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Is marriage outdated?

For most couples looking to progress their relationship, the usual steps would be engagement followed by marriage. Tom Rigby investigates this convention nowadays (Thumbnail credit Image: Bsivad via Creative Commons)

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For most couples looking to progress their relationship, the usual steps would be engagement followed by marriage. Yet for Tom Freeman and Cathy Doyle, this is not the case. Last week they applied to become the first heterosexual couple to undertake a civil partnership - a union currently available exclusively to same sex couples - and subsequently reignited debate over the modern day merit of the institution of marriage.

The pair stated their aversion to the "negative, sexist connotations of marriage". They "do not feel like a husband and wife" but instead "civil partners", and are opting for a union, which they feel supports greater equality than marriage. And they are not alone in their belief: Tom and Cathy are just one of an increasing number of mixed and same sex couples petitioning to change the law. Yet legally speaking, civil partnerships and marriage offer couples virtually identical rights, and as a result many dismiss their appeals as arbitrary. The difference, though, lies not in legal semantics, but in the growing impertinence of marriage to modern society.

This is not to say that we should abolish it, though, but rather redefine it. Despite recent statistics revealing a slight drop in divorces, the number of overall marriages taking place in Britain is falling at a greater rate - along with the average marriage length - and with the highest proportion of divorcees in their late twenties, it appears that the vow for lifetime exclusivity is becoming less and less relevant to modern marriages. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, blames the breakdown on today's consumer culture and the fallacy that "there will always be something better, faster, shinier just around the corner". However, surely marriage - a celebration of two individuals - should reflect ever-changing personal and social needs rather than vice versa. In a society with one of the highest divorce rates per capita in the world; one in which online divorce applications increased by a staggering 34% in 2010 alone; the zeitgeist is moving away from the same old argument of what marriage should be, to a reassessment of what modern society requires of it.

However as we are, according to Carey's comments, living in an increasingly irreligious society then we must adapt accordingly by introducing a clear demarcation of church and state. Cries that it would undermine a religious sacrament fail to note that it is not an inherently religious practice - historically, marriage was implemented as a means for wealthy families to unite and consolidate their lands and assets by law and was appropriated by the church much later on after initial scepticism. The religious bearing of the word 'marriage' simply clothes an originally secular practice, and the notion that the church somehow owns marriage is absurd - in a secular society its doctrine has no rightful legal bearing. To reverse recent trends showing a decline in the duration and number of marriages, activists urge the need to move away from irrelevant religious rhetoric on the taboo of same sex marriage and 'quick fix' divorces, and begin a universally inclusive discourse not stifled by moral and religious sentiments, set within a purely legal and secular framework. The recent conclusion of Judge Vaughn Walker in California's Proposition 8 trial that there was "no rational basis for singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license" emphasises that progression comes not from stigmatisation, but incorporation: we must open up civil marriage to gay couples in order to move forward.

Yet the current 'separate but equal' legislation which denies straight couples civil partnerships and gay couples civil marriages is a major stumbling block, offering sexual equality in all but name. Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has called the current system a "sexual apartheid" which legally discriminates against couples of both genders on sexual grounds and, while for many the legal equivocalness of the two is enough and its opponents pedantic, the division is still a basic contradiction to the progress of the 2004 legislation. By going as far as giving civil partnerships the same rights as marriage but clearly defining it as not a marriage, the law demonstrates an implicit moral and social aversion to same sex unions - despite also promoting universal equality regardless of sexuality. In a secular society uninfluenced by religious sentiment, there is no legal justification for the government to imbue legislation with moral or religious overtones which consolidate ties between church and state.

Many of those opposed to gay marriages emphasise the inability of gay couples to naturally reproduce or raise children, but civil partners currently have equal custody, adoption and IVF rights as straight married couples, and the law does not discriminate against infertile heterosexual couples wishing to marry. The rhetoric of 'family values' cited by many gay marriage opponents suggests that opening up marriage to gay couples would inevitably result in the breakdown of the family unit, yet all sociological and scientific research carried out has failed to show any difference in gay and straight couples' parenting abilities. And the suggestion that the husband and wife partnership is the cornerstone of family values and good parenting is unfounded; the legal link between two parents is irrelevant to their ability and suitability to raise children. Cohabiting couple, civil partners or husband and wife: parents are still parents (for good or for worse) by any other name

Yet a compromise between legal equality and the freedom to practice religious doctrine must be struck, and ideological support ought to come through persuasion rather than imposition. British society celebrates religious tolerance, and there is no reason why an organisation cannot perform and sanction marriage sacraments (selective or not) to complement civil marriages: the right to freedom of expression ratifies this. However, such sacraments cannot be enshrined in law, explicitly or implicitly. Far from undermining them, this system would reaffirm increasingly diluted marital vows. By essentially privatising the marriage sacrament, couples would have a choice whether or not to take the vows currently mandatory in marriages, encouraging a greater conviction in couples undertaking them and supporting freedom of religious practice. At any rate, a 2010 amendment which overturned legislation prohibiting civil partnerships to be held on religious grounds is forcing religious institutions to at least consider more progressive legislation, and while this is a long way from advocating same-sex marriages, the terms for a potential compromise agreement have been laid out.

In addition to mounting support for same-sex civil marriages, the increasing calls for heterosexual civil partnerships indicates growing support for legal alternatives to marriage. Nearly one in three unmarried people aged 25-34 cohabit with a partner and a recent survey (Vitabiotics Wellwoman) suggests that 31% of women feel marriage no longer necessary or relevant: for many couples marriage is essentially an expensive way of gaining legal security for themselves and their children. The stigma of failing to marry by a certain age; the exclusion of homosexual couples; and the significant tax breaks and legal benefits afforded to married couples over single people, divorcees and cohabiting couples have contributed significantly to a growing disillusionment. This is not to dismiss the marital institution as ineffectual: it unquestionably has much to offer by bringing together families, public celebrating love and promoting unity. Yet at the same time, many couples do not feel that marriage is necessary to affirm their relationship. By undertaking a civil partnership cohabiting couples would be able to assume the same rights as married couples without the social and religious baggage. And ultimately the union's terms and duration should be at the couple's discretion, as externally imposing a blanket model ignores the differing needs of different couples. If lifetime exclusivity is a pre-requisite for marriage despite the right to divorce, then mandatorily enforcing it will not necessitate lifetime commitment, but contribute towards the stigma surrounding divorce whilst adding pressure and undermining the gravity of the vows. So what are the alternatives?

One potential model is the Pac de Solidarite Civil (PACS) legislation - the French equivalent to civil partnerships - in which couples have a far more liberal legal union, and ending it under mutual agreement simply requires a declaration at the tribunal d'instance; the equivalent of an English county court. The PACS achieved rapid and widespread success in France and offers legal union to not just gay but also to straight couples, garnering huge popularity with the latter - around 95% of those applying for PACS are heterosexuals. In addition, the PACS union is growing at a faster rate than marriage; there are now around two couples undertaking a PACS for every three getting married.

Many opponents cite this statistic as proof that a universally available civil partnership would alter the dynamics of marriage, yet it is not clear why that is a problem. Rather than deciding what is uncompromisingly best for all, it seems that offering a flexible arrangement rather than adapting a relationship to a potentially incompatible model would improve long term success and offer couples the choice they desire. We are habituated to the idea that marriage is for life, but why should it unquestioningly be so for everyone?

Far from an attack on religious freedom or a pedantic splitting of legal hairs, activists simply encourage the need to consider necessary and impending changes. A flexible alternative to the institution of marriage; universally inclusive civil marriage laws; greater all round legal security for cohabiting couples; preservation of religious freedom of practice; and the opportunity for improving the long term success of legal unions - these are the benefits to be reaped from these changes. Social progression can only happen by promoting incorporation as the crux of social progress and, with prominent Tory, Lib Dem, Labour ad Green MP's in favour of opening both civil marriage and partnerships up to mixed and same sex couples, it seems only a matter of time before the law is changed. While I oppose calls to completely do away with the marital tradition, a greater focus on individual needs must be encouraged instead of blindly preserving tradition at all costs. In the words of Groucho Marx; "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?!" Indeed.

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Malcolm Cowley Posted on Saturday 4 Dec 2010

What an informative, original piece of work.


Chris Posted on Saturday 4 Dec 2010

Seconded to the above comment.

It's interesting (and a little surprising that you left it out) that in the USA, there's never been a question of civil partnerships - the gay community is fighting for equal marriage laws and nothing else. The attitude there is that the religious right shouldn't have the right to define what marriage is; having seen the furore die down here since we allowed civil partnerships, it can't help but feel relevant.

(For the record, I'd say that both should be available to everyone, regardless of orientation. To me, the idea of marriage is a bit too ritualistic and irrelevant to me to really appeal.)


Chris Venables Posted on Monday 10 Jan 2011

One of the most interesting pieces I've ever read in the York student press.

Nicely written too!