Any family lawyer who has chalked up a few years in the profession will be very aware of one particular social trend of recent decades: the rise of cohabitation, and this is certainly a subject I have written about more than once.
The number of people in the UK cohabiting rather than tying the knot has more than doubled in a decade, according in to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). One in six couples now live together – an enormous leap from the 1960s when the figure was less than one in 100. Married and unmarried couples are now also equally likely to be parents – an equal 38 per cent of married and unmarried couples were parents in 2011.
What is fuelling this seemingly unstoppable aversion to formal marriage? Social changes have been a major factor of course. Since the 1960s, western society has become increasingly less hidebound, less mesmerised by traditional ways of doing things. Once many people got married because there was no other socially acceptable option open to them. Now people feel free to ignore such strictures. For many, marriage is associated with tradition and the establishment – abstract and remote structures that seem to have nothing to do with their private relationships.
Others, I am very sure, feel uneasy about marriage because they spent a chunk of their own childhoods watching their parents divorce – perhaps angrily and unhappily. In other words they come from so-called ‘broken homes’ and so they decide, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they do not want to invite any more of such stress into their lives. It’s definitely more difficult to embark on the uncertainties of married life if you have no positive role model to draw upon.
But as every family lawyer in the land will confirm – at length! – avoiding marriage may seem like a freewheeling choice but it creates many problems. Myths abound about the legal status of cohabitation – as anyone who has seen me discuss the subject on This Morning, there is no such thing, for example, as a ‘common law wife’.
Divorce law in England and Wales assumes marriage in the division of property and assets. We still provide no legal recognition for people living together and so they have no specific legal rights even if they have been together for decades. Scotland is a little more advanced in this respect: the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 introduced some limited rights for cohabitants north of the border.
In a new and interesting article in the New York Observer, journalist Rose Surnow examines the state of play in the US, reporting on the experiences of young couples for whom cohabiting seemed so natural that they never stopped to question it – only to encounter confusion and uncertainty when their relationships came to an end.
A man who experienced an acrimonious spit with his unmarried partner concludes:
“I understand the value of marriage, because the commitment is on paper and there’s a legal process to getting out of it. When you’re not married, it’s really … There was no process to go through.”
“I come from divorced . My mom has been married three times and my dad is gay, so I just don’t come from marriage, from a family of marriage, where it’s an institution that’s been around, much less venerated.”
Unsurprisingly that particular gentleman wasn’t especially motivated to marry his girlfriend, even when she became pregnant. But by the time they broke up, 18 months after the birth of their child, his views had changed.
“After going through this whole thing, I actually now think marriage would help, like taking that extra step is empowering for some reason. For me, at this point, I think it would encourage me to work it out and stay together.”
Ay, there’s the rub! As the journalist rightly points out, cohabiting are statistically more likely to split up than their married friends and neighbours – six times more likely if a survey by the Jubilee Centre is anything to go by.
So what, in the end, is the point of not marrying? You are more likely to end up parting from your significant other and more likely to run into serious problems obtaining a fair financial settlement. Perhaps walking down the aisle isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence