The case of Tini Owens, who is appealing to the Court of Appeal against the refusal of the court below to grant her a divorce, has led to a flurry of debate. The advocates of no-fault divorce have jumped on it as further evidence in support of their cause, and others, such as Marilyn Stowe, have had other things to say about the case.
But I wonder whether the case highlights something more: the whole idea of state control over marriage. It has long been the case that the number of people living together without getting married has been rising, and one of the reasons for this is that more and more couples are rejecting that idea of the state having control over their relationships. The Owens case, whichever way it finally goes, is only going to encourage people to think that way.
Now, I don’t want this post to sound like a call for change to defend the institution of marriage. These days I’m pretty lukewarm about marriage as a concept, and I certainly have no wish to defend it. In any event, the people will choose for themselves whether they wish to enter into marriage, and that is how it should be. No, this post is not intended to be any sort of warning, just a non-comprehensive look at the reasons why some people choose not to marry, in the hope of informing the debate. I think that many supporters of marriage believe that all cohabitants choose not to marry simply to avoid their responsibilities, and I hope that this post, the contents of which are garnered primarily from hearing first-hand from people who have chosen not to marry, will make them think again about cohabitation.
It may be an idea that seems foreign to many, but a lot of people simply do not see why a relationship must take place within a state-governed (previously of course a church-governed) construct. They don’t like the construct, and you only have to look at the Owens case to see why. How dare anyone else tell you whether or not your relationship is over?
They think that that idea of marriage is at best outdated, and at worst used as a method of control. The state believes that marriage is a good thing, and so it encourages people to enter into it by various means such as tax reliefs, and then discourages people from leaving the institution by making divorce unnecessarily difficult. Relationships, they believe, are personal, and nothing to do with the state.
It is useful to look at this from the other angle: why exactly do people choose to get married? Well, there are of course many reasons (I tried Googling the question, but came up mainly with ‘relationship advice’ fluff), but perhaps the following are the main ones:
1) To make a binding commitment to one another. To a greater or lesser degree depending upon your upbringing, we have it beaten into us from a young age that the only way to make a binding relationship commitment to another person is to marry that person. Well, the anti-state control proponents do not see it that way. They believe that it is perfectly possible to commit without signing a marriage certificate. And of course they are correct: many people cohabit without marriage for the rest of their lives. And if they don’t, the reason is that the relationship broke down, not because they didn’t sign a piece of paper. To put it another way, what keeps you together is your feelings for one another, not some piece of paper you signed years ago.
2) They believe that they must be married in order to provide a stable base for having children. But many cohabitees who choose to have children believe they already have a suitable platform for having children. And who are we as the state to tell them otherwise?
3) Religious and cultural reasons for entering into marriage. It’s an obvious thing to say, but we live in an increasingly irreligious and culturally homogenised society. Fewer and fewer people feel obliged to comply with tradition. Choosing not to marry is just another way of saying that their relationships are personal to them, not the business of anyone else.
4) To provide support for one another. This can be both emotional and financial support during the course of the relationship, and financial support should it break down. Well, a happy cohabiting couple will obviously support each other during their relationship. As to what happens when it breaks down, perhaps they think that they are just mature enough to sort it out between themselves? After all, many couples are, married or not.
Now, as a proponent for no-fault divorce myself I may appear to have just argued against it in the sense that ‘if you don’t like the present system, then simply don’t get married’. But marriage is here to stay, and maybe it is useful when considering how the laws governing it work to see things from a different perspective. Certainly, the Owens case risks bringing marriage into dispute, and it may well encourage more couples to reject the institution.