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Heterosexual civil partnerships – fairly harmless but a colossal waste of court time


You would think highly paid grown-ups would have more important issues to consider. I’m talking about the Supreme Court judges, lawyers, politicians and other assorted worthies who are having to debate and resolve the simple question of whether heterosexual couples should have the same rights as same-sex couples to sign a civil partnership.

The issue is all about a historical anomaly. After introducing civil partnerships for same-sex couples from 2003, the government added the ability to marry from 2014. So same-sex couples who want to commit to a life together now have two options which essentially are legally identical.

But to a handful of heterosexual couples, this is not fair. They have only the one option, to marry. Now these children have complained to the adults that other kids have red or green sweets and they can only have red. It’s not fair! A society that was more confident in its own skin would tell these complainers to stop whining.

The obvious and simple solution to the anomaly is to abolish new civil partnerships while letting the existing ones stand. But now the Supreme Court has had its time wasted and been forced by law to say that everyone must have access to the same sweets. Government will now have to decide whether to waste its own time translating that into law.

So what impact will this new ruling have, should government change the law? Well, at one level it will do no harm and – for the tiny minority who want to get married but really can’t stand the word ‘marriage’ – it may do some good.

Civil partnerships and marriage are not just legally identical but also psychologically identical. Relationships that last are built on commitment. And commitment means making a decision to spend a life together. Whether you call lifelong commitment marriage or scrambled eggs matters not one jot.

I think it spectacularly unlikely that it will dent or damage marriage in any way. Few people, if any, grow up dreaming of being happily civil partnered, or ever will.

Aside from the monumental waste of everybody’s time, if there is a downside the extension of civil partnerships may perpetuate the myth that marriage is patriarchal. It is anything but. Power in a relationship rests with the person least committed. In a marriage, commitment is explicitly equal. If you want patriarchy, look at unmarried cohabitation where asymmetrical commitment is common, with the man being the least committed more often than not. That’s patriarchy.

But there may be a silver lining. A change in the law should put to bed the misguided campaign to force marriage-like rights on to cohabiting couples, whether they want them or not. There are some genuine injustices here where mostly women are left in the lurch by men. But changing the law in this case would remove the need for anyone to make an intentional commitment at all and do a lot more harm than good.

With civil partnerships, if the government does its thing, cohabiting heterosexual couples will have a way to express their commitment and protect each other’s rights in law whilst not getting married.
For the children running to teacher to say it’s not fair, that may not be quite the consequence they had in mind.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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