Richard Smith: Time to rethink marriage

richard_smith_2014At a meeting on the politics of marriage last week at the London School of Economics three protagonists of very different stripe—the founder of the Marriage Foundation, a feminist philosopher, and a gay rights activist—all agreed that marriage was an outdated institution that should be rethought. My wife and I, who went together to the meeting, had never thought before of the need to reinvent marriage but we were both convinced by the arguments.

From a health point of view the need to rethink marriage may seem strange. Many studies have shown that compared with the unmarried the married live longer, are healthier on most measures, and less likely to kill themselves. Men, however, benefit more than women from marriage, and there may, of course, be a selection effect. It is probably the love, the commitment, and the legal and financial benefits rather than the fact of marriage that brings the health benefits.

Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of the Marriage Foundation, started the foundation after 40 years in the family courts, as a barrister and then judge, seeing the appalling effects of family breakdown, which, it was announced last week, costs Britain £51 billion a year. Marriages, he said, are three times more likely to last than the relationships of couples who simply cohabit. Half of 15 year olds in Britain no longer live with both parents, but among those that do 93% are the children of married couples.

Although Sir Paul named his foundation the Marriage Foundation and seemed to be arguing for marriage, he thought of marriage as any committed couple that stayed together whether it was a marriage, a civil partnership, or simply cohabiting.

Clare Chambers, senior lecturer in philosophy in Cambridge, has written a book Against Marriage, and for her marriage is a function of the state. It defines what constitutes a marriage (how many people, whether of the same sex, at what age, etc), endorses it, giving it all kinds of privileges that elevate it above other ways of living, and regulates it. The state attaches a whole bundle of rights and duties to marriage, including taxation, benefits, inheritance arrangements, and rules on migration.

All the speakers agreed that although marriage might now be associated with love and commitment, it has a long and unpleasant history of being about men owning and controlling women, children, and property. Women could not own property until the end of the 19th century and marital rape became a crime in England in only 1991. Still, at a traditional wedding the father “gives away” his daughter, reminding all that this is a male dominated, sexist institution. In much of the world, Peter Tatchell, a gay rights activist, said, many marriages are arranged or forced.

Tatchell was prominent in the campaign to legalise same sex marriage, which began in Britain in 1992. It took until 2003 for civil partnerships to be legalised for same sex couples but they are still not legal for heterosexuals, although the courts have insisted that they should be. Civil partnerships are essentially the same legally as marriages (the only differences being around consummation and adultery), but all three speakers preferred civil partnerships to marriage because they are more equal and don’t carry the heterosexual sexist baggage of marriage.

Chambers is against marriage on the grounds of equality and liberty. Women are not equal with men within marriage, and the state by attaching a bundle of rights and duties to marriage creates a hierarchy of relationships with marriage at the top, making unmarried couples and single people inferior. Much of the population, including my wife and I, thinks that “common law wives” have similar rights to married women, but in fact they have none. By bundling rights and duties together, marriage (and civil partnerships) restrict autonomy; if they weren’t bundled people might choose different combinations of rights and duties.

There is a need, Chambers accepted, for the law to regulate relationships, particularly to protect the vulnerable, but neither marriage nor civil partnership, which all the speakers criticised as being “one size fits all,” need to be that mechanism. She pointed out that parenthood might be a better basis for regulation than marriage, not least because parent-child relationships are more durable than couple relationships. Tatchell advocates a model whereby people would select “any significant other” (perhaps a best friend, sibling, or lover) and then choose among a menu of rights and duties. Such an arrangement would lead to greater equality and autonomy. All three speakers agreed that something along those lines would be better than either marriage or civil partnerships.

And at dinner afterwards, my wife and I, despite being married for 40 years, agreed.

You can listen to the whole discussion at:

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interest: None declared.