiliatingly, she was then sacked by Simon Cowell before the show went on air. Such is the parabola of modern celebrity that since then she has revived her singing career and had an unimaginably huge tattoo of red roses inked across her derriere. Having been persuaded to rejoin the judging panel of the next series of X Factor, it was evident that her star was in the ascendant, but she’s now trumped that with a tasteful princess-cut diamond on her ring finger and a French husband. And who could fail to wish her well this time round? “There’s some evidence to show that some second marriages are more likely to be successful than first marriages,” says Relate counsellor Christine Northam. “As we grow older and our life experience broadens, many people find their needs and desires change. Coupled with the pressures of everyday life, it’s not surprising that not all relationships go the distance.”
Notably disastrous whirlwind romances have included those of Britney Spears, who married a childhood friend on a whim in Vegas and had the marriage annulled 55 hours later, and ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, who married an Italian tycoon she had met in a nightclub weeks previously, and divorced him three months afterwards. A moment of madness also swept away actress Renee Zellweger, who married country singer Kenny Chesney after a four-month courtship, then filed for an annulment 128 days later, on the grounds of “fraud”. “I made the biggest personal mistake of my life. I felt a fool,” she said afterwards. “I was looking for something else, I was going through huge life changes at the time.” And who could forget Tom Cruise leaping on to Oprah Winfrey’s sofa and declaring his love for Katie Holmes, to whom he proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower after a two-month romance? It was almost six years before they filed for divorce. Russell Brand and Katy Perry only managed 14 months, having met in September 2009 and got engaged that December.
More stylishly, Elizabeth Taylor, who married eight times and had seven husbands (Richard Burton she, of course, wed twice), once got engaged, then unengaged, to two different men in one six-month period.
Feelings of love
But, although spontaneous marriages have a patchy track record, research shows that arranged marriages tend to have greater longevity and inspire greater affection. Harvard academic Dr Robert Epstein, who studied the subject of arranged marriages for eight years, looked at the approaches taken in cultural groups including Indian, Pakistani and Orthodox Jews, and compared his findings with 30 years of research into Western marriages. He concluded that within 10 years, those who had their marriages arranged had a stronger relationship. Feelings of love in spontaneous matches begin to fade by as much as half in 18 months, whereas in the arranged marriages it tends to grow gradually, surpassing the love in unarranged marriages at around the five-year mark. Ten years on, the affection felt by those in arranged marriages was typically twice as strong.
Dr Epstein believes this is because Westerners leave their love lives to chance or fate, often confusing love with lust, whereas those in other cultures look for more than just passion. “The idea is we must not leave our marriages to chance. We plan our education, our careers and our finances but we’re still uncomfortable with the idea that we should plan our love lives,” he said. “In arranged marriages, thought goes into the matching. In the West, physical attraction is important. But people must be able to distinguish lust from love. Strong physical attraction is very dangerous. It can be blinding.”
It’s a view very much shared by Blair, who points out the difference between irresistible attraction and selfless devotion. “There’s a big difference between passion and love,” says Blair, author of The Key to Calm: Your Path to Mindfulness — and Beyond. “Passion is about reproduction and is determined by scent; if your partner’s scent matches your own immune system, then it is a predictor of strong, healthy offspring. Love is something else: it’s less overwhelming and far more difficult, but also much more rewarding. It’s about being willing to put the needs of the other person before your own.” Just as passion wears off, something deeper and more meaningful takes its place. But, Blair adds, some fortunate couples do manage to maintain passion while love grows. Let us hope then that in Jean-Bernard our Cheryl has met her soulmate and that, once the tumultuous whirlwind of wooing has blown over, married life will prove to be a more traditional bed of roses.