Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart

Opinion

Marry older, wiser and happier: 'Marriage is a total commitment'

Pick your partner later in life, and statistics show you've more chance of holding on to them

The wedding had all the stuff of fairytales.

Formula One heiress Petra Ecclestone married her prince charming, businessman James Stunt, in a lavish £12 million ceremony in an Italian castle, attended by royalty, with £4,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus flowing and live performances by Eric Clapton and the Black Eyed Peas.

Now, six years and three children later, the 28-year-old billionaire socialite and her 35-year-old husband are back in the spotlight, but it's far from a happily-ever-after ending. In reality, this story ends in an ugly divorce battle that looks set to become one of the biggest settlements in celebrity history.

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Marry in haste, repent at your leisure… it's a salutary lesson for young couples everywhere, filthy rich or not. And with Irish statistics showing that divorce rates have soared by 150pc since 2002, it looks like young people here are in no rush to commit themselves to love and to cherish all the days of their lives.

Figures show that today's young people are getting married almost ten years later than their parents. According to the Central Statistics Office, the average age for marriage between people of the opposite sex in Ireland in 2016 was 35.7 for men and 33.8 for women, up from 26.2 and 25.7 in 1977.

David O'Neill from Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, was 43 when he and wife Nicola, then 35, walked down the aisle two years ago. It was a first marriage for both, and they intend it to be their last.

"I left Ireland in 2002," says David. "I worked as a bar manager in Düsseldorf for nine years, then went to New Zealand. I had a few serious relationships, but they didn't work out, because I wasn't ready to commit.

"When I came home I worked for a while with a cousin of Nicola's, before going back to college. One day Nicola told her cousin that she found it hard to meet someone she could rely on. Her cousin said, 'I know someone!' and introduced us.

"We hit it off straight away. She had a son, Charlie, and he and I connected really well. After a while I said to Nicola, 'Look, I'm not getting any younger and I'm not messing about here. What's happening between us?' She was shocked. We married two years ago. Charlie's now 14, we have a daughter of 18 months and another baby due in November.

"I had resigned myself to never meeting anyone, and I would have been content enough with that, but deep down I always wanted to be married. I love the responsibility of belonging to a family. Both of us are Christian and marriage means a lot to us. It's a total commitment.

"I love that my life is not all about me anymore, it's 50:50. I wouldn't have had that maturity in my twenties or early thirties. I work with children with special needs, often on night shifts, while Nicola works days. It means I get to spend a lot of time with our own kids, which is great. I'm a hands-on dad, I love my wife and children, I have an obligation to them, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

As far as Nicola was concerned, she'd reached a point in her life where she'd had her fill of romancers and chancers, dreamers and schemers. It wasn't that she had any problem meeting men by the time David came on the scene, they just weren't the kind she wanted to settle down with.

"Because I had a child at 23, I grew up quite quickly," she says. "I had a son to consider, and guys my own age didn't have what I was looking for. However, so long as Charlie and I were okay, I was contented, so I wasn't actively looking for anyone when Dave came into my life.

"I was taken aback when he started talking about commitment, but being that bit older, he was very comfortable and confident in himself, and that made me respect him more. Now, he works nights and I'm on days, and when I come home, the dinner is made, the kids are fed and well looked after, and the place is clean. I'm so used to doing things on my own, I really appreciate that.

"I wasn't holding out for a prince. I wanted someone thoughtful, kind and genuine, and that's what I've got."

The pair may have stacked the odds in their favour for a long and happy marriage by not racing to the altar before now. According to relationships counsellor Lisa O'Hara, the person you pick as a partner in your forties is likely to be a lot different from one you'd have chosen in your twenties.

"At this time of life, you make decisions with your head as well as your heart, whereas younger people may believe that love will override everything," she says.

"Life teaches us that's not the case, so in your forties you're less blinkered. You become more discerning, and you know what kind of person will fit you well enough.

"You're more likely to ask questions about whether your values are the same. Do you have a similar approach to things, and do you have a real connection? It's not just about communication, it's being willing to hear the other person's side of things, and being genuinely interested in what they have to say.

"You're looking for things other than romance and physical attraction. Character and integrity become important qualities."

But not everyone is so pragmatic. There's no doubt that some people avoid commitment because they're holding out for Mr or Ms Right. According to Lisa, it's a futile exercise, because nobody will ever tick all the boxes.

"By chasing perfection, you put yourself under pressure," she says. "Sometimes when a relationship breaks down, it's not the partner who's let you down, it's your own expectations. There's no such thing as the perfect spouse, only one who's good enough. The question at any age is, can you handle good enough?"

As one who may have bucked the trend by marrying in haste at the age of 23 after six weeks of dating, I couldn't agree more. Now, 35 years later and still together, the smooth surface of our early relationship has been weathered by rough patches, occasional storms, winds of change and lots of sunshine to reveal far more interesting layers below. And that's good enough for me.

Read more: Bernie Ecclestone's daughter Petra in bitter divorce with husband of six years...with billions at stake