300 Years of Family Life - Science, Sex or Psychology?
In May, Boodle Hatfield’s renowned family law team held a diverse, thought-provoking panel discussion on what drives our relationships and whether the institution of marriage will continue for another three hundred years, and, if so, in what format.
The discussion was hosted by ‘Naked Attraction’ TV presenter, Anna Richardson, and the panel comprised evolutionary anthropologist, Dr Anna Machin, Christ Church Southwark’s Revd John Henry, psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist, Silva Neves, and influencer, writer and musician, Tom Rasmussen.
The event opened with an introduction from Family Law Partner, Emily Brand, who set the scene with a precis of the ever-changing laws regulating marriage and love in the UK. She walked the audience through the history of marriage from the Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753 which made a marriage only legal if the ceremony was held in a church, all the way to the introduction of no-fault divorce last month. The room was asked to assess whether progress is always linear and positive, especially in times where women potentially face renewed hardship around abortion rights in the US.
Does marriage still have a place in modern society?
The panel began by discussing whether they viewed marriage as an institution that was broadly redundant. With Rasmussen, in a queer polyamorous relationship themself, analysing how they hold complicated feelings towards marriage as a result of having been excluded from the institution until only seven years ago, the discussion looked at marriage as a social construct, protective for people in a society that upholds the married and shuns the unmarried, but also as an act of displaying love for another human and a choice to love them every day.
With new concepts emerging in recent years, Machin has witnessed couples who are choosing to enter beta marriages (a short-term marriage), platonic co-parenting and life partnership. She argued that marriage is not dead but merely evolving.
Discussion also turned to whether our language can evolve to incorporate the different types of love that we feel. The bible offers ‘eros’ and ‘agape’ to describe, for the former, a love that feels exciting and for the latter, a sacrificial love. Can we use these examples of love to improve our own relationships?
Education has a major role to play
While viewpoints on the tensions between the drivers of love, marriage, and religion differed, there was wide-ranging consensus that there is a lack of education for young people in the UK as to what a healthy long-term relationship looks and feels like. What can monogamous relationships learn from polyamorous? In a world where technology teaches us how to present, as opposed to live, how can people navigate this false construct when it comes to developing relationships in the real world? Should society encourage young people to embark on healthy relationships by moving away from the idea of ‘happy ever after’?
The panel also looked at the issue of gendered roles that still exist in marriage in the UK, as Neves discussed how this still causes problems in the relationships of the couples that he sees every day. He touched on the unrealistic expectations that women are still societally forced to uphold, by balancing traditional roles and accepting more sexual freedom.
With a Reverend amongst the panel, the discussions even turned to the Pope’s recent comments on the selfishness of partners who choose not to have children, with Henry openly admitting that many Anglican priests would disagree with this idea.
So, does marriage still have a role to play in modern society? The broad consensus suggested that it does but conceivably with a higher barrier to entry: an annual review or perhaps even a regular MOT should be deemed essential and the understanding that every day possibly means actively choosing the “whole person” and, moreover, that authentic love doesn’t need the perfect partner and it is indeed a person’s flaws and not their perfection that we fall in love with. Machin even supported this with evidence from her work with AI. The only way to recreate a human-like robot is by introducing flaws, as these are what makes us human, so is accepting each other’s flaws the path to true, authentic love?
From a legal perspective, certainly there are modern trends and practices that sit outside the current framework posing some interesting questions: will we see the development of legal protections for individuals and offspring engaged in polygamous relationships or long-term platonic relationships? When will they/them pronouns appear on legal documents? Will “others” ever be included in a legal marriage in this jurisdiction? And pertinently, do we really want all aspects of marriage or relationships to be legislated?
What remains certain, as the last 300 years have shown, we continue to live in a social experiment.
Commenting on the evening, Emily Brand, Partner at Boodle Hatfield LLP, said:
“It’s enlightening to hear that the cause of tension for relationships in the 21st century may be that we have far too many choices now in contrast to previous chapters of our social history: whether that be to enter a polyamorous relationship or to keep swiping online until we find the “perfect” partner.
From this discussion, it is clear that we all want to be loved whether by our friends our romantic partners or by our family and this does not look likely to change anytime soon. Education and open communication appear to be the key. Our love for one another and how we express it does evolve with changing societal norms and could look very different in another three hundred years.”