Love and Marriage…

26th January 2018

…may well have gone together like a horse and carriage in the past – but now we’re in a time of jet engines and driverless cars. Is marriage still relevant? Or is it as outdated as horse-drawn travel? Jennifer Lipman explores our fascination for, and, conversely, our mistrust of, society’s most celebrated declaration of commitment.

For Jane Austen, it was a truth universally acknowledged that marriage was the end goal. Her heroes and heroines might have dilly-dallied on their way up the aisle, but there was never any doubt that tying the knot was the right thing to do.

Two centuries on, however, and a single man might be in want of a woman, but he’s not necessarily in want of a wife – and she’s not necessarily in want of a husband either. In 2018, when there is no longer any real stigma against unwed couples living together, when women no longer need to signify their status as ‘Mrs’, and with religion taking less and less of a centre stage, the question arises: is marriage even relevant anymore? 

There’s clearly a case to be made that it’s somewhat outdated. It doesn’t feel very 21st century to perpetuate an institution that once entailed a woman becoming a man’s property, and even today comes with ideas such as ‘being given away’ or asking for permission.

Certainly, more and more people are seeing it as antiquated – or, at the very least, doing away with the traditional expensive white wedding. “The expectation of a cookie cutter fairytale wedding is long gone,” says Hamish Shephard, a former banker who founded wedding planning app Bridebook. “Couples are now embracing what makes them and their relationship unique and finding ways to incorporate this into their big day.”

In Britain, marriage rates have been declining for decades, against a backdrop of society becoming more liberal-minded. In 2014 there were 247,372 opposite sex marriages (plus 4,850 between same sex couples), down from 426,000 in 1972. Increasing numbers are also bypassing a religious affair, with a 4.1% increase in civil ceremonies in 2014. The Supreme Court is due to hear a case from a heterosexual couple seeking a civil partnership; marriage, they complain, is burdened with the connotations of patriarchy and religion.

At the same time, the average cost of a wedding has skyrocketed – a recent survey put it at £27,000, rising to £38,000 in London – and that’s leaving aside the costs for stag and hen dos, the honeymoon, and the pre-marital fitness kick. Perhaps it’s no wonder many are choosing to say ‘I don’t’. 

“Marriage is right for some people but it’s different for everyone,” says Euan Malcolm, CEO of Relate London North West. “But there are lots of reasons people choose not to be married.” He’s clear that while marriage still has a role to play, it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. “It’s very important it’s what both people want.” 

Of course, despite the decline, marriage isn’t dying out yet. Britain’s divorce rate is falling – down 34% on 2003 – and while cohabiting families are the fastest growing family type, rising from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million last year, married couple families remain by far the most common structure. Equally, the wedding industry is booming, we’ve seen a successful fight to legalise same-sex marriage, and many people see marriage as just as relevant as ever before.

The notion that marriage is old-fashioned or sexist “simply isn’t borne out”, says Harry Benson, research director of the Marriage Foundation. “Marriage is egalitarian because both of you have equal commitment and equal intent to make it work,” he says. “The idea that it’s about women being chattel is absurd – no one thinks women today are buying into that.”

He suggests matrimony will continue to be “relevant and essential” as long as people want reliable love, something he believes most humans are looking for. “They want someone who will be there for the next day and the next and the day after that. You only have that if you have a conversation about your future and make a plan for it.” Marriage, he argues, “sends a signal – it becomes an act of mutual intent”. 

What has changed is that while marriage might once have been a route to security or social respectability, it’s now usually seen as a romantic gesture. “The reasons for getting married are always highly personal, but traditionally always come back to the most important factor: having a day of celebration to share the deep love you have for one another with your family, friends and loved ones,” agrees Shephard. 

Yet the idea that marriage is key to a stable society has not totally disappeared; critics such as Benson warn about the breakdown of the family unit in the context of people being unwilling to make this commitment. He cites figures showing that roughly eight out of ten couples who are married when their child is born are still together when their child takes their GCSEs – against three in ten unmarried parents. Other figures suggest cohabiting parents are four times more likely to have separated by the time a child is three. “The question of ‘will you spend your life with me’ is also a plan,” Benson says. He thinks cohabitation often falls short because couples may not have had the conversation about a shared future.

But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a respected think tank, has pointed out, this might say more about the types of people choosing to wed than about the value of marriage. “There is very little evidence to suggest that this is due to a causal effect of marriage,” they concluded. “If more cohabiting parents decide to get married, it is very unlikely that a significant number would become more likely to stay together.” 

Even if marriage isn’t the secret ingredient in making a relationship go the distance, it does still carry legal weight if things don’t work out, especially where there are custody questions involved. Cohabiting couples often assume their rights are the same – but they are mistaken. 

“A marriage opens up potential claims of both parties against each other in the event of a breakdown of a marriage. These claims mainly include property, maintenance and pension provision, for example,” explains Sarah Jane Lenihan, a Senior Solicitor at Stowe Family Law. “A spouse who has taken a career break to raise children will be seen as an equal contribution to the other spouse who has continued to work.”

Cohabiting couples do not have the same claims as those who are married. People are often unaware of this. “However long you have lived with your partner, you do not currently acquire the same rights as if you are married.”

There are also myriad financial incentives to saying ‘I do’, beyond the much-mocked Marriage Tax Allowance introduced by David Cameron in 2015, which is now worth £662. Married couples pay less tax on income and inheritance in the event of death, spouses benefit from their partner’s pension and, in some cases, medical insurance costs can be reduced “simply by ticking the ‘married’ box”.

Of course, the majority wed not because of the financial or legal implications but because they want to formalise their relationship or show the world it’s a keeper. And that’s perhaps the biggest shift – marriage might still be relevant, but it’s less about fulfilling society’s expectations than the couple’s own. These days, not getting married is just as valid a choice.

As Shephard says, “marriage is a wonderful thing – for those who want it. If a couple don’t believe that marriage fits their relationship, there are always equally as special ways to celebrate your love without the wedding.”                                              

Malcolm echoes this, pointing out that with so many alternative ways to have a relationship, what matters is the quality of the commitment. And as he says, marriage is hardly a silver bullet. “Sometimes people have picked up the message that relationships are based only on romance and that will take you through, but life gets in the way,” he says. “Relationships take constant work because things change.” That’s true – whether or not wedding vows are involved.

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