Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Marriage Foundation – on solid ground?

The recently launched Marriage Foundation, brainchild of Paul Coleridge, High Court Judge, aims to champion long-lasting, stable relationships within marriage and establish marriage as a “gold standard” to which people should aspire in terms of their personal relationships.

The foundation speaks of the benefit of marriage in terms of higher income and accumulation of wealth, improved health and happier relationships when compared to those relationships outside marriage. The foundation also notes the legal protection afforded to married couples in terms of their financial entitlements and the intentional act of commitment that marriage requires – as opposed to people “sliding into relationships that prove unstable”.
I must say, it is unusual for a member of the judiciary to so publicly raise such an issue and to seek to do something about it but is the foundation on solid ground?
The statistics are notable, a lowering in the rate of marriage, an increase in cohabitation, a higher proportion of cohabiting couples separating than that of married couples and 70% of young offenders coming from single parent families (no specific mention of whether that was as a result of a breakdown of marriage or cohabitation).
Cross-national studies show that “much can be done to improve child wellbeing through economic and other supports where the institution of marriage has seriously weakened and cohabitation has become common. But even in nations that have the most extensive welfare measures, such as the Scandinavian countries and France, a substantial gap in child wellbeing remains between those children who grow up in intact families, and those who do not… all the evidence we have shows that individuals fare best, both in childhood and in later life, when they benefit from the economic and emotional investments of their natural parents who reside together continuously and cooperate in raising them.” Popenoe, D. 2009. Social Science and Public Policy. Vol 46, Number 5, pp. 429-436. – that is not to say married or unmarried but both natural parents.
It is estimated that the cost to society in this country from family breakdown amounts to £44bn per year.
And yet, I am concerned by some of the statistics and whether in fact it is not simply marriage that must be aspired to but a stable and committed relationship (be that within marriage or not).
Certainly it is the case that married couples account for the majority of births, some 54% (cohabitants contributing 40%) and a larger proportion of cohabiting couples separate than married couples, 59% as against 20% but is it just too simplistic to suggest that advocating marriage as the “gold standard” will help solve the problem?
There are certainly some benefits to marriage, from the point of view of legal status and rights that flow as a result of marriage, that are not present with cohabiting couples, whether they understand it or not.

One of the aims of the foundation is to educate people about these issues, presumably with a view to encouraging marriage as a concept, but surely people who enter a marriage do so for reasons other than the legal status and financial protection that it provides. I doubt that if a bride or groom were asked why they were marrying that this would spring to mind! How successful then will such education be in encouraging people towards marriage, bearing in mind the other considerations that will also necessarily come into play (cost, personal experience etc.).
The same could be said of the argument that married couples have happier relationships and are healthier – whatever the research says, how likely is it that someone will marry their partner (who they are happy with) simply because they believe that they will be happier or healthier?
Even if there is some success and more people do marry, the Divorce rate rose by nearly 5% in 2010 on the rate for 2009 (the latest available data) – marriage might well be more stable than cohabitation at this stage but being married clearly is no guarantee of stability or of children being raised by both parents.

Far more important, in my view, is people’s attitude towards relationships, the commitment that they have to their partner and their willingness and ability to “weather the storms” that they will suffer married or not.
Willingness to work through problems or weather the inevitable storms cannot, I suspect, be influenced from the outside, save perhaps if there was some penalty or consequence, be that some stigma, financial consequence or otherwise.
It used to be the case in our society that Divorce was seen as something to be frowned upon and the respective parties, as a result, had to go to great lengths to prove that they were the innocent party – society’s perception of you was very important. Those days have passed and whilst Divorce is no means encouraged (nor should it be) the stigma associated with it has gone. I, for one, hope that it never returns.
There remains a financial consequence to separation, of course, perhaps even more severe in these harder economic times and yet the divorce rate rises – the assumption must be that people don’t consider the financial implications of Divorce a sufficient penalty or bar.
The process of Divorce itself is, as Sir Nicholas Wall put it recently, “an administrative process masquerading as a judicial one” – he advocates a case for “no-fault divorces”, a more streamlined process where no blame or fault need be mentioned. The government has no plans to reform the current process at the moment but it appears clear that if there is to be reform, the idea is that the process will become simpler – no incentive there then to get through those storms.
The ability to weather storms and work through difficult and stressful situations is an entirely different matter. There may be methods of improving people’s skills in this area.

I am not aware of any service offered to couples getting married to provide them with the skills they will require or to encourage them to contemplate how they would approach things. The same can be said for couples starting cohabitation or indeed in our society as a whole – these personal skills don’t really feature in any curriculum.
Of course, those couples marrying in church receive some religious guidance from their priest but how much of that involves the teaching of skills and real coping strategies? Those entering civil ceremonies receive no guidance.
Often the first input that couples have, married or otherwise, with such issues arrives when there are already problems and when they themselves ask for help. That is not to say that those relationships cannot be saved and I know of many who have but I suspect that those who ask for or accept help for relationship difficulty are in the minority – most struggling to resolve matters on their own, without the necessary skills and often with children in tow.

Would it not be better to focus on providing the skills and understanding that people will need to make their relationships successful – whether they choose to marry or not? I consider that this would go a long way towards more stable relationships developing.
In terms of the children, it cannot be disputed that those children who grow up with the love and support (financial and emotional) of both parents living together do better generally and the statistics regarding youth crime speak for themselves, with the overwhelming majority of young offenders coming from broken families.

What is less clear is whether it makes any difference, from the point of view of the child, whether their parents are married or not. What surely would make a difference is their sense of security, which they would understand from their day to day experiences of the parental relationship.
Whist I applaude Mr Coleridge and his supporters for raising the issue of family breakdown and support marriage wholeheartedly I remain unconvinced that we can shoehorn society into marriage and suggest that this will mean more stable relationships.
People are unique, their life experiences varied and their resources and needs differing.
Surely education from the start about respect for others, tolerance, persistence and understanding would have more of an impact?

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