Divorcing marriage from morality

By promoting it as a least worst lifestyle option, modern defenders of marriage are undermining its best aspects.

Jennie Bristow

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‘It is like a hydra: you cut off one head and get rid of a boring partner but inherit 26 new problems, your new partner’s children, family and so on.’ In such graphically grim terms did Sir Paul Coleridge, a senior High Court judge, launch a new campaign to promote marriage.

Sir Paul told The Times (London) that he was ‘not approaching the issue from a moralistic view so much as a practical one’. His aim is to ‘reverse the “appalling and costly impact of family breakdown” on children and society at large’. Which you do, apparently, not by extolling the virtues of marriage but by ramping up the futility of seeking to be happy-ever-after with anybody at all.

The chances of Sir Paul’s new Marriage Foundation having much success are slim in any case – according to The Times, even this judge admits that ‘governments cannot legislate stronger relationships into existence’. But the bigger question is, how is it even possible to have a campaign promoting marriage without engaging with the moral question?

Since the election of the Lib-Con government, there has been an attempt to shift official backing for the institution of marriage. Where the New Labour administration was dedicated to the politically correct notion that family happiness mattered more than family form, the Conservatives have tried to bring in tax breaks for married couples, as a way of showing their commitment to marriage over cohabitation. Meanwhile, the influential think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), originally set up by Iain Duncan Smith, the current secretary of state for work and pensions, has made marriage promotion a major plank of its work.

All this has been quite controversial, jarring sharply with the therapeutic ethos of our times, which preaches that individuals should eschew emotional risks and obligations in favour of relationships that make them feel good right now. And it is not only the liberal left that finds itself quite uncomfortable with the promotion of marriage over other intimate living arrangements.

Following Sir Paul Coleridge’s proposals, Anastasia de Waal, director of family and education at the think tank Civitas, said: ‘It is very important where you’ve got a judge who is making decisions about families that they are not clouded by a particular view but are looking at what is going to serve the family.’ And The Times editorial, which supported the proposals, was keen to get its caveats in early: ‘There will, inevitably, be questions over the motives, efficacy and politics of Sir Paul’s initiative. It is unusual for a sitting judge to involve himself so directly in an issue that inevitably stirs strong political feelings, however much he insists he brings no partisan viewpoint or moralising ideology to his proposal.’

The disavowal of marital moralising is shared by those, like the Centre for Social Justice, who are seeking to prop up this increasingly unpopular institution. So marriage is promoted on the basis of its lifestyle benefits: that it’s better for individuals’ health, their finances and their kids. This is hardly more convincing than Sir Paul’s prosaic insistence that the grass is never greener, so you might as well hold on to what you’ve got: ‘However wonderful and exciting a relationship is, you can’t sustain it at that level; and that is the reality. Soon you find the new partner is as flawed as the last.’

In fact, the reality is that marriage as an institution is impossible to sustain in the absence of a moral justification for why people should live in this way. Most adults know that wedding days lead to happy-ever-after only in fairy tales – which are equally well populated by weak fathers and wicked stepmothers. But the moral case for marriage has been, and can still be, made on the basis that the constant pursuit of sexual self-gratification is a shallow own goal compared to the grown-up ambition of creating a functioning marriage.

Symbolically – and in reality, for a large proportion of the adult population even today – this means marriage as a unit of mutual dependency, in which children are raised, couples support each other ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’. It is the strength of the marital unit that enables individuals to survive the pressures of life, and thus to become genuinely independent – both of their parents, and of official sources of support and control.

To discuss marriage in these terms today seems somewhat priggish, which is part of the reason why judges and think tanks go coy on the ‘moralistic’ question. But it’s just as priggish to bang on about how divorce hurts children – currently the only acceptable argument for why warring partners should stay together. It seems rather unfair to transfer the weight of an unhappy marriage away from social convention (staying together because divorce is frowned upon) on to the shoulders of a sobbing nine-year-old (staying together for the sake of the children).

In this regard, Sir Paul’s discussion of the ‘practical’ problems of marital breakdown come to seem like moralism in disguise. It would be far braver if he stopped hiding behind the children and came out with an honest argument as to why marriage is better than its alternatives.

Beyond the phony anti-moralism, the bigger problem facing today’s marriage-promoters is that they don’t actually believe in the morality of the marital unit anyway. However much government officials and think-tanks might like the idea that married couples save the state money through relying on each other, they cannot take the leap of faith necessary to let married couples work through their problems in their own way.

So the Centre for Social Justice proposes setting up a ‘Marriage and Relationships Institute’, and suggests ‘strong government encouragement of couples getting married to take part in high-quality, standardised and accredited pre-marriage preparation, delivered in an accessible fashion’. Far from being a bulwark against official interference, marriage according to the CSJ would be turned into a state-run course in responsible living, where individuals, one imagines, will agree not ‘to obey’ one another, but to obey the official line on conducting intimate relationships.

This new, bureaucratic style of marriage does nothing to strengthen the notions of intimacy, responsibility and commitment at the core of an imperfect, but enduring, institution. Instead, it suggests people need ongoing official guidance and support in order to live together. It’s a policymaker’s version of supermarket ‘BOGOF’ offers: the state gets to ‘support’ two individuals for the price of one.

Through their doubts about the morality of marriage, most marriage-promotion initiatives today only serve to expose the elite’s bad faith in people’s ability to fall in love and make it last. Debates about marriage in media and policy circles always presume that the problem is one of penny-pinching politicians trying to hold together an old-fashioned institution in the face of individuals’ fleeting desires and feckless behaviour.

The real problem is more that individuals find their aspirations towards commitment and self-sufficiency continually undermined by a culture that encourages them to look away from each other for sources of gratification, affirmation and support. This is fuelled by the fact that even self-styled promoters of marriage have neither the imagination nor the guts to make a positive case for why it’s better to be betrothed than not. If all Sir Paul has to promote his cause is a hydra’s head, no wonder people are fighting shy of the altar.

Jennie Bristow is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.) She is also editor of Abortion Review, and an associate for the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, where she is studying the problem of generations.

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