The case for marriage – the basics

I am constantly amazed how often the stuff we talk about at Marriage Foundation seems like a revelation. Whoever we are talking to, it’s as if people hear it for the first time and suddenly it all makes sense.

The case for marriage is not especially difficult to understand. By and large, it chimes with what people want in their own lives. All of us want reliable love, somebody we can trust who will stick with us no matter what. The evidence is clear that marriage is the best way to find it. That’s about it.

Yet with fewer people marrying and so much family breakdown around us, it’s as if we have lost confidence.

The trend away from marriage is certainly stark.

Marriage rates are down by two thirds since the 1970s peak. Couples are marrying later or not at all. Whereas 90% of today’s sixty year olds have ever been married, on current projections only 50% of today’s teens and twenty-somethings can expect to do so.

One group, however, has bucked the trend.

Nearly nine out of ten better-off parents with young children are married. Among households earning £40,000 or more, marriage remains very much the norm. For anyone paying 40% tax, the trend away from marriage has yet to happen.

The better-off instinctively know that the case for marriage remains as strong as ever. They want to stay together while bringing up their children. They know that the best way to make this happen is to get married and stay married.

Almost all of our opinion formers – politicians, media, civil servants – fall into this higher income group. If they have children, almost all of these get married.

And yet in public, they continue to remain ambivalent, or at least reticent, about making the case for marriage. The case for marriage is strong. But they – and we – have lost confidence in how to articulate it.

The hard data is clear and simple. Marriage provides the best model within which to raise children.

Stability is marriage’s biggest selling point. Stability has a huge impact on family outcomes. The government-run Families and Children Study establishes beyond doubt how much better two parent families fare compared to one parent families. For example,

  • One parent families are seven times more likely to live below the poverty line and seven times more likely to rely on housing benefit.
  • Both mothers and children are twice as likely to have health problems and children are also twice as likely to have behavioural problems.

Even if marriage has long been airbrushed out of this particular survey, other national surveys add the key evidence that being married predicts stability better than any other factor, such as age or education.

  • Nearly eight out of ten parents who were married before they had children were still together when their child reached age fifteen. So the divorce rate among married parents is just 24%. These are rather more encouraging odds than the more commonly cited overall divorce rate of around 40% (we estimate that it’s 38% for couples marrying today).
  • In sharp contrast, just three out of ten parents who are not married when they have children will still be together when their child reaches age fifteen. This includes those who marry later on, fewer than half of whom remain together. The overall break-up rate among unmarried parents is 69%.

Some commentators doggedly dismiss these differing outcomes – 76% married vs 31% unmarried who stay together – as due not to marriage but to the kind of people who marry. While it’s true that those who are older or better educated are more likely to marry, age and education do not explain the difference in stability between married and unmarried parents. Nor does this people-who-marry account explain why family breakdown has doubled since 1980, a period during which divorce rates have fallen while education and income have not exactly collapsed.

Commitment theory – sometimes known as ‘sliding, deciding and inertia‘ – provides a compelling explanation for the difference in outcomes between marriage and cohabitation.

01 CommitmentCommitment comes in two forms.

  • Dedication is the inner bond that comprises the decision by two individuals to form and build a new identity as a couple with a future.
  • Constraints are the external bonds that provide stability and make it harder for couples to leave one another. They include living together, having children, a lack of alternatives and being legally married.

These outside constraints are usually healthy and positive so long as the inner dedication is strong. However constraints can feel like a trap when dedication is weaker.

The best explanation for why marriage is so stable is that the act of getting married leaves little room for doubt about a couple’s mutual dedication to one another. Couples establish their sense of dedication before locking themselves into a relationship with lots of constraints. Getting this in the right order matters. Constraints, such as having children, are then the consequence of dedication and thus tend to reinforce and affirm the relationship.

The best explanation for why cohabitation is so unstable is that couples tend to move in before establishing a clear mutual plan for the future. The order is largely reversed. In this case, constraints come before dedication, so that couples risk becoming stuck with the same trappings as marriage but without the clarity of commitment. Fragile relationships that might otherwise never have got going then drift onward in hope of improvement, locked in by the sheer inertia of living together. The extra constraint of becoming parents all too often proves to be the final straw, triggering the end of the relationship.

We see this in the stats. Not only are marriages more stable than unmarried cohabitations but half of all family breakdown takes place within the first three years of parenthood. Three quarters of this early breakdown involves unmarried couples.

The result is that nearly half of all teenagers are no longer living with both natural parents. An entire generation of children are paying the price for their parents failure to commit.

While marriage may be down, it is a very long way from out. Despite the general trend away from marriage, it is remarkable that this has barely happened at all among better-off parents.

Even if the better-off marry in their droves, the real tragedy is that the worst-off have been listening to their public indifference. Among the lowest earners, just 25% of parents with young children are married. Middle earners are now following them, with 59% of new parents now married compared to 84% twenty years ago. Lack of commitment leads inevitably to high rates of breakdown and a self-reinforcing cycle of poverty and family breakdown.

Marriage, commitment and stability are rapidly becoming the preserve of the rich. The hard data support what our opinion-formers do in their private lives. Unless we want our epidemic of family breakdown to get even worse than it already is, all of us need to regain confidence that the case for marriage is strong. The challenge then becomes how on earth to revive marriage and commitment among the low and middle earners.

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One thought on “The case for marriage – the basics

  1. I do not know the statistics here but I have noticed a change in middle class, well educated, families. The young (say, early 20s) move very quickly into sexual relationships almost as a matter of course. I am not thinking of promiscuity for the relationships are caring and, for the time at least, committed. This is where your “Fragile relationships that might otherwise never have got going then drift onward in hope of improvement, locked in by the sheer inertia of living together.” comes into play. As I celebrate my diamond anniversary this year, I am glad that I belong to another generation.

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