John Bolch on the myths of marriage

Relationships|May 19th 2014

When Sir Paul Coleridge retired from the judiciary last month I said on my blog that this would enable him to freely put forward his views, particularly on marriage. It hasn’t taken him long to get into the news, with an interview in The Sunday Times over the weekend.

Sir Paul is the founder and chairman of The Marriage Foundation, an organisation which aims to “champion long-lasting, stable relationships within marriage”. It was his promotion in the media of his belief in traditional marriage that led to him receiving a warning from the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office last December and, ultimately, to his early retirement from the judiciary.

The Marriage Foundation’s support for marriage is founded upon the view that marriage per se is a more stable relationship than cohabitation (and therefore a ‘good thing’) and that the wellbeing and life chances of children who are brought up ‘out of wedlock’ are diminished. We see and hear such ideas bandied about regularly in the media and by government, but just how true are they?

Many supporters of ‘traditional marriage’ decry the advent of our current divorce laws, which made divorce considerably easier than before, and therefore led to much higher rates of divorce than previously. They hark back to a ‘golden age’ that existed prior to the passing of those laws, when marriage really was ‘for life’, and society was all the better for it.

No such ‘golden age’ ever existed. The changing of the law in 1971 did not suddenly break happy marriages. Those marriages were already broken. The comparative difficulty in obtaining a divorce prior to the change simply condemned many thousands of couples to having to endure an unhappy marriage. I’m no sociologist, but I don’t see any reason why, as a general rule, roughly the same proportion of marriages will not always fail, no matter what the law or society as a whole has to say about it.

Between 1970, the year before the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into effect, and 1972, the year after it came into effect, statistics show that the number of divorces doubled, with about an extra 60,000 taking place. That surge clearly demonstrates that there were many people in broken, unhappy marriages prior to the passing of the Act.

The idea, promoted by many supporters of marriage, that the phenomenon of many people considering their marriages to be ‘expendable items’ rather than life-long commitments is a new thing is clearly not true. Nothing has changed, – people now enter marriage just as seriously and with as much commitment as before – the only thing that is different is that now they can get out of it if things go wrong.

Then there is the argument that, statistically, marriages last longer than relationships where couples simply live together, making marriage intrinsically superior to cohabitation. Well, of course marriages last longer, but this is not the result of the couples signing a piece of paper. The fact of the matter is that for social or economic reasons, the ‘type’ of couples that get married are the type of couples that are more likely to remain together. If your relationship is less likely to last, entering into a marriage will not change that.

The last point I want to make relates to the apparently improved life chances of children whose parents are married. This is another common argument, and clearly considered by the supporters of marriage to be one of the most compelling arguments in their favour.

The matter was investigated by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which prepared a report and an update in 2010 and 2011. They found that children born to married parents do, indeed, “achieve better cognitive and social outcomes, on average, than children born into other family forms, including cohabiting unions”. However, their research indicated that this is simply due to the fact that more affluent and better educated couples were more likely to get married – they found “little or no evidence that marriage itself has any effect on children’s social or cognitive development”.

So the main arguments in favour of marriage simply do not hold water: marriage is no better, or worse, than any other kind of relationship. Accordingly, all types of legal relationship are equally valid and people should be free to choose what kind of relationship they wish to enter into, without any form of discrimination or favour.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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  1. Nim says:

    worth to know what a retired judge thinks of ‘Matrimonial Trap’ when it comes to ending a ‘Fairy Dream’ :: oh is it called ‘MarriAge’ !! now?

  2. Harry Benson says:

    Hello John, Although I understand the angle from which you approach this, there are some serious misinterpretations of the evidence in what you say. First, it’s not correct to use the loaded label of ‘traditional marriage’ if you’re talking about Marriage Foundation. We’re interested in marriage. Actually we’re interested in stability in so far as it affects children. Secondly, nobody seriously talks about a ‘golden age’. The issue is whether the relentless increase in family breakdown since the 1960s is either inevitable or positive. This is a straightforward issue of social justice. Yes, divorce reform undoubtedly liberated many very unhappy people. Nobody can know how many. But overall divorce rates plateaued from around 1980, at about which time the popularity of cohabitation also took off as a result of the availability of the pill. Despite no further increase in divorce, family breakdown continued to rise, doubling from 1 million lone parents in 1980 to nearly 2 million today. Today 45% of all teens are not living with both natural parents. Support for lone parent families and dysfunctional couples costs some £46 billion. Unless you have a very relaxed view of family breakdown, you will agree that this is not good. So the question is, thirdly, whether the trend away from marriage has played the role we think it has since 1980. You refer to IFS studies. I know them well, having done – and preceded IFS – my own similar research using the same dataset. IFS’ work is excellent and highly informative. However they are guilty of over-controlling in their papers which has produced an undeserved conclusion. I have written about this on the MF website. Suffice to say, they are correct that background/selection undoubtedly explains part of the gap in outcomes between married and cohabiting couples. Nobody disputes this. Where they err is in controlling for relational factors, such as relationship quality and planned birth, which correlate strongly with marital status. If you remove the key ingredients, of course you find there is no cake. But there is another altogether more self-evident point that undermines what they say. If family breakdown has doubled since 1980 yet divorce rates plateaued and then fell, the source of this rise is the split up of ever more unmarried families. Key background factors – such as education and income – have improved during this period. Even if you disagree with that, they certainly haven’t collapsed enough to justify the continuous increase in instability. So we need another explanation for the rise in family breakdown. The most obvious one comes in two findings from a growing body of research on commitment. The act of cohabitation itself acts as a constraint on relationships so that unhappier couples – who might otherwise have split up before they have children – are tempted to drift on into childbirth and even marriage before splitting up. The act of marriage itself represents a signal of intent, a removal of ambiguity, and clear evidence of a decision about the future. You haven’t said it yourself but many often claim that correlation isn’t the same as cause. What they really mean is that correlation cannot be cause. Commitment theory is now demonstrating hat assumption to be wrong. The net result is that 93% of intact parents of teens are married. Where are all these success stories outside marriage? The answer is that they are the exception. That’s all good. But it shouldn’t be a basis for a social policy where the outcomes are so important to children. i should be happy to discuss any of this further with you. Kind regards, Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation

  3. Stitchedup says:

    Something neither of you touch on but I believe Paul Coleridge did, is the unrealistic expectations people have of marriage and perhaps cohabitation. Given that 68% of divorces are initiated by Women in this country compared to 4% by men, it would appear Women have the greater expectations of marriage and are the ones left disappointed when those expectations aren’t met.

    The feminist agenda positively encourages women to end relationships if they feel their dreams aren’t being fulfilled; it also encourages women to view themselves as victims who need to break free of their abusive, controlling male partners. We all know how absurdly broad the definition of domestic abuse/violence is, it can be shoe-horned to fit even the most minor of domestic disagreements that, more often than not, are actually part of normal family life.

    Indeed I believe the feminist agenda challenges Godwin’s law in that just about any discussion, particularly those regarding marriage, cohabitation and relationships in general; invariably end-up as a discussion about women’s rights and women being the victims of domestic violence at the hands of their abusive, controlling male partners. During the Big Question last Sunday, “did World War 1 change Britain for the better?” , a large part of the discussion was dominated by whether the lives of women improved despite nearly 1 million British men killed in action and a total of 3 million casualties. We have seen the troubles in Nigeria dominated by the news of the abduction of 270 girls despite whole towns being razed to the ground and in one town alone 375 people massacred, to quote John Simpson “These people feel completely abandoned. And they find it hard to understand why a world which cares deeply about the fate of 270 missing schoolgirls seems to care so little about the destruction of an entire town.”

    So to encourage stable relationships, I firmly believe in focussing on the family as a whole, not just on the wants and wishes of women… good quality relationship counselling can have a role to play here, but it will need to be free from feminist political influence from the likes of Women’s Aid.

    Educating girls, not just boys, to understand their responsibilities in building healthy relationships and installing strong family values rather than materialistic values should be a priority. Also, in the event of relationship breakdown, there should be the principle of equality of sacrifice and a presumption of 50/50 shared custody/parenting where children are involved. This may prove a deterrent to those that simply choose to cash-in a partner, and encourage relationships based on love and strong family values rather materialistic wants and financial needs.

  4. Suzanne walker says:

    I was surprised to read that 68 per cent of divorces are initiated by women. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were unhappy with their lot. I chose to divorce my husband when he told me he’d been having an affair for ten years. I initiated the process but that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t believe in marriage. I wonder how many women are like me and have no choice but to divorce … Even if it goes against everything they’ve ever believed in.

    • Luke says:

      Suzanne, based on what you have described it clearly doesn’t apply in your case, however, I think it is fair to say that women generally are keener on marriage AND also keener on divorce.

      The fact that among college-educated couples the percentage of divorces initiated by wives is about 90 per cent is telling. It shows that where there are plenty of assets available then bored or mildly dissatisfied women have looked at the divorce laws and what Family Court will financially allocate to them and thought “Kaching!”.

  5. John Bolch on the reform of family law (Part 1) - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] to the period since the coming into effect in 1971 of the Divorce Reform Act 1969, something I mentioned here on Monday. As I said then, that Act ushered in our present divorce system, and it was probably this […]

  6. Liz says:

    Luke, it would seem to be unwise for most wives to think “Kaching” with regard to divorce. The evidence seems to show that in most divorces it is the man who can think “Kaching” as “his available income increases by as much as one-third” while the average income of the wife will fall “by more than one-fifth and remains low for many years” (see below).
    It might seem that a bored or mildly dissatisfied man can ignore his marriage vows – which his spouse has a realistic expectation that he will honour – and behave how he likes knowing that if his wife can no longer tolerate the situation so that separation or divorce is the only option for her, then divorce “makes men richer”. It would seem a win-win situation for the husband who does not value his marriage. More sadly, if there are children involved then the husband has even more to gain financially by divorce. Are our English Courts really encouraging men to devalue the importance of marriage and the family?

    “BBC NEWS | Business | Divorce ‘makes men richer’
    15 Jul 2003 – It makes financial sense for men to divorce or leave their partners, according to new research

    Men become richer after divorce
    Male incomes rise by a third after a split, while women are worse off and can struggle for years”

    “Amelia Hill, social affairs correspondent
    The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2009
    Divorce makes men – and particularly fathers – significantly richer. When a father separates from the mother of his children, according to new research, his available income increases by around one third. Women, in contrast, suffer severe financial penalties. Regardless of whether she has children, the average woman’s income falls by more than a fifth and remains low for many years.”

    • Stitchedup says:

      Liz, how exactly does the man become richer, is it because the man generally receives an income from the ex wife or is it because he gets to keep more of his income???

      Perhaps his available income increases because he is now able to focus more on his own career??

      Given that 68% of divorces are initiated by women, only 4% by men, it would appear it is bored or mildly dissatisfied women that feel they can ignore their marriage vows. As Luke has pointed out “The fact that among college-educated couples the percentage of divorces initiated by wives is about 90 per cent is telling”.

      If divorce is so financially attractive to men why aren’t more men initiating divorce???

      The situation I refer to and have experience of, is when a man gives up his career to allow the wife/partner to follow her career, or he becomes unemployed etc. I refer to cashing-in, as described in the free dictionary thus:

      Phrasal Verbs:
      cash in
      1. To withdraw from a venture by or as if by settling one’s account.

      2. Informal To obtain a profit or other advantage by timely exploitation

      • Luke says:

        I was going to respond at length to your reply but Stitchedup seems to have covered it pretty well to me.
        The only thing I would reiterate is that IF as you say it is so wonderful financially advantageous for men to divorce their wives (despite generally STILL having to pay support to them) and so few do then it tends to strengthen the view that men are the ones who are more committed to marriage because they would be able to keep so much more of their earned money for their own use if they got out of it 🙂

    • Stitchedup says:

      Liz, one of the issues that concerns me greatly is how a “bored or mildly dissatisfied” women can quickly be persuaded to re-invent their boredom or mild dissatisfaction and portray themselves as a victim of domestic abuse.

      My partner of 20 years called time on our relationship claiming we were incompatible, stating I’m outdoorsy she isn’t. I had given up a well paid career to avoid moving to Italy and allow her to follow her career. To get back into work I took a job paying a fraction of my normal salary, so for the first time in our 20 year relationship she was the main bread winner. It was clear to me that I was being cashed-in, and it was amazing how quickly she changed her story once she realised I wasn’t going to leave the house and was going to put up a fight for the assets against which I had made by far the major contribution.

      Once solicitors get involved the gloves are off, the gamesmanship starts and the allegations fly. Suddenly it’s not a case of boredom or mild dissatisfaction any more, it’s a case of I’m a victim!!!

      Take a look at this article and the comments:

      Now take a look at this article:

      Which do you think is the more responsible, grounded viewpoint?? Which do you believe portrays/supports a commitment to marriage vows and long term relationships??

      As Cathy Meyer says, when people want out of marriage or a long term relationship, they will often grasp at straws for an excuse to leave.

  7. Unhappy marriage increase the risk of heart disease, study claims - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] of Pittsburgh examined 281 healthy adults in middle age over a period of four days. All were either married or in a cohabiting […]

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