Should marriage be a social seat-belt enforced by the State?
Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I thought I could feel a slight frisson of unease when I introduced myself at the Marriage Foundation conference in London 2013 as: “I’m Suzy Miller, of Divorce in a Box“.
I was not one of the speakers – just asking a question. I’d raised some laughter when first telling friends that I was off to the Marriage Foundation’s first national conference “Modern Marriage: Myths, Realities and Prospects”, but this event turned out to be even more relevant to my own business than I had presumed. The conference was detailed and thought provoking, and for someone like myself – with a mission to encourage divorcing couples to avoid adversarial lawyers, and make healthy co-parenting a reality – the information I gleaned was extremely valuable.
Busting the divorce myths:
The following data is from the ONS but has now been analysed by Harry Benson, Communications Director for the Marriage Foundation. It was not only refreshing to hear intelligent conclusions being drawn from the number crunching of the Office of National Statistics, but it was invaluable to finally get some of those persistent divorce myths busted for good. Myths that I had adopted just the same as everyone else.
“The 7 Year Itch” – yes, it is a myth:
For over 40 years, divorce rates have been consistently at their highest between 3 and 6 years after the marriage. After peaking between three and six years, the likelihood of a marriage ending in divorce decreases with each year thereafter. One in five newlyweds divorce after ten years of marriage, with the likelihood of a marriage ending in divorce further shrinking with each decade. A tiny 2 per cent of weddings end in divorce after thirty years of marriage, with divorce rates after forty years of marriage even rarer: fewer than 0.5 per cent of couples divorce after being married forty years or more.
“Recession raises divorce rates” – yes, it is a myth:
The divorce trend has remained constant in the UK despite recessions, booms and cultural changes in social attitudes.
“2nd Marriages are more likely to fail” – yes, it is a myth:
The second marriage for the husband shows a lower divorce rate than if it is the first marriage – possibly because the first marriage could have been a ‘slide’ whereas a second marriage is more likely to be a conscious commitment.
Older couples divorce rates are not as alarming as has we have been led to believe: if a married couple survive the first ten years of marriage, their risk of divorce is the same as it has been in the previous four decades.
Divorce Rate trends:
In 1986 there was a divorce rate peak of 44% of married couples divorcing in that year.
Current trends show a rate according to ONS calculations of 42% – however, they exclude people who were married outside of the UK. If all marriages are included for UK citizens, then the rate of divorce is actually only 39%.
Why is it so important to draw the right conclusions from these statistics?
The answer to that is simple. Because the cost of family failure in the UK is £44 billion per year. That’s more than we spend on defense. So one of the questions that was raised at the conference was whether law makers were aware of the long term effects on family health when they passed new laws – for example, could it be that the changes in the law which now allow fathers who are named on their child’s divorce certificate to have parental rights, even though they are not married, have in effect influenced the rise in the number of men cohabiting, having children and not getting feeling it necessary to get married? There are of course other factors as well – but it’s a fair question to ask.
A question that wasn’t asked directly – but which I felt was implicit – was should marriage be made less easy to avoid in the interests of stable families and the cost to society as a whole? Despite regular affirmations that unmarried parents still can have long successful relationships, the evidence that was being shown indicated clearly that children born into a married household are much less likely to end up becoming the children of a broken home.
The question I still need an answer to in order to form my own clear opinion on this, however, is whether those statistics for broken families from cohabiting couples can be broken down further to separate out parents who cohabit because they have slid into unplanned pregnancy, from those who have made a deliberate decision to be together and create a family without first getting married. I say this because I know that in the 1980s home birth statistics included mothers giving birth in the back of taxi cabs or homeless people giving birth in fields – basically, any place that babies were not born in hospital. It wasn’t a fair or statistically accurate comparison with hospital births, yet even now there is a myth that home births are less safe than hospital births which is not supported by statistical evidence.
I would also argue that stable co-parenting families do often later marry – so the ones that don’t may be less confident about their long-term happiness together, so it makes sense to me to compare long term marriages with long term cohabiting families, all with children, and to see if the differences in break up rates are as dramatically diverse as the Marriage Foundation indicate.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that cohabiting as parents is not a good thing – I did it myself for 10 years. In my case, I don’t believe being married would have led to our current extended family being any happier than it is now. However, it is important to get greater statistical clarity on these issues, and there is more work to be done.
What is undeniable is that cohabiting parents lack the legal protections of their married counterparts. When you give up your career and become the main carer for your children, that leaves that particular parent extremely vulnerable.
“Living together before marriage increases the divorce risk” – is a myth – sort of….
I asked Harry Benson during tea break if living together before marriage affects the solidity of the marriage. He told me that statistics indicate that living together before marriage appears not to be an issue if the couple are engaged. But living together prior to the engagement does seem to affect divorce outcomes.
This could be because couples who get engaged before living together have already made a clear decision to be together for a long time, rather than sliding into marriage for other reasons – perhaps family pressure, or because their friends are all getting married.
CoHabitation – Millions are choosing it over marriage:
Professor Rebecca Probert of the Warwick School of Law, was also one of the speakers at the conference, and her statistical data was very revealing.
Currently, a quarter of all births in the UK are recorded as being from couples who are cohabiting and not married (where both parents are registered on the birth certificate and have the same address). This means the parents lack the protection of the marriage laws, since ‘common law marriage’ has never existed in the UK.
We have 2.9 million cohabiting couples in the UK today. So that means a great many parents who are the main carer – mainly the women – who are not able to work the same hours or follow the same career path they would have done if not becoming parents, who are not putting money into a pension, who are unable to claim anything from their working partners pension, and who have no automatic rights to the property they are living in if their names are not on the mortgage deeds. What is even more disturbing, is that about half of those people will not be aware that ‘common law marriage’ is a myth, and always has been.
Should marriage be a social seat-belt enforced by the State?
So should marriage be enforced in the same way as using a seat-belt become obligatory in cars? Is it really safe for society to make having families outside of the legal framework of marriage so easy, with so many of those cohabiting families breaking up – and with the cost of family failure (as it was referred to at the conference) at £44 billion pounds a year to the UK as a whole?
Personally, I would like to see further interpretation and data gathering to provide clearer information on whether a conscious commitment to a stable family is more likely to have been made by couples who get married, than those who choose to live together. I definitely agree with the mood of the conference that greater relationship preparation should be encouraged.
Actually, I think it should be obligatory to attend a coaching course in communication skills with a future spouse, creating a life plan together that is positive and visionary, and also openly discussing finances and ‘what if’ scenarios – in other words, a prenup. Just imagine how many marriages would benefit by accessing the coaching skills and financial advice at the beginning of their union rather than when things start to crumble. One suggestion I proposed during the conference that was well received, was that mediators have a positive role to play in helping couples to create prenups rather than just having their services being used when people are getting divorced.
Taking out the romance?
Not at all. It doesn’t have to be unromantic to be able to talk openly with your life partner about your dreams, your values and your finances.
Married or not, there is no romance in a lack of communication, a fear of talking about money, nor in not knowing how you will co-parent if you end up living in different houses further down the line.