By Nick Spencer
Writing about cohabitation and marriage - particularly when you seek to advocate the latter over the former – demands, rather wearyingly, that you get your caveats in first.
So, for the record; I don't think cohabiting couples are necessarily morally inferior. I don't think they are necessarily bad parents. I don't think children who grow up in cohabiting households are necessarily the worse for it and I don't think marriage is the answer to all society's problems. No doubt there are other accusations to be fended off, but that should, I hope, give some idea of the shared ground between those who wish to defend marriage and those who don't. This isn't a question of scoring cheap moral points.
Those who do wish to defend marriage clearly face an uphill task if recent research conducted by Leeds University on behalf of The Co-operative Legal Services is to be believed. The study, which draws on data from the 2001 and 2011 censuses, shows that over the last decade the number of cohabiting couples with dependent children rose by 292,000, whilst the number of married couples with dependent children fell by 319,000. In other words, today, 38% of cohabiting couples are parents, which is the same proportion as married couples.
The demographic data are supported by opinion polling which reports that only 27% of people now believe that people should be married before having children, whereas 52% believe marriage is not important providing that parents are in a committed relationship. Thus, opinion and behaviour converge on the conclusion that the British increasingly see marriage and cohabitation as morally and practically equivalent. No longer is one seen as a trial for the other. Now one is the same as the other.
Is there anything wrong with that? Well, on one level, no: if a couple are indeed seriously committed to loving and supporting one another come what may, and they maintain that commitment, there is no problem.
The fact is, however, as this study, like all others before it, recognises, cohabiting couples and families are less stable than married couples and families. A higher proportion breaks down, irrespective of whether there are children there to hold them together.
The reason for this stubborn difference lies in the quintessentially human ability to shape our environment more than it shapes us. Marriage is a statement of will. More: it is a statement of faith, that you will remain loyal, supportive, faithful, and loving to a person, come what may, until death separates you.
This is not a logical statement, still less an empirical one. There is no algorithm or evidence to demonstrate it beyond reasonable doubt. No-one can prove it or even prove that they mean it. Rather, it is an extravagant statement of intent, a declaration of the determination to triumph over events, to assert your will over whatever life might throw at you.
Cohabitation, by definition, isn't. It is not that the intention isn't necessarily there. Many cohabiting couples will love one another as much (sometimes more) than those who wed. But, unromantic as it sounds, the issue is not love, but will. And cohabiting couples don't declare their will in the same way.
The reasons for this lack of declaration sound… well, reasonable. Promises made inwardly or to one another are sufficient and, in any case, bonds of a shared house or a shared family or shared interests are more powerful than mere words.
They don't convince. If we are honest about ourselves, humans are frighteningly good at redefining or ignoring inward or whispered promises. And shared possessions, even a shared family life, are transparently no substitute for personal vows. A mortgage alone does not hold people together.
The result is that cohabitation is left just that bit more vulnerable to circumstance, and while that may not sound like much of a difference, it is. As anyone who has lived through such states will testify, love is severely tested in times of poverty and sickness, not to mention anxiety, insecurity, and even wealth and opportunity. At such times, you need all the resources at your disposal to stay together and the wedding promise – extravagant, bold, personal, and public – is the most important resource of them all. Of course, it is sometimes not enough. Marriages do break down, in spite of the public vows. But they break down less often than cohabitation does.
So, while some will trumpet this latest report on marriage and cohabitation as a sign of our newfound freedom, it is, I would venture, a sign of the opposite. Human freedom depends on the extent to which our will determines our lives, rather than vice versa, and these new data suggest we are increasingly unwilling to let it do that.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. Follow him on Twitter
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