The lazy thinking behind new proposals to give marriage-like rights to cohabiting couples

This month the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published proposals to give rights to unmarried cohabiting couples that are similar or equal

This month the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published proposals to give rights to unmarried cohabiting couples that are similar or equal to those accruing to married couples. Although this seems fair and reasonable on the face of it, the proposals risk undermining commitment, family stability and children’s well-being. 

The state regulates marriage to encourage fathers to bond with mothers while they bring up children. In one form or another, countries and societies have done this for millennia. Governments don’t regulate marriage because of love or fairness or equality. They do it because the psychology involved in the act of marriage actively enhances commitment. Marriage – by and large – is good for couples and their children.

The magic of marriage begins with the decision couples make to spend the rest of their lives together. That decision gives them a clear plan on which they are both agreed. It puts them on the same page. It sends a clear signal about their intentions that removes any lingering ambiguity that can undermine relationships. Having a clear sense of future allows couples to sacrifice and forgive without keeping score, key ingredients for a successful long-term relationship. The public celebration of this plan in front of family and friends further cements the bond, first by affirming the choice they have made to give up all the other choices, second by holding them to account and encouraging them to stick at it.

The evidence is clear. Those who marry are more likely to stay together and their children are more likely to prosper as a result. In several analyses of data from the Millennium Cohort Study, we found that married parents were more likely to stay together regardless of age, education, ethnicity, religion or happiness. The single biggest factor in the subsequent mental health of their teenagers was whether the parents lived together and had not split up.

Poverty is often cited as the root cause of most problems. This is only partly true. Family breakdown creates poverty just as poverty creates family breakdown. Marriage acts as a buffer that makes it more likely that couples, the poorest included, stay together and have the parental resources of two pairs of hands. In a recent analysis of data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, we found that the poorest parents were more likely to stay together than the richest unmarried parents in any given year.

We already have historically high levels of lone parenthood in our society. Parenting alone is a heroic task, doing all the things couples do but with only one pair of hands. The consequence is that lone parents typically have fewer resources of time and money. As a society we rightly choose to support lone parents to a far greater degree than couple parents. Yet few lone parents are there by choice.

It’s only in recent decades that unmarried cohabiting has emerged as a popular alternative to marriage, even if for many it’s now a pathway to marriage. Prior to the 1960s, unmarried cohabiting barely existed anywhere and almost all children were born to married parents. Freely available contraceptive birth control changed the game and is clearly here to stay.

Along the way, politicians and policy-makers have gradually eroded and undermined the distinctiveness of marriage compared to cohabitation. The result has been rising levels of lone parenthood. Since the 1990s, our tax system has treated cohabiting couples as ‘living together as if married’. Government forms do the same. Although there is a perfectly reasonable case for same sex marriage encouraging stability for the benefit of children, this was never the argument made in bringing in new laws. It was about fairness and love, neither of which are the primary reasons governments regulate marriage.

These new proposals, which in essence reflect similar proposals made by the Law Commission in 2007, would further undermine the specific act of commitment that benefits couples and children if enacted. The committee propose an opt-out clause as a sop to those who wish to avoid taking on the legal rights and protections of being married. Yet it’s precisely the opt-in nature of the act of marriage that makes the difference. I made this point in giving evidence to the committee and am even quoted in the report as such. They have ignored it.

It is telling that although eight out of ten cabinet ministers are married, not one has given a speech extolling the virtues of marriage in the past decade. Hopefully with a new prime minister and new cabinet on their way, one of them will have the guts to stand up for marriage and reject these foolish proposals. What is so important in their private lives should surely be of equal importance in our public policy. 

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