Coffee House

To be or not to be married?

10 September 2011

4:33 PM

10 September 2011

4:33 PM

My name is Siobhan Courtney and I am a very happily unmarried mother with a five month
old son. But this week I’m annoyed – really annoyed. I and thousands of others have been given a slap across the face by Conservative ministers who have now changed their minds about giving
cohabiting couples the same rights as married ones. Ken Clarke has rejected proposals put forward by the Law Commission
under the last government. And it’s all pretty basic stuff.

Childless couples would have been granted automatic inheritance rights if one of them died without a will, no matter how long they had been together. Couples who lived together for more than two
years would have been given inheritance rights. And couples who had been together for five years would have been treated the same way as couples who were married.

After the Ministry of Justice’s u-turn this week, the Law Commission swiftly published a statement
saying the current law (which gives no rights to co-habiting couples) causes "hardship and injustice".

On a personal note, I’m not quite on Harriet Harman’s
, but I just don’t feel the need to get married. Getting married won’t make me a better partner or mother. The evidence backs this up. Only recently, the Institute for Fiscal Studies
looked at Millennium Cohort Study data and found that whether parents are married had little or no impact on their child’s emotional and
educational development.


Given that half of British children are now born outside wedlock, you’d think the various authorities would have adjusted for it. I’ve been amazed. When my baby was born, the hospital wrote my
surname on my son’s ankle and wrist tags. I asked the staff to change them as my surname is not my son’s surname. They refused, stating that "unless the parents are married, the baby takes the
mother’s surname". My boyfriend is unable to sign our son’s immunisation forms at the doctors. Daddy is clearly not competent enough to say whether his own son should be immunised – that’s
something only Mummy has the "power" to decide. I am also constantly referred to as Mrs because I’m carrying a baby, despite clearly wearing no wedding ring.

I am not against marriage. I am against being told that I should be married or being penalised because I haven’t done things in the "right order". I’m getting rather bored of being told
we’ve got a "broken society" because parents aren’t married. Marriage is a choice, and one that many make – but equally one that many others don’t, and that should be equally
respected as it’s not the government’s place to tell us how to live our lives.

I’m not tempted by David Cameron’s cash
of £150 a year, packaged as a "marriage tax break" with the promise that it will "morally clean up Britain". This sum won’t persuade anyone to get married who
doesn’t want to. And anyway, the money should surely be spent on education and health rather than being handed out to those who happen to have made a particular personal choice. I’m also not
falling for the claim that the louts who started the riots only did so because their parents aren’t married, as Edward Leigh suggested last month.

David Cameron is clearly obsessed with marriage. Compare and
contrast with Ed Miliband who had two children out of wedlock before finally deciding to get married, despite previously claiming he was too busy. Then, just before his big day, Ed seemed confused
about his own views, stating that marriage is not for
everyone. (I wonder what Justine thinks of his ever-changing views?)

Undeniably the Labour leader is "part of an ever decreasing number of people tying the knot", as
marriages in England and Wales are at their lowest rate since 1862. In
addition, the proportion of children with married parents has almost
over the last 30 years. In 2009 just 54 per cent of births occurred within marriage, compared to 89 percent in 1979. Moreover, only a couple of weeks ago the Office of National
Statistics have now made the decision not to publish figures of children born to unmarried mothers on a quarterly basis anymore. They’ll now be released just once a year. A reluctant acceptance of
a changing society perhaps? It’s no surprise Christian Concern aren’t

The way British people choose to live their life is changing – but the laws, assumptions and prejudices of the governing elite have not changed one bit.

Parents have been arguing about married and unmarried couples for three days now on the website Netmums
resulting in nearly 300 responses – as well as on lots of other online forums. Now it’s over to you. CoffeeHousers, your thoughts please…

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Sally Roberts

    I think it is a case of “Different Strokes for Different Folks”. I have been married and, frankly, I will freely admit I was not suited to “wifely” existence. Some may call me “independently minded”, others may call me “selfish”. The fact is that I am not a natural “helpmeet”. Others may well be.
    The fact is that marriage was always used by the Upper Classes as a way of keeping property “in the family” and for ensuring a continuing line of succession. It was – and probably still is – an instrument of control. Additionally, no one should kid themselves that everyone (or indeed very many people) ever married “for love”. The less fortunate in life married (and possibly still do) for security; the wealthy and well-connected to preserve the bloodline. Once an upper-class wife had produced “the heir and spare” both parties were considered free to go their own way – provided they were discreet and did nothing to cause embarrassment to their legal consort. The same is echoed today when we see some of those at official Dinners, Receptions and Buckingham Palace Garden Parties with their spouses when in many cases their hearts lie elsewhere.
    I suppose what I am saying is that marriage should not always be seen as the be-all-and-end-all.

  • Nicholas

    “Our aim is not to provide conservative purity, but the smartest debate on the web.”

    Failing miserably on that score then. The posts for the most part either echo speculative Westminster gossip or promote a particular if not peculiar editorial agenda. Since the media in general is now hopelessly unbalanced towards the left and any definitively right of centre writers are marginalised as loons or extremists a genuinely brave and conservative journal might be refreshing. Have you read Standpoint lately?

  • Edward McLaughlin


    So what is it about marriage that scares you?

    It’s my suspicion that what you and so many others of your age group really cannot handle is the symbolic shift signalled by marriage; that untrammelled youth and its boundless choice is ended and that the sober process of generational relinquishment has begun. In declining the symbol, it is hoped that somehow, the process might be avoided and he (it is always driven by him) can ride his mountain bike and stag-do himself in perpetuity.

    Cheer up: death is looming.

  • A

    The point about baby tags often comes up. It is not a statement on the role of parents or social expectations – it is purely and simply so that we can work out which baby belongs to which mother and so link to the pregnancy record. This allows obstetricians / midwives / GPs / neonatologists to quickly check relevant results.
    Because this is an area where there are often highly charged feelings (witness this article), hospitals adopt a blanket rule. You can register your child with the fathers name later

  • Stephanie Tohill

    “4. Surnames are tricky. The child carries the mother’s surname but if the mother has a civil union she can opt for the father’s name. For you, the surname can be changed by Deed Poll given consent of all those with Parental Responsibilty (you and your partner).”

    Point of order on the surnames. I was a bastard child (as were my brothers) and we all have our father’s name. A name my mother never had.

    Of course this was in the 80s and I understand there have been changes, however if the father was present and you registered your child together, then the child can have his father’s name (in fact I think it’s the case without the father being present.) although this won’t help with hospital tags.

    Oh and everything else John Lloyd and others have said.

    To complain that you don’t get the rights of marriage without being married is like complaining that you have to buy a lottery ticket to stand a chance of winning the lottery.

    Plus it would be interesting to see why you would selfishly impose legal obligations on 100s of cohabiting couples because you personally do not wish to get married.

  • Stephanie Tohill

    Although I do agree with you with regards your children. Your partner should not have to marry you to obtain the full rights, with regards his child, as married fathers.

    However I don’t want the full obligations of marriage imposed on me and my partner, because you have decided you can’t be bothered to tie the knot.

  • Stephanie Tohill

    “My name is Siobhan Courtney and I am a very happily unmarried mother with a five month old son. But this week I’m annoyed – really annoyed. I and thousands of others have been given a slap across the face by Conservative ministers who have now changed their minds about giving cohabiting couples the same rights as married ones.”

    You can obtain a cohabitation agreement which limits itself to assets and child maintenance in the even of relationship break-down. If you want more rights than that, including automatic rights related to pension, tax free inheritance etc, get married.

    To argue for the rights of an institution while refusing to sign up to it makes no sense.

    Also what of those cohabitees who cohabit precisely because they do not wish to have the same legal rights as marrieds? They do not want someone to have automatic access to their assets on the break-up of a relationship? Do we have to physically separate because some daft individuals cannot be bothered to get married?

  • Simon Stephenson.

    2trueblue : 11.39pm

    Can you not see that the argument as to whether or not a particular law is correct is completely separate from the argument as to whether or not one should abide by it?

  • 2trueblue

    Simon Stephenson, If you make a choice then you accept the consequences. The law does not force you to get married. If you do you have certain advantages. If you chose not to then you do not. Go figure it out. This is a straightforward matter of choice.

  • I S

    ‘Well argued’..’different perspective’ ?! More likely, inane, not thought through and sickeningly solipsistic.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    John Lloyd : 11/9 – 12.45pm

    It’s very illustrative to liken marriage to a “one-stop” shop at which a number of bureaucratic procedures can be slipstreamed. It’s also good to make clear that it is the steady two-parent environment that is important, not marriage as such. And finally a sound reminder of the distinction between the frustration of bureaucratic process and the imposition of personal disapproval.

    All in all, a very helpful post – thank you.

  • Wily Trout

    Married or unmarried: which do you imagine your child would prefer, Siobhan?
    Just a thought.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    ‘Getting married won’t make me a better partner or mother’

    How do you know? Because the IFS report has told you?

  • Tom Pride

    And, while my fury still boils over, I will add more comment on your outrageous and ill-thought through selfishness. Like so many fortunate, educated and nearly always middleclass liberals, you are able to cope with the difficulties and travails of bringing up children without a partner. You may even have the financial resources to do so without imposing on the State.

    Then just because you can manage, you declare that society should hold no preference that children be brought up in households with two parents wherever possible. This despite all the evidence that the life chances of so many of the children brought up in single households are unfavourable compared to those in two parent households. You simply turn a blind eye to the fact that other single parents are not as capable as you, and / or do not have the financial resources (falling back on welfare payments – which are of course taxes extracted from other persons) to successfully do as you do. As a consequence children suffer.

    You are like the man of 80 who smokes 40 cigarettes a day and who advocates smoking for a long life, declaring that “it never did me no harm”.

    Perhaps you could somewhere inside you find sufficient conscious to put the welfare of other children and society’s general well being ahead of your politics, life-style choices, perceived “rights” and selfishness? Liberty and licence – there’s a difference you know.

  • Tom Pride

    You may be angry, but not half as angry as I am after reading your utter drivel and fake indignation. I have chosen to live with someone. We by choice have not married and have not entered into the legal obligations that that voluntary status incurs. But, you, for your own selfish reasons and / or pure laziness, having chosen not to marry, wish to impose all those legal obligations on me when I choose not to be so obligated.

    You selfish, selfish person. Your pretentiousness and fake indignation over nothing more than your laziness or pure self-interest revolts me.

  • Dan Grover

    A typically bigoted set of responses by the good readers of the Coffee House.

  • Mike

    Just a hunch – but I bet that you would be happy to be married but your partner is balking at the idea. This is hurtful, and your post may not convey your honest views. I had to be prodded into commitment and have never regretted a day. Keep working on him.

  • Bessie

    If you made a fuss when midwives labelled your child with your surname, how are you going to cope when teachers address you by your child’s surname?

    As it happens, I am married. I don’t wear a ring, we don’t mark wedding anniversaries, and I don’t use his surname. But I also don’t complain when people use the ‘wrong’ name: how we express our married status is up to us, but we have to accept the occasionally awkward consequences. But by obtaining a marriage certificate we have given a clear signal to our own families (particularly our elderly relatives), to our government and to foreign governments (in case one of us needs a work visa before moving abroad as a family) that we are a couple and intend to remain so. And it doesn’t hurt us in any way. Seriously, I recommend it. What are you afraid of?

  • andrew kerins

    Fraser Nelson 11 pm

    Nobody would object to ‘well argued points.’

    The language used by Ms Courtney to describe the PM, words such as ‘obsessed’ and ‘prejudices’, is clearly pejorative.
    The phrase ‘given a slap in the face’ is the language of victimhood. The writer is, I believe, a BBC journalist, one of the more fortunate in our society.

  • David Lindsay

    Now that the debate is open, let us make the most of it. Any marrying couple should be entitled to register their marriage as bound by the law prior to 1969 as regards grounds and procedures for divorce, and any religious organisation enabled to specify that any marriage which it conducted should be so bound, requiring it to counsel couples accordingly.

    Statute should specify that the Church of England be such a body unless the General Synod specifically resolved the contrary by a two-thirds majority in all three Houses, with something similar for the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, which also exist pursuant to Acts of Parliament, as well as by amendment to the legislation relating to the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy.

    That would be a start, anyway. The marital union of one man and one woman is a public good uniquely and in itself, and the taxation system, among so very many other instruments of public policy, should recognise that fact. It should recognise marriage as a unique public good, to which civil partnerships are not comparable. And it should recognise marriage as a public good in itself, whether or not there are children, a related but different public good of which other forms of recognition rightly exist.

    But will any Party Leader say this, as once they would all have done? What do you think? David Cameron, having proved himself the heir to Margaret Thatcher’s legislation for abortion up to birth, which was opposed by John Smith, is doubtless also the heir of John Major’s legislation to make divorce legally easier than release from a car hire contract, to abolish the fiscal recognition of marriage simply as such (in a Finance Bill against which every Labour MP voted at the time), and to end the situation whereby, by recognising adultery and desertion as faults in divorce cases, society declared in law its disapproval of them even though they were not in themselves criminal offences. But Ed Miliband? Over to him.

  • Capn Flint

    The right of a cohabiting partner to inherit from the deceased cohabitee comes at a legal cost – it needs to be proved, as there may be no tangible evidence other than hearsay, that A and B are in fact living together in a stable and ongoing commitment and that neither has swerved from this. It may or may not have been the intention of the deceased to leave his estate to the surviving co-habitee. There may or may not be children. There might even be a surviving (previous) separated marriage partner in the background.
    If neither cohabitee has made a will, it suggests that they are as casual about inheritance as they are about legalizing their relationship.
    No wonder the Law Commission is exercised. There’s a loada lovely fees to be made out of this if a few boxes can be ticked.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    2trueblue : 1.10pm

    So what, because something’s the law means that one shouldn’t raise questions as to it’s appropriateness? Is this a universal judgment, or just one about laws with which you happen to agree?

  • HeardItAllBefore

    Getting married won’t make you a better mother, yes, but perhaps being somebody that wants to get married now that you have a child might mean you were a better mother. Maybe it isn’t about taking decisions and causing outcomes, but instead about what your choices say about aspects of your character that you cannot actually change.

  • Dimoto

    Thing is, marriage used to be a registration of change of status, and a union between families.

    Nowadays, it is seen as a (horrendously) expensive excuse for a party/jamboree/show-off fest (with a long preparation of futile, “stag” and “hen” parties and vast agonising over trivial detail), mostly involving (face-book stylee) “friends”, with families very much as optional extras.

    If Siobhan is rejecting this, she gets a gold star.
    But the simple, cheap option still exists …. or is that too much of a face loss for fragile young egos ?

    Or, again, is the “boyfriend” still “trying to find himself” (sic).

  • Julian F

    “Getting married won’t make me a better partner or mother”

    But it might reduce the chances of your child being called a “b@stard” by unfeeling classmates at school. Just a thought….

  • Hexhamgeezer

    ‘Getting married won’t make me a better partner or mother’

    How do you know?

  • 2trueblue

    What part do you not get? The law makes provision for those who get married. If you want to be included, get married. If not, so what, accept the facts.

  • John Lloyd

    Siobhan, Most of the points you make are factually inaccurate.

    Ignoring any religio-, romantic side, marriage is only a legal/civil contract between two citizens. This contract is like ‘one-stop shopping’ as it automatically confers a panoply of rights at one pass that are also available to cohabiting parents but take much more bureaucracy.

    1. Inheritance can be ‘equalized’ by making a will. A married partner dying intestate (without a will) can leave a big problem as the doctrine of ‘per stirpes'(by the roots), applies. Write a will.

    2. Legal partners can receive all the estate free of tax, cohabitants only £325,000. There are 2 ways round this. Either take out a life assurance policy in trust for your partner (non-taxable) and/or keep records of major investments to show they are 50/50.(or both) – it’s so much simpler to have a civil union.

    3. Of 40% of children born ‘out of wedlock’, only 7% are registered solely in the mother’s name. If Dad was present and signed the register as the biological father he has full legal ‘Parental Responsibility’ giving full rights to sign vaccination forms, school visit approvals et al. That’s the law even if he may have to carry a birth certificate.

    4. Surnames are tricky. The child carries the mother’s surname but if the mother has a civil union she can opt for the father’s name. For you, the surname can be changed by Deed Poll given consent of all those with Parental Responsibilty (you and your partner).

    5. The Mrs/Ms issue is a running sore. Many married women keep their maiden name and
    adopt the title of ‘Mrs’. Look at Zara Phillips’s angst over being Mrs Tindall.

    6. As was pointed out at the time, the income tax system is now skewed heavily in favour of cohabiting couples and you are much better off as you are.

    On politics, I think the argument is that kids benefit from a steady two-parent environment and this is the crux – not marriage per se. I think you need to separate government bureaucracy from personal opinions.

  • Biggestaspidistra

    “Our aim is not to provide conservative purity, but the smartest debate on the web.”

    Fraser, I understand this and I know you believe it but you must also have a sense that it’s not working. CH has become a place where the fairly rightish respond to the wettish and slightly left. And there’s a distinct impression you’ve become a press office for David Cameron. CH could become a debating chamber for at least fresh ideas not from the left, and perhaps not even from Westminster. Take a deep breath of Manhattan air and bring a little back with you.

  • Justathought

    People who do not choose to get married nor make a will run the risk of not being able to inherit their partners wealth and thereby putting at risk the financial security of their children.

    We are being asked to change the law so that adults who choose not to marry nor make a will should have those decisions changed to the detriment of those who would inherit under the current intestacy rules.

    It seems to me that even if you don’t want to marry your partner for principled reasons you should at least be able to agree to make a will to provide for your partner and children. If you cannot do that then what sort of a partnership is it and should the government get involved in sorting out the complex relationship of unmarried partners?

    As I understand it anyone can claim maintenance from the estate of a deceased partner as the law stands however it is only right that this should NOT be automatic, rather certain checks must be made in validity of such claims.

  • Holly ……

    Getting married isn’t about becoming a better partner or parent.
    It is about putting down a foundation.
    Making your vows in front of family and friends that you ‘commit’ to each other, to build your lives on trust, so you can both grow.

    Being married does not make you ‘lose your independence or self, it helps to allow you to share it with another.
    It gives children a basis to learn and understand how to build a relationship over time and, how to deal with the up’s and down’s life throws at you.

    After twenty-one years of marriage the downs are beginning to outnumber the up’s, but we are still as close, still trust each other and still love each other deeply.
    The downs are now medical, not personal.

    Over the years,we have been close to breaking up a few times, but have sorted out our ‘differences’ and, in many cases, usually blown out of all proportion by me, have learned to live with them.
    It is a partnership, two individuals learning about each other and allowing for the ‘flaws’ we have. Granted, that takes time and, an understanding that we are all diferent…A very good life lesson for our children to learn, with the experience from their parents, that you do not have to
    ‘fall out forever’ if you disagree with someone.

    In cases where there is a seperation,
    couples whether married or not should never use their children as weapons against the other, or allow a disconnect to happen between one parent and their children
    however angry, hurt or resentful the seperation is.

    Marriage is a great thing and should be recognised as the norm, when children are involved.

    For years my head was all over the place when dealing with the trials of life, which I put down to a lack of knowledge in how to deal with relationships due to being from a one parent family.
    I never had a clue how to ‘handle’ my hurt when Mr Holly did something that set my irratic emotions off.

    Boys need a father to look up to so they can see how to treat women in an appropriate
    way and, trust me when I say us girls need a father, so we can get a grip on our emotions when it comes to finding the right, loving, caring man.
    We girls find it hard to reject unsavoury men who, at first, woo us into a false sense of being ‘loved’. Only to find out the hard way that we are cr@p at finding good, decent men to share our life with.

    If women want the same rights as married couples then get married…It has helped me learn more about relationships, how to stand my ground, how to compromise and, when to give in.

    But I’m in love with the man I married so I would say that wouldn’t I.

  • Tiberius

    Sadly, Fraser, we get a lot of mud-slinging and name-calling on here too, but if this blog is a response to your recent canvassing of CHers it is a good one.

    Caffe Americano!

  • Bill (Scotland)

    Tough, lady! If you want the rights and protections marriage affords, then get married. You are currently, in legal terms, a so-called ‘common law wife’ with few rights. Suck it up! Sorry, I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever with this selfish woman (and her equally selfish ‘boyfriend’ and ‘procreation partner’).

    As a gay man who lived most of his life with no right whatsoever to legalise a relationship, and would have to make do with the second-class status of ‘civil partner’ to legalise a relationship now, I find this woman’s views reprehensible.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Fraser, where are the right-wing posts in this so-called echo chamber? Right-wing comments are lentiful, but there is never ever any post from anybody right of centre. Or any exposition of right-wing philosophy or positions beyond anything which is ok with the coalition. Leaving aside this one, which is not really left/right, the immigration/jobs posts were all one-sided, in response to a centrist post by yourself.

    (I know why, and I know you can’t say, but I can point out the problem, at least.)

  • Holdsworth

    Marriage as a legal entity is often very important in protecting women and their children then the man walks out. As happens frequently.

  • Paul Weston

    Marriage is not about selfish people’s rights, it is about providing a stable environment in which to raise children. Evidence suggests that those who make a real commitment BEFORE they start a family are statistically far more likely to stay together – thus benefitting the children.

    As I say, it is about the child, not the selfish adult as evidenced in this article.

    And don’t forget that to fully control a country, you must first destroy the family. Communism works in ways forgotten or never learned by this foolish woman.