Now straight couples will want to be civil partners
The Telegraph, 19 February 2013
The children’s service yesterday at Chelsea Old Church in London was a hoot, as Joshua and his troops (boys and girls between four and 10) circled Jericho, blowing their trumpets all the while. The walls, built from cardboard boxes, came tumbling down with a very satisfying crash after Mrs Gaskell, the impresario behind the scenes, whacked them with her stick.
Like Jericho, marriage has come under siege. Its terms (“till death us do part”, “for richer, for poorer”), have been trashed by divorce; its uniqueness devalued by gay marriage and surrogate parenthood (in Florida, a judge has ruled that a birth certificate can list three parents). I Give it a Year, the newest Working Title title, plays it for laughs; but its portrait of a young marriage hurtling towards trouble is more realism than romcom: one in two couples who tie the knot today will split up.
Cohabitation, by contrast, is the fastest-growing family unit. Three million couples live together – twice as many as 15 years ago. Today, only a comedian doing a whisky priest imitation would ever refer to this as “living in sin”. Cohabitation is not only trending among youngsters, it’s become routine among middle-aged couples. Like their younger counterparts, forty- and fiftysomethings like to think they are bound by romantic mutual admiration in an eternal St Valentine’s Day celebration.
Matrimony sounds too much like patrimony: rights and riches steeped in legalese. It’s a bureaucratic contract that wastes time on form-filling and money on a bling-bling occasion featuring an embarrassing best-man speech and a blubbing woman in a corner – the mother of the groom, or his jilted girlfriend.
It would be easy to accept cohabiting as the new normal. But OnePlusOne, a relationship charity, will this week sound an alarm bell. Most men and women, its latest poll shows, have bought into the myth that living together confers the same legal rights as marriage. That’s why it’s called “common law marriage”, right? Wrong.
Cohabitation is a dangerous mistake to make if you are a mother thrown over by your common-law husband. He is under no obligation to let you live in the home he bought when you moved in together; or to share the income from his business – even if you helped him build it from scratch. It’s a bitter mistake, too, for the woman who survives her lifelong partner. She may have loved him in his prime, cared for him in his dotage, but at his death she will discover that she has no automatic right to either his pension or his estate.
Men, too, are the victims of the cohabitation myth, though the statistics show this is a less likely scenario. But it is ironic that women, who during the feminist decades were taught that marriage is a prison, should discover that they stand to gain from the patriarchal institution. Even those who scorn marriage should appreciate its power to safeguard a woman’s future.
My worry is that our right-on Establishment will panic at the prospect of a backlash against cohabitation. A vote against living together is a vote for marrying each other. Opinion formers will pounce on the OnePlusOne findings and argue that, instead of saving marriage, the time has come to extend civil partnership protections to straight couples. When the Civil Partnerships Bill was going through parliament, heterosexual couples were told the law wouldn’t apply to them as they had the option to marry, while gays didn’t. Now that gays will be allowed to marry, shouldn’t straights be allowed a civil partnership with the rights that go with it?
I fear the answer is yes. Marriage will withstand this latest attack no better than Jericho’s cardboard walls held up against Mrs Gaskell’s stick. It won’t be easy clearing up the mess afterwards.
Read the full article on The Telegraph website here.