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.
Photo by Jeff Belmonte via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence