I travelled to Belfast at the weekend, but didn’t get much time to see the sights. I had been invited to appear as a guest on the BBC’s current affairs debate programme, Sunday Morning Live, which is filmed in Northern Ireland and broadcast across the UK on BBC1.
The programme’s host, Samira Ahmed, asked the question: “Has marriage had its day?” Last week a University of Leeds study found that, for the first time in the UK, cohabiting couples are as likely as married couples to have children.
We shouldn’t be surprised, because this trend is not particular to the UK. Across the western world, increasing numbers of couples are in cohabiting relationships. As a result, more than 40 per cent of children in those countries are being born to unmarried couples. The percentage of children born outside wedlock is believed to stand at 55 per cent in France, 55 per cent in Sweden and 66 per cent in Iceland.
What are the reasons for this? In some cases, couples are unable to marry because at least one of them is married to a previous partner. In other cases couples may wish to avoid the risk of divorce, with all its potential costs, or they may wish to protect a child’s inheritance from a second spouse. However I suspect that the majority of cohabiting couples are simply young people who “slide” into a relationship. They enjoy being with one another and it makes sense to live together, pooling living expenses away from their parents.
Some cohabiting couples view marriage as a costly expense to be avoided until they are absolutely certain that their relationship has a future. Some cohabiting couples (including some of our clients) have a genuine fear of being trapped by marriage. Some even fear that getting married will turn a good relationship bad.
There are many reasons why couples choose to cohabit, and I don’t criticise any of them, because people are entitled to live their lives as they wish. But I think there are major downsides.
Too often, cohabitees are ignorant of their position in law, particularly the precarious situation into which their children will be plunged if the relationship breaks down. Unlike married couples, cohabiting couples have limited legal rights and remedies. Their children do not enjoy the same protection in law. This lack of protective remedial law is a growing challenge, as lawyers and judges know well.
When two partners decide not to marry, I worry also about the legal implications of a partner’s death, inheritance tax and other circumstances set out in previous posts on this blog.
Samira Ahmed began the Sunday Morning Live debate by asking me, is marriage irrelevant?
You can watch my answer. I hope you enjoy the variety of views expressed on the programme, and please don’t hesitate to let me know your opinions too.