No surprise – marriage is still best for society

21 August 2020

Rebekah Moffett, Communications Officer at Christian Concern, comments on a new report from The Centre for Social Justice, which shows marriage is still best for society.

A report from The Centre for Social Justice, Family Structure Still Matters, provides a new close analysis of the correlation between family structure and the outcomes for children and parents. The report reveals that marriage seems to be the middle classes’ best kept secret – one that improves children’s school performance, supports their physical and mental health, and leads to more stable relationships in the future.

The report has found that even after controlling for income and education, the gap between outcomes for children of married parents and unmarried parents is wide and persists today. The trouble is that the government fails to differentiate between couples that marry and couples that cohabit – ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ is subsumed to ‘partner’ by businesses, the media, government, almost everyone, in a bid to try ‘not to offend’ – so much so that it has become a false belief that the two produce equal outcomes.

The report argues:

“Official silence on this issue has sent out the message that marriage and cohabitation are interchangeable. Yet we have seen how the two structures lead to widely different outcomes. By ignoring this distinction, the government risks robbing couples of making an informed choice about what kind of relationship they should embark on.”

No difference between opposite- and same-sex ‘marriage’?

Sadly, the report failed to distinguish between opposite-sex couples and ‘same-sex couples’, grouping all ‘marriages’ together and all couples cohabiting together, whether or not they were heterosexual or homosexual couples.

However, research has proven time and again the differences between heterosexual partnerships and homosexual partnerships and that the age-old theory that it makes no difference to parenting is wrong. In fact, homosexual relationships are far more likely to experience breakdown than heterosexual ones. Professor Walter Schumm states:

“So, we have lesbian women more likely to become parents than gay men but also more likely to dissolve their relationships. Would not those facts lead to greater harms to their children – and to more children, relative to gay parents – because of the higher rates of instability?”

It would be more helpful for future studies to break down the types of relationship in terms of hetero- and homosexual marriages and cohabitations, as there is likely to be a difference in outcomes for the family.

Poorest least likely to marry

The study does however look at income as a factor in marriage and accuses the government of not incentivising marriage for couples on lower incomes. Although married couple families are still the most popular, there is clear gap between the rich and the poor. The study states:

Among high income couples (the top quintile) 83% have tied the knot; among low-income parents (bottom quintile) only 55% are married.”

By comparison, only 11% of the high income couples cohabit, whereas 21% in the low income bracket cohabit. This matters because family breakdown is so rife in the UK: “almost half of all children are no longer living with both their parents by the time they sit their GCSEs; however, for children in our poorest communities this is true by the time they start primary school.”

The fact that lower income couples are more likely to experience family instability – often because marriage hasn’t been a priority – could result in cycles where poorer families are trapped in poverty with no incentive to get out. The report argues:

“Firstly, the welfare system incentivises lone parenting: the couple penalty means that the majority of claimants receive more financial support from the state if they are not married. Secondly, as outlined in a landmark study in America, some women want the flexibility of cohabitation which allows them to separate easily from unsuitable partners. Though the women in the study aspired to marriage, they were fearful that depending on a man’s earnings could result in their being left destitute if the relationship ended.”

Married couples more likely to stay together

The report also finds that married couples are more likely to stay together long-term:

By the time they turn five, 53% of children of cohabiting parents will have experienced their parents’ separation; among five-year-olds with married parents, this is 15%.”

Although the UK is a world leader in family breakdown, divorce rates before lockdown were actually at their lowest rate since 1973. Arguably, this is because marriage rates are also down, having fallen to record lows in England and Wales in the most recent report from the Office for National Statistics. However, overall rates of family breakdown have not been reducing due to the number of cohabiting couples that end up separating:

“Break-up rates among cohabitees are much harder to measure however, not least because there are fewer formal mechanisms of registering the formation or dissolution of cohabiting relationships. This means that although divorce rates may plateau, unseen family breakdown is continuing.”

And family breakdown has drastic effects for any children involved:

“Parental separation at age 7 was found to have negative associations with behaviour at age 13, even after controlling for previous wellbeing. Parents divorcing, especially when this results in losing touch with one parent, counts as an Adverse Childhood Experience, according to Harvard’s Centre on the Developing Child. Experiencing multiple ACEs, without the buffer of the continuous presence of a trusted adult, can cause toxic stress – over-activating the stress-response system, thereby causing wear and tear of the child’s brain and body. Transitions such as parents’ separation or divorce affect children’s development, even after accounting for selection bias. … For the majority however, the toxic stress that young people experience during family breakdown affects every area of their lives from engagement in education to involvement in the criminal justice system and the quality of their own relationships. The long-lasting ramifications can affect children for the rest of their lives.”

Children who have lived through their parents’ separation are also more likely to experience relationship breakdown themselves, particularly if their parents were cohabiting rather than married: “there is an intergenerational aspect of cohabitation with children often replicating the relationship structure their parents and those around them chose.”

Marriage leads to the best outcomes

The report states:

These differences matter because family stability has been shown to profoundly affect children’s outcomes. Even when controlling for income and education, children raised in unstable families suffer worse health, are more likely to be excluded, more likely to join a gang and end up as NEET.”

Commenting on the report, rugby player Courtney Lawes wrote in The Telegraph of his own experiences of being raised by married parents and encouraged young people to commit publicly to stay together through marriage. He writes:

“When I was growing up, my mum, a prison officer, worked during the day. My dad, a bouncer, was the one who I remember always being around. He was my role model: relaxed, but I knew never to break rules and always talk to him and my mum with respect.

“Dad was always there for me. I never needed to look up to anyone outside our family for inspiration.”

However, Courtney’s older half-brother sadly did not have the same experience, which he puts down to the broken relationship between his father and his father’s previous partner:

“My dad tried to be there for him as much as he could be. However, unfortunately that didn’t prevent my brother from adopting a bad lifestyle – drugs and criminality that eventually ended in prison.

“I’m very thankful that he is out now and doing great for himself and raising a son of his own, but I’m forced to ask the question of how his life might have been different if he had grown up in a stable home.”

The CSJ report appears to support his hypothesis:

“Everyone wants the best for their child. This calls for secure attachment between parents and children as well as a stable relationship between parents. The family, our first social template, is where children experience their earliest relationships. These will mould children and influence the type of relationships they go on to form for themselves. Secure relationships are central: children from stable families are less likely to be excluded and tend to do better at school, are less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system and have better employment outcomes than children from families where relationships break up is the norm.”

UK is ‘world leader’ in family breakdown

And yet despite all the evidence that marriage is good for society, for families, for individuals – the UK remains one of the world’s leaders in family breakdown.

According to a previous CSJ report, only around two thirds of all children under 15 still live with both parents. One senior police officer recently spoke out about the link between a rise in absentee fathers and a rise in knife crime. Children born outside of marriage now account for some 48% of births, according to the CSJ report:

“Extrapolating the current trend, the most likely prediction is that births outside of marriage will continue to increase. This means that in only a few years – likely around 2024 or 2025 – we will, for the first time, be experiencing the majority of births occurring outside of marriage.”

Meanwhile, marriage rates continue to fall – married couple families have declined from 69.1% of all family types in the UK in 2008 to 66.5% in 2019 – and family breakdown continues to rise – the 12 month period before lockdown saw a 23% rise in the number of divorces. Same-sex ‘marriage’ – which was supposed to benefit the institution of marriage – has only ended up undermining it, with a large proportion of them ultimately failing and ending in breakdown.

The government appears to ignore family breakdown however, and instead encourages easy divorce. Those who speak out in favour of traditional marriage and family structure are increasingly locked out of society: just look at the likes of Felix Ngole, Richard Page, Kristie Higgs, Izzy Montague. These are only public cases that the Christian Legal Centre is supporting; there are far more behind the scenes. Even Courtney Lawes was ridiculed when he suggested it might be a good idea for parents to be married before having children.

So, what is the solution? Of course, it would be better if our leaders could set a good example; this could be an awkward issue for our current twice-divorced-and-currently-cohabiting Prime Minister. But if society is to flourish, marriage should be encouraged and incentivised. Incentives to separate must be done away with. And the freedom to defend a Biblical model of marriage – just as the Felix Ngoles and Richard Pages of this world do – needs to be upheld. It comes as no surprise to Bible-believing Christians that their views about marriage are correct: marriage really is the bedrock of society. So let’s start declaring it.

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