How would you feel if your wife or husband woke up one morning and asked if you’d like to end your marriage and form a civil partnership instead?
Yes, that’s what the policy makers in Westminster are spending their hours worrying about at the moment. As civil partnerships become legal for heterosexual couples later this year, the thinking is that married hetero couples should have the opportunity to switch, just as same sex couples did when marriage was introduced.
If ever there an example of the foolishness of the wise, this is it. Instead of phasing out civil partnerships for same sex couples once the new marriage law came in – the simplest solution – the wise opted to expand civil partnership for everybody, spurred by a noisy legal challenge by one couple. Introducing a second version of marriage, but without calling it marriage, is producing complicated loose ends.
OK. I’m happy with the idea of civil partnerships for all, even if they are marriages by another name. I doubt more than a handful of couples will take them up, mostly due to supposed religious or patriarchal objections, but we will see. After all, most weddings are civil ceremonies anyway. So the religious link with marriage is long gone for most.
As for the supposed patriarchal link, where to start?
Power in a relationship rests with the person least committed, who has least to lose by behaving badly and thus controls the relationship. Marriage is precisely about equal life-long commitment and thus equal power. If anything is patriarchal, it’s cohabitation where commitment is much less clear and mutual. More often than not it’s the man who is least committed and who has the power. That’s real patriarchy right there.
When marriage was introduced for same sex couples, those in civil partnerships were allowed to upgrade to marriage for free because there was genuine demand for marriage which had not previously been available. There is and was a case for this.
Has there been any similar campaign of any kind for heterosexual married couples to switch to civil partnerships? Are there heterosexual married couples who have been dreaming of this moment in history when they can finally throw off the shackles of patriarchal marriage (into which they entered voluntarily by the way)? Maybe there is a handful somewhere among the twelve million or so.
Should they be accommodated? No.
Whereas entering marriage or civil partnership is about a clear and equal mutual lifelong commitment, switching is about ideology and opinion.
Individuals, their children, their families, society and the state all benefit when two adults decide and act by making a public commitment to one another. Their stability improves and the risk of family breakdown becomes lower. We research and write about this stuff. Entering marriage – and most likely this will also apply to civil partnership – is linked to greater stability.
In contrast, there is no reason to think that switching will do anything for stability. At very best it may satisfy a handful of ideologues. At worst it risks undermining stability among many more couples where one spouse wants to enforce a switch and the other does not.
There are many social justice issues that need to be tackled in Westminster. This is not one of them.
How about addressing the biggest social justice issue about marriage, that those with fewest resources – those on lower incomes – have been conned by those in positions of authority into thinking marriage doesn’t matter? Whereas three quarters of those in higher income groups – over £40k – are married if they have children, just one quarter in the lower incomes group – under £15k – are married.
Until the 1960s everybody married, rich and poor alike. Marriage goes with the grain of human nature, our need for reliable love. We get that love by making a mutual commitment to each other and then declaring it in public for all the world to see. Mostly it works.
Today, our public policy pays lower income couples not to marry. More benefits, tax credits, universal credit if you are on your own as a parent. It’s absolutely right that we should support lone parents. But it’s equally wrong that we should penalise parents who want to formalise their commitment, to the advantage of all.
So instead of wasting huge amounts of time worrying about a tiny number of couples who might feel pleased with themselves if they could downgrade their marriage to a civil partnership, how about focusing on the real injustice that penalises the huge number of poorest couples who might want to marry in the first place, but are bribed not to.
You have until the 20th August to comment on this nonsense if you wish.
Harry Benson, Research Director