Marriage: what is it good for? - Boodle Hatfield

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01 Jul 2024

Marriage: what is it good for?

When '80s band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood sang  'War: What is it Good for?' (from which this title was plagiarised), the answer they gave was a resounding "Absolutely Nothing".

Boodle Hatfield were delighted to host a conference on 13 March exploring with our experts and illustrious audience whether the same can be said for the institution of marriage in the modern world.

The discussion was hosted by multi-award-winning financial journalist and commentator, Claer Barrett, and was enhanced with insights, research and experiences from retired High Court judge and podcaster, Sir Nicholas Mostyn; journalist, broadcaster, and author, Caitlin Moran; Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health at Cambridge University, Professor Gordon Harold; and Professor of Social and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Professor Berkay Ozcan.

While family lawyers will often hear the case against marriage from their divorcing clients, in the UK marriage is still awarded something of a “special status” – both legally, politically and culturally. It is still widely viewed as the ‘norm’ for many couples, notwithstanding a number of significant societal shifts in relation to private affairs that have occurred in recent decades. It is an area where the statistics contradict policy decisions and may even defy anecdotal experience; the rate of divorce is high and current trends suggest that marriage will all but disappear by 2062, with many couples choosing to engage in committed relationships and cohabit instead of pursuing marriage at all.

Professor Berkay Ozcan highlighted that an enduring relationship – whether inside or outside of marriage – can have the same positive value, provided that, in addition to the mutual benefit felt within the relationship, society recognises the worth and stability of the couple as a unit.

Certainly, marriage does not guarantee relationship longevity. So, should other types of enduring personal relationships – beyond marriage – be given official recognition? Are couples making a conscious decision to remain unmarried, or should protections and privileges offered to married couples be extended to those who aren’t? Does that marriage certificate really make a tangible difference to people’s lives? What metrics can be used to measure the ‘success’ of a relationship?

While marriage was traditionally about trading roles within the unit of the couple; the roles within a traditional partnership were defined and different (the archetypal protector/breadwinner and the homemaker scenario). Now, Professor Ozcan observed that people are more likely to marry a person who is similar to themselves, having comparable backgrounds, characteristics and abilities – with the effect that there is less “trading” within the couple to their mutual benefit. He explained that conflict can arise as a consequence of these ‘team roles’ overlapping with one another and causing confused expectations or blurred lines within the couple itself.

Where conflict does arise, the way in which a couple manages this can have a bigger impact than one might initially imagine. Professor Gordon Harold described how his research shows that a couple’s engagement with conflict can actually echo across generations. He described how the full range of the “silence to violence” continuum of disagreement, from passive aggressive behaviours through to violent outbursts, can impact upon a family dynamic, all with profound effects. This is particularly true if children are subjected to unhealthy discord in a parental relationship. He explained that children who are thus exposed are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of interpersonal and parental discord in their own lives, thereby perpetuating these patterns and behaviours for their descendants too.

Thus the notion of parents staying together ‘for the sake of the children’ is called into question. What became apparent – whether for married or unmarried parents – is that it is how the parents engage with one another which was likely to have the biggest impact on a child and generations to come. If a constructive approach was adopted, even in areas of disagreement or ‘conscious uncoupling’, this is likely to have a more positive impact. In contrast, high-conflict scenarios are likely to have a harmful impact for those involved – with a far-reaching knock-on effect.

Clearly, the importance of mutual investment into the relationship extends beyond emotional investment and into the financial sphere. Interestingly, it was reported that when divorce law was introduced in Ireland, individualised savings increased in married households, regardless of the length of the marriage. There was some debate within the research as to whether the availability of divorce might therefore invite a more individualised mind set, notwithstanding the existence of the marital partnership. Similarly, statistics show that there might be lower ‘joint’ contributions to family wealth, including lower financial investment in the children of a relationship, where divorce was an option.

For those choosing to get hitched, how much then has really changed? The words of the traditional marriage ceremony state; “with this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow“. Indeed, a common case made in favour of marriage in the legal profession is the protection that it offers the financially weaker spouse on the breakdown of the relationship. In an imperfect system therefore, Sir Nicholas Mostyn commented, this is what marriage is good for.

Still, the question remains whether unmarried couples should be offered the same legal securities. It is common knowledge in the legal sector that the myth of a ‘common law marriage’ still leaves many members of the public who might believe themselves to be in a position to bring financial claims against their long-term but unmarried partner exposed on the breakdown of their relationship.

Different legislative provision is made in England and Wales, depending on the legalities of the relationship. This means that the Courts deal with those in unmarried relationships on an unequal footing to those who were married. There are also difficulties for those, for example, in a religious marriage, who believe themselves to be married but whose ceremonies do not comply with the legal requirements for a valid marriage in this jurisdiction. Whilst legal protections may be proactively put in place between unmarried couples themselves, it was acknowledged that many do not take the necessary steps to do so – whether by conscious choice or perhaps because they simply do not know about them.

By way of contrast, Sir Mostyn explained that in Australia couples who are in a ‘de facto’ relationship (in essence, those in a committed domestic partnership of 2 years or more duration, or with a child) are able to bring a financial claim against their partner, in the same way as married couples on a separation. The audience was asked to consider whether marriage would hold the same status if cohabiting couples were legally offered the same safeguards as married couples. Perhaps this would render the system entirely redundant.

In her view, Caitlin Moran, felt that marriage was a ‘creative act’ – with room for each couple to make of it what they will; at the end of the day, no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors in another marriage. So perhaps the idiom really is true, that, put simply, “you get out what you put in” in respect of marriage/relationships too.

One observation from the floor stressed the need for a more holistic assessment of the value ascribed to all kinds of personal relationships and even a change in language; for example, it was said that a divorce should not be described as a “failed” marriage and equally the simple fact of the length of a relationship is not necessarily a representative measure of “success”. For instance, is it not a success where the exit from the relationship is managed in a conscious and collaborative way, to minimise any potential negative impact on the couple and any children? To the contrary, one of the markers of “success” might be to undergo separation and maintain a co-parenting relationship once a natural conclusion to a beneficial partnership has been mutually reached and negotiated.

Ultimately, there remains considerable room for debate about the value or otherwise of marriage. As Caitlin Moran observed; ‘I feel like marriage the way I feel about Wales – I love it, it’s the only place I go on holiday, but I’ve got friends who’ve had a terrible time there’. Nevertheless, the audience voted by a vast majority at the conclusion of the debate that they felt that marriage was on balance “good for something” – despite the number of divorce lawyers in the room!

This article first appeared in the ThoughtLeaders4 HNW Divorce Magazine, published in July 2024. Issue 17 can be downloaded here.