Given that the subject matter was ‘Cohabitation‘, there was a number of fascinating presentations that explored the development of cohabitation across Europe, its different meanings for different people, different characteristics and outcomes between cohabiting and married couples, and the different legal treatment of cohabiting couples by different countries across Europe.
All of this was presented with the kind of insight and objective clarity you would expect from some of Britain’s top academic and legal experts.
Despite the excellence of the presentations on cohabitation, from which I learnt a great deal, it was the closing comments of two panelist academics who switched the emphasis to marriage that left a bad taste in my mouth.
It wasn’t their impassioned speeches urging us to view marriage as no different to cohabitation that was the problem. It was the mocking tone expressing incredulity that anybody could possibly imagine how or why getting married might make the slightest difference to a couple. In their view,
- Couples were destined to succeed or fail regardless of whether they’ve had a wedding or not. How could the mere act of putting on a dress for a day possibly change anybody?
- As for the marriage tax break, they said with the tone of voice that suggested their eyes were rolling through vertical loops, it is absurd to think that money will change behaviour.
- And how could a study ever proved marriage makes a difference? ‘Like that’s going to happen‘, sniffed one.
It took me a while to work out why I was so taken aback. Was it that these were senior academics who should be more objective? Was it the apparent lack of awareness of why there might be differences? Was it their dismissive attitude?
Because I spend so much of my time reading journals – such as Journal of Marriage and Family and Family Relations – and thinking about the psychology of how couples commit to one another – an area that the conference didn’t cover but from which, I think, it would have benefited – I am surprised when I find senior academics willing to write off marriage without appearing to be aware of the research literature. Even if a definitive study can’t assign couples to marry or not, commitment research offers highly plausible explanations as to how both marriage and cohabitation might causally change couples.
But it’s worse that that.
Logic alone tells us that marriage ought to change behaviour. If you think about what happens when people marry, it becomes quickly apparent that one of the key characteristics is the making of a decision about the future. Just think of how decisions can help us to buy into something, stick at it, and put up with adverse consequences.
Imagine I decide to go for a walk. Soon after setting off, it begins to rain. Because I am set on the walk, I keep going. Had I approached the walk with a ‘see how it goes’ approach, I suspect I would be tempted to give up and go home. The decision frames my attitude which then changes my subsequent behaviour. It’s then a short step to see how a national campaign – to encourage those who wish to walk that they’ll enjoy it more if they buy into it beforehand – might plausibly have an affect on subsequent walking behaviour.
Research in other contexts supports this. The same academics would happily accept decades of research on decision making by the likes of economist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Yet somehow when decision making takes place in marriage, it no longer applies.
Dismissing marriage with such disdain also means dismissing the aspiration of 77% of young adults who want to marry as pointless and foolish. It means writing off a central life event that in large part defines 12.5 million married British families, their 24 million children, and at least another 300,000 couples who marry every year (if you include marriages abroad).
In the end, it’s not even the mocking attitude that I find most upsetting.
Mockery is a form of put down. It says ‘I am clever and you are stupid‘. It’s an arrogant contempt and haughty dismissal of anyone who disagrees. Mockery poses questions in a form that silence any kind of different opinion. ‘Surely you can’t seriously think that …‘. It’s one of the most destructive relationship bad habits. Because it invariably reflects hurt and defensiveness, my normal reaction to mockery by others would be compassion.
But this is not mockery without consequence. This is mockery by influential academics who help to frame the political mindset. It’s input by such as these that explains why we still have no public policy whatsoever on family breakdown, other than to manage it a bit better than we are already doing on a mere £46 billion a year.
Family breakdown is inevitable. Marriage is irrelevant. This is what they are telling our politicians, thereby putting ideology and contempt over evidence.
That’s what is really upsetting.