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The Marriage Myth: Does Getting Married Really Make Your Marriage Stronger?

23/01/2014 12:58 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

A new report by the think tank The Marriage Foundation, founded by the High Court Judge Sir Paul Coleridge, has claimed that cohabitation, i.e living together without marrying, is the key driver of family breakdown. The report urged the Government to reverse the trend away from marriage, by "distinguishing, encouraging, promoting and incentivising marriage." The Marriage Foundation claim that married couples tend to be in more stable relationships than those who are not married, and so family breakdown can be avoided if more couples marry. But does getting married actually strengthen relationships?

The last few decades have seen a significant increase in the number of cohabiting couples, so that unmarried parents now account for 19% of couples with dependent children. However, as the Marriage Foundation notes, break up rates are higher, accounting for 50% of family breakdown. There is also extensive evidence as to the different level of outcomes between children raised by unmarried couples as opposed to those raised by married couples, the latter generally performing better.

The Marriage Foundation attribute this to the nature of marriage itself, claiming that the act or decision to marry promotes, and therefore can lead to, stability. They point to the 'inertia' theory of relationships, commonly known as "sliding versus deciding", which holds that by marrying, couples are making an active commitment towards their partner which will lead to a greater stability within the relationship.

In contrast, it is claimed, many cohabiting couples drift into relationships. Some argue that through living together, couples can become "trapped" in relationships that otherwise would have faded. They may therefore slide into having children together, or even marrying, without making an active decision to commit to their partner and the relationship. So, the Marriage Foundation claims, by encouraging couples to actively think about and commit to their relationship, i.e. get married, their relationships will become more stable.

However, the reality is more complex. The research behind the 'inertia' theory was not looking at cohabiting relationships generally, but the impact pre-marital cohabitation has on divorce rates. It has found that, where couples had lived together before marriage, the quality of the relationship was lower and so more likely to end in divorce, than had they not done so. This would indicate that the act of marrying is not sufficient to stabilise those relationships that are weaker or more "inert", and so little would be gained by encouraging unmarried parents to marry, as the Marriage Foundation appear to imply.

This would suggest that the act of marrying does not confer stability onto couples, which has been borne out by other studies attempting to establish whether there is any causation between getting married and having a stronger relationship or better outcomes for children. This points to the importance of "selection" to explain the difference between types of relationship. This means that a decision to marry will depend on many factors, such as the educational, ethnic and socio-economic status of the couple. Some studies have pointed to the theory of the "poor-man's marriage", that cohabiting parents tend to have a similar level of commitment to married parents, but fewer resources.

One point raised by the Marriage Foundation gets closer to the heart of where any intervention should be focused. They note that the greatest risk of divorcing is between the third and sixth year of marriage. Similarly, for unmarried parents, the greatest risk of separation is during the early years of parenthood. This would indicate that whatever the nature of the relationship, the most vulnerable period is at the earlier stages. The Marriage Foundation recommends that the Government should give serious priority to implementing an extensive scheme for improving the quality of relationships.

This is a good idea, if applied across the board. Some studies have indicated that support for parents which focuses on the quality of the couple relationship rather than their parenting skills is more effective in improving outcomes for children. It is also possible to establish from pregnancy onwards which couples are going to experience greater vulnerabilities in their relationship. Provided resources are available, these couples could be offered the necessary support to strengthen the quality of their relationship and so, hopefully, decrease the chances of relationship breakdown.

As the Marriage Foundation rightly comments, family breakdown costs the country more than the defence budget, not to mention the personal cost, and there needs to be a focus on a way to reduce the worst excesses of this. However, it is equally as important that we focus on the right remedy. There are many good reasons why an individual couple may want to get married, for instance the greater legal rights marriage provides (as opposed to the far fewer rights for cohabiting couples). But it is important that we do not bestow upon marriage powers it does not possess, such as the claim that the act of marriage provides stability to a relationship that was not there previously.

Not only does it send out a message to unmarried couples and their children that they are somehow less committed, and therefore inferior to married couples, but if other factors are in fact responsible for additional relationship stress and family breakdown, it distracts attention away from successfully identifying and dealing with those. This is too important an issue to get wrong.