The next battle for marriage

Few people today will disagree with the statement that, on the whole, married families tend to do better.

They are more likely to stay together, more likely to be happy, less likely to receive housing benefit or live in poverty, more likely to have children who do better at school and have fewer problems with their behaviour or well-being.

As recently as ten years ago, many would have questioned this entire premise. “Where’s your evidence?” they asked.

Up until the mid-2000s, there was a dearth of UK evidence on how family structure might be linked to family outcomes. Over in America, there was plenty, through journals, public policy initiatives, and popular books. But over here, apart from a few lone voices, there was little. The Centre for Social Justice, to whose early work I contributed, can claim a great deal of credit for this change. And I would like to think that our own recent work at Marriage Foundation has also helped.

So now we do have a wealth of evidence linking marriage to more positive outcomes that is also widely accepted. This is a battle that is all but won.

But just as few now disagree that married families tend to do better, it remains the case that few public figures have the guts to stand up and say marriage is best for families.

Within our new government, as with our last government, there are two stand-out champions of marriage: welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith and Prime Minister David Cameron.

This is what the Prime Minister has said publicly about marriage: “There is something special about marriage: it’s a declaration of commitment, responsibility and stability that helps to bind families. The values of marriage are give and take, support and sacrifice – values that we need more of in this country.” Private conversations suggest he deeply believes this. “We really must get you married,” he was reported as saying to a twenty something aide in the back of a car. “Marriage is wonderful.”

Despite the evidence and fine words of these high profile champions, marriage gets precious little support from within wider government.

In government itself, our first pro-marriage policy in decades is a new tax allowance that is expensive, poorly targeted and too small to have any effect on individual behaviour. Far from being a full-bodied, integrated and coherent attempt to change behaviour for the better, it looks and feels like lip service, a reluctant and half-hearted one-off.

In the policy world, with the exception of CSJ and ourselves, most policy groups who write about marriage are less than enthusiastic. Marriage is all about the kinds of people who marry, says one influential group. If you “really compare like with like“, there’s not much difference between married and cohabiting couples, says another. ‘Selection’ is the reason cited for why married families tend to do better. But this is not good enough. The evidence from peer-reviewed studies is that selection falls short of explaining all.

And in the media, outside of our independent national press, marriage gets little support from our most influential national news organisation. Every one of the sixteen research papers and briefing notes produced by Marriage Foundation in the last three years has received extensive national newspaper coverage. Not one has been picked up by BBC news.

Perhaps the line that is most dismissive of marriage is this. “Correlation does not imply causation“. I hear this phrase again and again. What those who say it really mean is that “It’s all correlation. Marriage doesn’t cause anything.” They overlook the equally valid point that “Correlation doesn’t rule out causation“.

To me this explains why so few of the prime minister’s colleagues share his enthusiasm and why the encouragement of his former guru Steve Hilton in today’s Daily Mail to back marriage will likely fall on deaf ears.

Even people who instinctively support marriage – and it is notable that almost all leading politicians are themselves married – don’t quite know how marriage could possibly make a difference. So they are rightly nervous when confronted by the cohabiting couple who vehemently reject the need for a piece of paper. “We’re just as committed,” they say. “We’ve been together ten years“. All of which may well be true. But it doesn’t undermine the reality that most married parents stay together and most unmarried parents do not.

So even if the first battle has been won – the evidence that marriages tend to produce better outcomes – there’s an arguably more important battle to fight next.

Precisely how might marriage make a difference? The answer lies in how commitment actually works. And that will be the topic of my next article!


One thought on “The next battle for marriage

  1. Harry, the reason so many people think there is little difference between marriage and cohabiting couples, is because so many people “presuppose” and take for granted the many positive aspects of relationships, and do not realise that the ONLY exist on the base principles of marriage vows.

    The majority of couples EXPECT faithfulness, and exclusive intimacy in all their relationships.
    But the fact is, on what basis? Where does this expectation come from? Its presupposed! And the battle is to break this false presumption people have. Phrases like “long term relationship” “Stable” and “committed” are rhetoric without substance. They describe the “effects”, not the cause. A married couple can own such statements, because they have evidence they are in such a relationship, into the future, and the cause. Others are only referring to the past. They’ve made no promise to the future that is objective and verifiable.

    The expectation of stability, commitment and faithfulness comes from marriage! Its not “natural”. Its not “nature”. Its not merely “culture”. Its marriage that gives us, and society, this expectation, because a couple who marry promise to “forsake all others” promise till death do they part, and establish stability way into the future.

    The fact is, any couple who have not married have no right to expect faithfulness, because neither party has made a promise to exclusive intimacy. Only married couples do this. The presupposition that it is wrong to “cheat” in a relationship is on a false premise. Only the married can commit adultery, because on the married have made a legal, social, and undeniable promise before witnesses, that they can subsequently be held to account for. You can’t “cheat” unless you break rules. Any only those subject to objective rules can be held to account. Hence, only the married can “cheat” on their wives or husbands. Anyone who says otherwise, ask them to set out the basis of “cheating”? Who says its wrong? Why is it wrong? How can it be wrong outside marriage? Its wrong because the married party has made a promise they have not kept!

    Until we challenge the myths, and highlight that those who expect faithfulness are mistaken in presupposing such expectations, that is a false premise without a basis, people will go on EXPECTING the virtues of what a marriage brings, but mistakenly think it can happen without marriage. It can’t, and it doesn’t!

    Couples expect a “partner” to remain with them through good and bad times. That is a marriage vow.
    They don’t expect to be dumped when they lose their job. That is a marriage vow. (Richer,poorer)
    They expect to stay together if one becomes ill, that is a marriage vow.
    They expect to share worldly good purchased together or for each other. That is a marriage vow. ( all my worldly goods)
    In days gone by, society recognised that what made a relationship work, was by taking vows and applying a marriage. In the liberal era, people have cast off marriage, BUT they still expect the virtues that a marriage brings, but mistakenly think they are natural, or social, or because they “feel” something for another person.

    Anyone who dismisses marriage, and says their relationship is just as strong, call them out!
    Challenge them on what basis do they have any objective expectations for their relationship?
    Who says their “partner” must be faithful? Why should they?
    Who says its wrong for their partner to “dump” them when they get ill? Society? Who in society? Public opinion? Mere subjective opinion? What objective basis is there, other than the expectations we have BECAUSE of marriage?

    We should be challenging our MP’s also. We must challenge their rhetoric.
    They advocate “stable” relationships. That is an effect, “stable”, but what causes stability?
    Commitment is an effect, what causes commitment?
    Faithfulness is an effect, what establishes faithfulness?
    Marriage. There is no measurable objective alternative that all people can apply. Without the cause, its rhetoric without substance. Wishful thinking.

    For too long the liberals have mocked marriage, but they STILL advocate the virtues only marriage vows establish in relationships. They want their cake, and still want to eat it. You cannot truly have in a relationship, the virtues and blessings, without the principles that cause them. Marriage.

    Is this my opinion? No, the studies reflect this observation. The unmarried do not remain together longer, are not more stable, experience more unfaithfulness, are abandoned more often, betrayed more readily, split up over wealth, sickness, the attraction of others, all the things they have not vowed to keep.

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