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  • A new Church of England report on family life overlooks the social function of marriage and why states and societies throughout history have regulated it in one form or another. Tweet This
  • There is precious little recognition in the report that marriage might be associated with more positive family outcomes. Tweet This
  • I agree that we should love our neighbor regardless. We should also promote and distinguish and prefer marriage as the best way to do family. Tweet This
Category: Marriage, Religion

It’s an ongoing problem familiar to all supporters of marriage, those who think marriage is a good thing and that the evidence supports it. How do we best present our case to those who haven’t chosen marriage, or who would like to choose marriage but haven’t found somebody yet, or for whom their own marriage or marriage of somebody close to them has been a disaster?

Where is the hope? 

The Church of England published a report this week on Families and Households that tries to address this question. You can download and read the report for yourself here. The relevant section on marriage runs from pages 31 to 58.

The authors take the view that we should affirm the full diversity of families and that there is no one best method of doing family. They take us through their version of a social history of marriage, linking marriage to money and men, claiming that it was only ever idolized by the Victorians, and stating that marriage has never represented anything of an ideal. After all, families have always come in different shapes and sizes. There was even cohabitation in the Bible, they note. It took post-war culture and the Sexual Revolution finally to liberate women from the patriarchy of marriage, we are told. So we should now accept this diversity, they argue: Love our neighbor and get over ourselves. 

It’s an appealing and carefully argued narrative. The hope is that we love you whoever you are. We love all kinds of loving relationships. Because love is what matters. 

You just know there is a ‘but’ coming. And it’s a big one. Of course, I agree that we should love our neighbor regardless. But that does not mean we are supposed to affirm behaviors that might not be in our best interests. As an analogy, we should express all our sympathy and love to a car crash victim, even though their injuries are that much worse because they didn’t wear a seat belt. But that shouldn’t stop us from encouraging people to wear a seat belt because it protects the wearer. A diversity of attitudes and behaviors towards seat belts is clearly not smart. 

It is this ‘both … and …’ approach that seems to elude the Church of England authors. You can see their attempt not to undermine marriage. They acknowledge that most young adults aspire to marriage and that marriage still comprises the most popular family form. But they also attach warnings to marriage as a panacea. There are plenty of bad marriages and some great cohabitations. In the end, they damn marriage with faint praise.

What have they ignored? Four things. 

First, the authors fail to acknowledge that until the 1960s, marriage has always been linked to childbirth. In my PhD research, I’ve found plenty of sources showing that cohabiting was virtually unknown (in England at least) between 1560 and 1960. Yes, people slept together and got pregnant. But they then either got married or aborted their child. Unmarried cohabiting is a new family structure. How we should handle this game-changing revolution better when it is directly associated with what are almost certainly the highest levels of family breakdown in history becomes a much more interesting question. It’s a question the authors don’t even acknowledge.

Second, the authors overlook the social function of marriage and why states and societies throughout history have regulated marriage in one form or another. The social function of marriage is to bond men to the mothers of their future children. Because the consequence of sex is so much higher to a woman than to a man, marriage encourages investment in children by both parents and avoids the problem of paternal uncertainty. The choice is between norms of two parents supporting one another or one parent supported by society and the taxpayer. 

Third, the authors ignore the psychology of marriage and how it either builds or enhances commitment. They should not be ignorant of this because Marriage Foundation contributed an extensive submission on this issue last year. Our unattributed quote even makes it to page 44 of the report. Decision-making, mutual plans, signals, clarity, removing ambiguity, social affirmation, social accountability: all of these factors accompany the act of marriage by default. They certainly can accompany cohabitation but are much more optional. Our quote is then brushed aside as the authors find signs of commitment in all family forms. 

And fourth, there is precious little recognition that marriage might be associated with more positive family outcomes. It’s not as if there is a shortage of research in this area. Even an acknowledgement that a lively debate continues about selection vs. experience would have been useful. The smart money is on ‘both … and …’ It’s both the kind of people who marry and what the act of marriage brings to the table. 

In short, this chapter on marriage is a capitulation to the times in which we live. It’s a bit like saying everyone smokes, and so we should accept and love smokers and smoking as an equally valid choice of how to live our lives.

Marriage doesn’t guarantee success. There will be bad marriages and there will be divorce. For example, I’m deeply sympathetic to the two overseas women who are currently living in our house. One is a refugee single mother. The other is a young woman getting over a divorce. Can I, along with my wife, show love and support by listening and loving and never judging? Of course. I acknowledge that it didn’t work out for them. It doesn’t always. But I’m still a fan of marriage because I buy the ideal, the theory, and the hard data. 

We’re kidding ourselves if we fail to engage with the reality of how to stack the odds in favor of making love work, of staying together in a happy relationship, and of giving our children the best chance of the best possible childhood. Love matters, absolutely. We should definitely love single young men and women. But we should also promote and distinguish and prefer marriage as the best way to do family.

Come on Church of England. You can do better.

Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation UK and a PhD student of marriage at the University of Bristol.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.