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Harry Benson: Marriage is the answer for committed heterosexual couples

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In my family, we have an expression: “WAM”. It means “What About Me” and is usually lobbed in the direction of whichever one of our children is claiming unfair treatment. Actually as parents we try really hard to be fair. But “WAM” reminds them to make the most of what they have, rather than compare themselves to what somebody else might or might not have. Invariably they take it well and we move on.

All of which is to say that the couple who have just had their case for civil partnerships for different sex couples turned down by the Court of Appeal fit firmly into this category. This is a “WAM” couple who were definitely pushing their luck.

‘Civil partnerships’ were created in 2003 to provide similar legal rights and protections for same sex couples as for heterosexual married couples, but without calling it ‘marriage’. Two years ago, the law allowed for marriage of same sex couples, leaving civil partnerships looking like an interim measure.

It’s possible that equal civil partnership for heterosexual couples may yet happen through a private members Bill. But maybe the MPs will see the way the wind is blowing and forget it.

Prior to the introduction of same sex marriage, there was one civil partnership for every 40 marriages. In 2015, for every civil partnership, there were around seven same sex marriages and 278 heterosexual marriages.

The appeal court ruling paves the way for civil partnerships to die a natural death that was happening anyway.

Either way this was always a sideshow about the supposed ‘rights’ of a tiny minority of ‘WAM’ couples. Seriously, how many heterosexual couples would ever have signed up to a legal arrangement that is all but identical to marriage, but just with a different name? The BBC airily touted that it would affect ‘thousands of couples’ in their news reports. Personally, I doubt it would ever have breached the hundreds.

The real issue is not the unfair treatment of a tiny minority of heterosexual “WAM” couples who don’t want marriage but do want a civil partnership, but the genuinely unfair treatment of whole legions of children of cohabiting parents deprived of a right to stable family life because of a lack of formal commitment.

A recent report from the Social Trends Institute showed that Britain’s cohabiting parents are the least stable in the developed world. Forget your worries about high divorce rates. A full 62 per cent of unmarried parents have experienced two or more relationship transitions, out or in, prior to their child’s twelfth birthday.

This is in line with our own research at Marriage Foundation that shows 69 per cent of children sitting their GCSEs aren’t living with both parents if their parents were not married when they were born. If their parents were married, the odds drop to 24 per cent, which is the real divorce rate from a child’s viewpoint. And, yes, our study found that parental age and education made no difference to this gap.

Maybe now that we can put this “WAM” issue back in its box, we can ask the better question “WATC”, “What About The Children”?

Harry Benson is Research Director of Marriage Foundation and author of What Mums Want (And Dads Need To Know)

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and author of Commit or Quit: The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance.

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