The case for marriage

Free wedding rings on book photo, public domain CC0 image.

If you visit a typical classroom filled with teenagers studying for their GCSEs, you’ll find that 45 percent are not living with both natural parents. Many will agree with me that this is an extraordinarily high proportion. It’s almost certainly the highest in recorded history. The figure is very reliable and is sourced from two large scale studies, one I did myself as a spin-off from my PhD research and one from the Deaton poverty review cited by the children’s commissioner.

Why does this matter? Well, I see it in the research I do today. Teachers see it in their classrooms. Doctors see it in their surgeries. The care and young offender systems are dominated by children not brought up by both natural parents. Family breakdown is on a par with poverty as the number one predictor of teenage mental health problems. It influences GCSE results and has knock-on effects into adult employment and relationships.

Even if you don’t think having the input of both mother and father are particularly important to a child, removing one pair of hands has a huge effect on household resources. I have the utmost respect for lone mums and dads who manage their time and money alone and parent their children alone. Yet it’s no wonder lone parents are disproportionately likely to need financial and other support from the state.

On a personal level, I compare the huge scale of family breakdown today with my own days at a small primary school in the late-1960s. I was the only child out of 100 whose parents had divorced. My mum was never stigmatised as a lone mum, nor was I ever picked on by the other kids. But she struggled with the weight of responsibility until she remarried. Although I went on to have successful careers as a Royal Navy pilot, a broker, and now researcher, the effects played out in my own family life. My marriage went to the brink largely due to my inability to understand relationships. It’s only through the support of friends that we got back on track and that history didn’t repeat itself for our own children. I’m happily married today by the skin of my teeth and grace of God.

You might assume that these very high levels of family breakdown are the result of very high levels of divorce. They’re not. Divorce rates and numbers today are at the lowest level since the 1960s. This is not about fewer people marrying. After all, divorce rates rose to their peak in the 1980s while marriage rates were falling. It’s because the social pressure to marry has reduced so much. So those who do marry today really want to marry. Hence fewer couples marrying because they ought to. Divorce rates have fallen accordingly.

The reality is that two thirds of the parents who split up never married. So it’s not divorce driving record levels of family breakdown but the separation of unmarried couples. In my PhD research, I’ve shown very clearly that parents who are married are significantly more likely to stay together than those who never marry. This is true regardless of age, education, income, happiness, and a host of other factors.

Why does marriage appear to help couples stay together? Part of the reason is down to background, what’s known as a selection effect. But part is also down to the act of marriage itself. Some people trivialise marriage as just a piece of paper. Yet the psychology of marriage – a proposal and a public promise – automatically includes all the key ingredients of commitment: a mutual decision, clear plan, unambiguous signal of intent, social affirmation and social accountability. From this, it should be deeply surprising if married couples didn’t have better outcomes.

Here’s one. Marriage is great for social mobility. My research has found that the poorest married parents are more likely to stay together than the richest cohabiting parents. That’s an amazing comparison. The act of marriage boosts couple stability to a similar extent as moving from the lowest income group to the highest.

Here are two simple things parliamentarians can do to help. The first is to talk about marriage. Champion it! Most of you are married. You embrace in your own lives. So why isn’t it front and centre in public policy? The second is to talk about the way the benefits system penalises couples who live together, let alone marry. Ask any mum on benefits. She knows all about this. DWP wrote an interesting discussion paper on the ‘couple penalty’ last summer. The potential loss of benefits is ‘strongly influential’ on partnering decisions. Policy is not neutral towards marriage. It’s actively antagonistic.

Family breakdown is endemic. The consequences are everywhere. Marriage may not be a panacea. But if we keep ignoring the problem, things will simply get worse. If we want more couples to have healthy happy relationships, we need more marriage.

Harry Benson

Harry Benson is one of Britain’s leading champions for marriage. As research director for Marriage Foundation, his findings are routinely cited in the UK media and by politicians and have made front page news on several occasions. He has taught relationship courses to thousands of couples and written several books on marriage and relationships. He is now in the final year of a PhD in social policy at the University of Bristol looking at the role of commitment in the timing of marriage.