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Marriage: the gold standard?

Yesterday saw the launch of The Marriage Foundation, an organisation that has been set up by a High Court Judge “to be a national champion (advocate) for marriage, strengthening the institution for the benefit of children, adults and society as a whole”. At CFLP we’re generally all in favour of something that will benefit children, adults and society as whole, so we thought we’d take a closer look at the project.

Sir Paul Coleridge is the man with the plan. He has been a High Court Judge for 12 years now and previously practised as a barrister in the field of family law. In his interview with the Today programme on 30 April 2012, he claimed that nobody has more experience of the effects that family breakdown is having on society than family law judges. Other family law judges clearly feel the same: the list of those publicly supporting the project is full of members of the judiciary, together with other high-profile participants in the law reform and family justice arena. There is a call for further supporters to make themselves known to the team by contacting Sir Paul on his own Marriage Foundation email address, highlighting the “stand up and be counted” vibe about the website. There’s also a “donate” button next to the “sign up for news” button, in case you feel sufficiently allied to the cause to open your wallet.

The Marriage Foundation’s fundamental purpose is to promote support for marriage, make the public case for marriage, and educate people – particularly the young and the poor, it seems – about marriage as the best structure within which to live a life. The reason for doing so, it says, is because marriage leads to better outcomes for everybody – the foundation is building a resource library that will go on to the website when it is done to shore up its reasoning on the matter. In the meantime, the case is put as follows:

“Governments cannot legislate stronger relationships into existence. Ultimately, more and stronger marriages will be a product of our individual choices, behaviour and culture. The Marriage Foundation will seek to influence the way we think about those choices, as individuals, couples and as a society.

“Our case for marriage is based on pragmatic evaluation of the advantages for children, families, and the local and national community. The richness and diversity of relationships precludes simplistic claims of cause and effect, but there is a significant difference in outcomes and the distinctive features of marriage are an important part of the reason.”

The upshot is, according to the Foundation, that marriage makes people wealthier, healthier, happier, and provides a better start for children. There are economic arguments for marriage based on the costs occasioned to the family justice system, and wider society, from single-parent or cohabiting families as opposed to those from married people; there are notes about people “sliding into parental responsibilities” without making a decision to commit to each other, and statistics about the breakdown of cohabitations. The Marriage Foundation puts these observations forward as a compelling case for promoting marriage, and it is clear that many people agree.

Sir Paul Coleridge’s foundation denies that it is simply trying to turn back the clock; people still want to get married, it says, perhaps not quite getting the point of the question. Some people might think that the site reads like it was written in another world, by a member of a generation far removed from those struggling with the pressures of family life in today’s society. It is difficult to avoid the sense that the project’s overall aim – “marriage as the golden standard” – is harking back to a different time.

This is one of the problems we see with the Marriage Foundation: the sense that encouraging couples to bond together with an outward sign of their commitment and a properly constituted legal relationship will tackle the root cause factors of family breakdown which really affect children’s life chances – unemployment, lack of education, poverty, addiction, and abuse. Making it harder to get out of relationships cannot surely mean that bad relationships are made better, or that unhappy people are made happier and wealthier and healthier? There is also a feminist question: does making marriage a “golden standard” threaten the economic, educational and societal progress that women have made in recent years? It is surely a short step from promoting marriage as the best way to bring up children, to promoting a particular type of marriage where one party (usually, but not always, mummy) stays at home with the children, as we already see from time to time in some sectors of the media, with its attendant emotional impact on parents trying to juggle childrearing with economic subsistence.

We at CFLP are committed to helping people find the least painful way through their family breakdown, and do not judge people on their choice of family structure (if indeed it can always be considered a choice). It seems surprising for such a significant number of judges, who are traditionally independent, impartial and apolitical, to be taking such a value-laden stance which certainly has political overtones – see our earlier post on the government’s marriage agenda. Further to that, there must be a risk that the list of supporters, overwhelmingly white, late-middle-aged, and middle-to-upper class, makes it look like an edict from the ruling classes to do as they, overwhelmingly, do.

The lack of any mention of civil partnerships seems odd, but the issue is obliquely nodded-to in the FAQs when the subject of marriage for gay couples is mentioned. The Marriage Foundation, it says, has children’s interests at its heart, and “for obvious reasons those children are almost entirely located within heterosexual partnerships”. Court-watchers will be surprised to hear this, as the incidence of court cases where the parents are same-sex has been rising rapidly in recent years; but perhaps the Marriage Foundation’s resources do not extend to these children, or they – perhaps – do not think the stability of the partnerships involved is a relevant issue for these children. The general failure to acknowledge that not everyone, and not every child, conforms to a narrow sector of society that has access to marriage, a willing partner, funds to do it and the balance of resources to make it work until death they do part, does not assist their argument that the promotion of marriage will make a difference to children’s life chances in the future.

To be clear: we at CFLP are all in favour of improving children’s life chances and better allocation of resources in the family justice system, as our previous posts refer. We’re just not sure that this is the best way to achieve those ends. What do you think?

PS you can send The Marriage Foundation 50 words to let them know what you think! Just click here.


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