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Marriage November 1999

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Published in The Weekend Australian 13-14 November 1999

Marriage in Australia has been in long term decline. Although there was a tiny blip in the trend last year, the number of couples getting married has been falling for the last thirty years, and the divorce rate is three times higher today than it was thirty years ago. More than a quarter of children born each year in Australia are now born to unmarried parents - a record high figure which is still rising.

Does all this mean that marriage is destined to disappear in the next century? And would it matter if it did? Opinion divides into two main camps.

The optimists argue that the decline in marriage reflects the increased autonomy of women. With more women in paid jobs, for example, they no longer have to marry in order to achieve security for themselves and their children. Modern relationships are more equal and more open, and the decline in marriage rates demonstrates that women do not have to put up with unsatisfactory and unbalanced relationships any more.

An example of this line of argument came in this year's BBC Reith Lectures when the sociologist, Anthony Giddens, claimed that modern couples enjoy a level of emotional intimacy which was quite rare in old-fashioned marriages. Men and women must today take account of what each wants from a relationship, for they can walk away if a relationship becomes unsatisfactory. Today, coupling (and uncoupling) depends upon equality and communication - what Giddens called 'a democracy of the emotions'.

To illustrate his point, Giddens told his audience about his Great Aunt. She had been married for 60 years, yet she told him one day that she had been 'deeply unhappy' for the whole of that time. "In her day," concluded Giddens, "there was no escape."

Pessimists, however, argue that the decline of marriage is a symptom of increased individualism and selfishness in our society. It seems that we are no longer willing or able to make a commitment that lasts. Even our most intimate relationships are hedged around with ifs, buts and maybes.

In today's world, it seems that you can trust nobody and you can rely on no-one - not even your partner. If you are bored or 'unfulfilled' in your relationship, then today's thinking is that you should get out - your only responsibility is to ensure that your partner and your children are looked after financially when you desert them. Sticking around out of a sense of duty is no longer seen as a virtue - the new moral imperative is 'Get a Life', and if that means dumping the people associated with the old one, so be it.

Reviewing this modern thinking, the social historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, points out that traditional ethics have been inverted. Two generations back, the respectable majority used to distance itself from those who 'lived in sin', or who deserted their children to go off with a new partner. Today, it is those who commit themselves to faithful and monogamous marriages who are more likely to strike us as 'a bit odd'.

So who is right - the optimists, who believe that modern relationships are richer and more equal, or the pessimists, who think that we have simply become less responsible and more hedonistic?

I suspect they are both right. Modern relationships are more equal, we expect more from them, and we probably put more effort into them to keep them fresh and alive. There is nothing like a wedding ring on your partner's finger to encourage complacency.

But we are also much more willing than our parents and grandparents were to give up on a relationship rather than working to put it right. One suspects that a lot of the relationships - married and de facto - that break up today could have survived and prospered with a little more perseverance.

But what is so important about working at a relationship? If things have gone stale, why not move on? It is at this point that we need to distinguish the situation of couples with children from that of childless couples.

Where there are no children, I see no reason why we should get too concerned about whether or not couples marry, and whether or not they stay together. They are mature adults, they can make their own decisions about what is best for them.

The same logic does not apply when there are dependent children, however. In his Reith lecture, Giddens had virtually nothing to say about children, and it's not difficult to see why, for the increased freedom of adults to live their lives as they choose is being bought at the expense of the wellbeing of our children.

Fewer than three-quarters of families with children in Australia are today made up of two parents bringing up their own children. More than one in five are single parent households (the great majority of them being single mother households), and the remaining 7 per cent are 'blended' or step families.

Clearly, the weaker marriage becomes, the more families there will be where children are being brought up without one of their natural parents. Either because the parents break up, or because they never form a stable union in the first place, increasing numbers of Australian children are today growing up without either mum or dad.

Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of wishful thinking which held that this did not matter. It was argued that children brought up by one parent were no worse off than those raised by two.

Such arguments are rarely heard today. In the USA and Britain, as well as in Australia, the evidence is mounting that children are generally better off brought up by their two natural parents than in any other circumstances. Children from what we used to call 'broken homes' tend, on average, to perform less well at school, they are less healthy, they are more likely to get into trouble with the police, and they are less likely to find and hold down a 'good job'. Nor does remarriage or re-partnering help much (and children are seven times more likely to be abused by a step father than by their natural father).

Of course, if parents are locked into vicious battles then their children might benefit from a separation - but most marriages ending in divorce are not like that and most children of divorced and separated parents would benefit if their parents made more of an effort to stay together. It turns out that staying together 'for the sake of the children' might be the wise thing to do after all.

What does all this have to do with marriage? Is it not perfectly possible for two unmarried parents to live together and raise children in a stable and loving environment without having to go through the empty ritual of a wedding ceremony? Marriage is, after all, just a 'piece of paper'.

The problem with this argument is that we know that parents who are married stay together much more successfully on average than parents who simply cohabit. De factos break up much more easily than married couples do.

The reason is probably that married couples are more committed to making their relationship work. At the Institute of Family Studies, Robyn Parker has recently been carrying out discussions with married and unmarried couples to find out what makes for a strong family unit. One of the answers seems to be that the strength of a union depends crucially upon each partner's prior commitment to it. Couples who stay together are those who have jointly determined that separation is not an option. When problems arise, these couples know that they have to work together to find a solution.

This is where marriage comes in. People who are married are less likely to consider separation when problems arise. Marriage is more than just a 'bit of paper' - it is a public and highly visible symbol of a couple's determination to make their relationship work. The mere act of getting married reinforces the commitment which is needed to overcome the problems which occur in any relationship.

Marriage evolved because we needed a clear set of rules governing key aspects of family life such as property ownership and responsibility for children. Giddens calls it a 'shell institution', but it is much more than that. Marriage has a purpose.

For many centuries, the rules of marriage favoured men - married women lost their property to their husbands, they could not get divorced, and children were the property of their fathers.

Today, the rules have changed - so much so that some divorced men in Australia now claim that the law is tilted too far in favour of women - but modern families still need rules governing their members' rights and responsibilities. The need for the legal institution of marriage is just as great today as it has ever been.

We can see this in the fact that, while increasing numbers of couples have been refusing to get married, they have nevertheless been demanding that the same legal rights and responsibilities that apply to married couples should also apply to them. The result is that the distinction between married and de facto couples has been collapsing.

Married couples no longer benefit from beneficial tax treatment (indeed, a recent NATSEM report found that single-earner married couples have actually lost out from tax changes over the last 15 years while every other type of household has gained). Laws governing property rights and child custody arrangements on the break-up of the relationship similarly now apply equally to married and de facto couples. And ever since 1975, married couples can get divorced without having to demonstrate fault, which means they can walk away from the relationship just as unmarried people can.

This blurring of the distinction between the married and unmarried state is having two unfortunate results.

One is that it is undermining marriage. Why bother getting married if it does not change anything? You may as well simply cohabit.

The other is that it is universalising marriage. It is now very difficult for a couple to choose to live together without the law treating them as if they were married. This is the 'inertia selling' of marriage - you have to take positive steps (such as drawing up a legal agreement) to avoid being treated as married.

Effectively, therefore, we are re-inventing marriage, only now we are imposing it on everybody! Fewer people are choosing to get married, but they are being treated in law and custom as if they had. Extrapolate this trend forward, and we end up in an even worse situation than Giddens' Great Aunt. At least she made the decision to get married in the first place. Today, even that freedom seems to be disappearing.

Couples who want to make a permanent commitment to each other find that modern marriage does not enforce it, for they can get divorced at any time and for any reason. Conversely, those who prefer not to make an enduring commitment find that the law treats them as if they were married anyway! Either way, this does not seem a very satisfactory state of affairs. To get around it, we need to do three things.

First, we should look at ways of encouraging and supporting marriage among those having children. Children are better off when raised by their two natural parents, and parents are more likely to stay together if they get married. I see nothing wrong with offering tax breaks, for example, to married couples with children.

Secondly, we must stop assuming that all cohabiting couples should be treated as if they were married. People who do not want to marry should not have their wishes compromised by laws which treat them as if they had made the opposite decision.

Finally, we should look at ways in which the responsibilities of marriage might be strengthened for those who want to make a more serious commitment to each other. The development of 'covenant marriages' in some U.S. states is one example which could be adopted for those couples who want to tie the knot tighter than is currently possible under Australian law.

Marriage evolved for a reason, and that reason is still there. The nature of marriage may change in the next century, but marriage in one form or another will not go away.

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