I was surprised, then, when my friend told me her real objection to the idea of living together. "They are setting women's rights back years!" she protested. I naturally asked her to explain.
"What they are saying to those men," she said, "Is 'I will pay your mortgage with you, do your housework, have your children and raise them, but I expect no commitment from you in return.'"
I was shocked by what a good point she made. Because ultimately, that is true. And when those relationships break down, it is always the woman who comes off worse. A recent case perfectly illustrates this. A wealthy couple had lived together for fifteen years but when the man decided he'd decided he'd had enough of his "common law wife" she was out on her ear and entitled to exactly nothing. She is taking him to court, but she isn't his wife and never was, so legally he doesn't have to provide for her.
If you think that case is sad, it's nothing to the women who readily engage in a sexual relationship only to find themselves pregnant and the man who professed to love them disappearing over the horizon in a cloud of dust. Their hopes for an education, a career or even a little time to develop their hobbies, interests and skills are subsumed as they struggle to cope with the life of a single mother, wondering whether the CSA will ever be able to get any money out of the feckless individual they once trusted enough to sleep with.
Do they ever think how different things would be if they had insisted the man married them before they jumped into bed with him? Either he would have disappeared over the horizon in a cloud of dust right then, before pregnancy was even a possibility, or he would be legally obliged to be at her side, helping with childcare and actually showing what real love is.
The fact is that there is no such thing as common-law marriage. In the eyes of the law even if you have lived with someone for fifty years if you are not married you are no more than two random strangers. You are not next of kin for medical purposes. You have no rights to the other person's property. If you have children in common, then they have only one parent - the mother. A friend's father found this to his cost when the woman he had lived with for over forty years developed Alzheimer's Disease. Although he wanted her to remain at home with him and was fully prepared to care for her, the woman's son (her legal next-of-kin) not only insisted she go into a home but ordered that her octogenarian "boyfriend" be denied visiting rights. She died within months. Had they been married it might have been a very different story.
Many people protest that marriage is an outdated and meaningless institution. I think they are wrong, and I think that the wider society also thinks that they are wrong. I cite four points in support of this:
- Weddings. Everyone loves the idea of getting a big dress and having a grand wedding in a fairytale castle. There seem to be hundreds of wedding programmes on TV at the moment, from "Don't Tell the Bride" to "Battle of the Brides", and one I've forgotten the name of about the Beverley Hills Bridal Salon. I love them all, and they are popular precisely because weddings are wonderful. A wedding is the affirmation of love and the happy formation of a new family. Marriage may be less popular these days, but somehow weddings are definitely not outdated or meaningless.
- Gay marriage. Across the world, gay people are fighting for the right to get married rather than just be part of a "civil partnership". Whatever your view of this (and this post isn't about the issue of gay marriage), the point it makes very clearly is that marriage is not just "a piece of paper" or "an outdated or meaningless institution". Marriage either is meaningful and special, or it isn't. And I think thousands of gay people are fervently telling us that it is. Society can't have it both ways by devaluing marriage on the one hand, and demanding it on the other.
- Divorce statistics. Yes, a lot of marriages end in divorce–although the levels are dropping–but more than half don't. Statistics show that couples who live together and then get married are much more likely to divorce than couples for whom their honeymoon is their first experience of sharing a home. And couples who live together unmarried are 40% more likely to split up than married couples. The most secure home, still, is that where the mother and father are married to each other.
- Study after study has shown that married people are happier, they live longer, they and their children achieve more and they enjoy better health.