The coalition has broadened the institution of marriage. It must now be wary of proposals to undermine it
Increasing evidence shows that marriage is good for the two people it joins together and good for society. Once an instinct derived from tradition and religion, the benefits of marriage have been confirmed by extensive social research in many parts of the world. The stability of married relationships when compared to cohabiting couples does not just reflect the obvious fact that people more likely to stay together are also more likely to marry. The decision to embrace marriage can change those who make the decision and leave them more determined to stay together.
Deciding to get married is a different and more reflective process than a slide into cohabitation. The wedding ceremony, its public vows and the involvement of other people in the relationship help to explain why marriages tend to endure longer and provide more stability for children than the average unmarried couple.
This newspaper’s support for the institution is one of the reasons why we backed the legislation that has given gay couples the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. At the core of a strong, caring society are healthy, stable marriages.
Increasing numbers of British people, however, are choosing not to marry. More than five million who live in England and Wales cohabit. That is an increase of more than a fifth since the turn of the century. Most young people live together before getting married. Some never marry and continue to live together. In a far-reaching speech in London yesterday, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, called on policymakers to do more to provide a fairer legal settlement to those who decide not to marry.
We are sympathetic to his concern that long-term cohabitees have few or no legal rights when their relationship breaks down. This contrasts with clear rights over matrimonial assets when a married relationship breaks down. For Sir James this is an intolerable “injustice”. He found it “inconceivable” that society would not eventually address it and went on to express disappointment that successive governments have not done so yet. Reform, he concluded, was “inevitable”.
Most people will readily agree that there is indeed injustice in, for example, a woman who may have spent many years bringing up her and her companion’s children losing any right to a share of the assets that her partner built up during their time together. It is harder, however, to judge the legal right to assets in situations when couples have been together for only a short period and the date at which their cohabitation began is unknown or disputed. Moreover, some worry that it is illiberal to impose rights and responsibilities on a couple who may deliberately have never chosen to formalise their relationship.
A marriage certificate remains the best legal protection for both members of a relationship and marriage loses its unique importance in a society if its advantages and protections become available to anyone. There are good reasons why, despite Sir James’s disappointment, politicians have recognised this area of family law as a minefield.
Sir James’s recommendation that couples who do not have children should be able to end their marriages in a quick, simple and “over the counter” way is more straightforward and possesses considerable merit. If two adults have decided to separate, and there are no implications for children, the state should not add unnecessary cost or delay to the process.
Many of society’s greatest social problems are defeated by strong families and worsened by family breakdown. Policymakers should do nothing to inadvertently weaken the bonds that keep parents together. The advantages of marriage are already available to any couple. They just have to get married first.