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Living in sin?

Church bells, champagne, flowers in lapels, bright pavilions on summer lawns, drunken uncles dancing….yes, I am thinking about weddings. Marriage is one of the most basic of all social institutions and so one that is very easy to take for granted. We rarely stop and ask ourselves ‘what’s it actually for?’ That is not an easy question to answer.

Not so long ago, marriage was taken absolutely for granted. It was the sine qua non of living together and having children.

To be born out of wedlock was to be stigmatised, unmarried mothers were castigated and living together without a marriage certificate was ‘living in sin’. Such attitudes now seem harsh and alien but were common within living memory.

Sometime in the 1950s, social attitudes began a long and slow change. By the following decade, a few pioneer couples had begun to experiment with living together, but it was still a rare practice: fewer than one in 100 according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. Since then the number of people moving in together has increased exponentially. By 2011 it was up to one in six! That’s quite a leap.

Now comes news that, for the first time ever, cohabiting couples are as likely as married ones to have children. The research, from the University of Leeds, revealed that in 2011, an equal 38 per cent of married and unmarried couples were parents. The number of cohabiting couples with children reportedly increased 34 per cent in the decade to 2011: I figure I do not find at all hard to believe, given the number of questions I regularly receive on the legal status of cohabitation.

Meanwhile, the number of married couples with dependent children actually fell over the same decade I think that could well be a sign of things to come – perhaps it won’t be long before the number of children born to unmarried couples actually overtakes those born to married ones.

We are just not as transfixed as we once were by old attitudes and ageing traditions that seem to have little relevance to life in the 21st Century. Just as divorce is no longer a scandalous rarity, modern couples see no reason to rush up the aisle, no reason they shouldn’t try each other out for a while and find out just how compatible they really are. In my view as a family lawyer this represents a welcome dose of realism and a move away from the fairy tales of old. Why marry if you’re only going to get divorced a few years later?

But…..yes, there’s always a but, isn’t there? In fact I’d like to add two ‘buts’ here. Firstly, cohabitation is not the most stable option of children. The Leeds research highlights the perhaps unsurprising fact that cohabiting couples with children are more likely to split up than married ones. Is this because marriage is a magical glue that holds couples together? Of course not. I suspect it is simply because couples who do feel willing to tie the knot feel a greater sense of commitment to each other.

And here’s the other ‘but’: a disappointingly high proportion of the couples questioned in the study were poorly informed about their rights. More than a quarter believed they had the same rights as married couples in relation to their children, and only slightly less believed they did in relation to property and money (22 and 21 per cent respectively).

None of this comes as much of a surprise to me, and nor will it come as much of a surprise to anyone who has read several previous posts on this blog – for example, this one. This latest research is still more evidence of the pressing need for a change to English law.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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