AT the Scottish Family Party’s annual conference I was asked to talk about marriage. I focused on the benefits. For an institution which forms the bedrock of society, but lacks social recognition and is often very demanding, these are worth pointing out.
Research from the US suggests that marriage is the best predictor of happiness. It is more influential than a range of other factors including friendships or work. In the UK the Office for National Statistics looked at how various circumstances influenced individual well-being and found marriage was at the top of the list, trumped in importance only by health.
Marriage has implications for our mental health. Being married significantly reduces the incidence of depression and the likelihood of alcohol abuse. The size of the marriage effect upon mental wellbeing has been estimated as equivalent to an extra £75,000 a year. This might be worth keeping in mind next time you are feeling frustrated with your spouse.
Marriage has significant benefits for our health by influencing the social, psychological, and physical environments in which individuals live. On one hand marriage promotes positive lifestyle choices such as physical activity, breakfast, wearing seatbelts and not smoking. On the other, it provides us with someone who monitors our health and health-related behaviours through a process dubbed ‘the guardian effect’. As women attach more importance to health and take greater responsibility for monitoring their husbands it is argued that the guardian effect is of greater benefit to men.
Marriage has a protective effect which keeps people alive. The longer the duration of marriage the greater the benefits while divorce will increase mortality each time it occurs.
Marriage serves individuals well through the impact it has on wealth creation. As a trust-based relationship it facilitates economies of scale, the sharing of risk, specialisation and exchange. Marriage encourages wealth-producing behaviour such as house buying, renovations and business developments. Married parents receive money as gifts from both sets of grandparents. They pool their income so if one spouse is laid off the household can still rely on the income of the other. A married couple will build more wealth than those with similar incomes who have chosen to cohabit or live alone.
The greatest benefits are reserved for our children. Harry Benson from the Marriage Foundation analysed data from 10,929 mothers of 14-year-olds and found that marriage was better than cohabitation for the child’s mental health. Even when parents split up, if they had been married previously the children suffered lower levels of harm.
Another analysis by the Marriage Foundation showed that the beneficial effects lasted throughout adulthood. Parents who remained married significantly increased their offspring’s chances of getting a degree and getting married. It reduced the possibility that he or she would end up on benefits. The positive impact of marriage was equivalent to, and sometimes trumped, the benefits of social class.
This is profoundly important. The less well-off in society are significantly less likely to be married. And the consequences of family break-up go well beyond going on benefits or going to university. They significantly increase the chances of teenage pregnancy, homelessness, prison time or serious levels of personal debt. While family breakdown incurs a burden to the taxpayer to the tune of £51billion, high levels of marriage encourage higher GDP per capita and greater upward mobility.
Thus marriage is the linchpin through which economic inequality can be overcome or reproduced.
Why should the effect of marriage be so different from cohabitation? Even where parents stay together and to all intents and purposes look as if they are married, significant differences in relationship quality and outcomes can be discerned.
One explanation lies in the mechanics of fiduciary relationships. It has been argued that trusting behaviour in one person is likely to bring about trusting behaviour in the other. Marriage provides an opportunity through which trustful behaviour can be mutually demonstrated eliciting in both parties a trustful response.
To understand the effect of marriage on behaviour it is salutary to look at the impact of no-fault divorce on the length of marriage in the US. Betsey Stevenson showed in her study how following no-fault divorce recently married couples would invest less in their marriage. This was because marriage was no longer perceived as such a permanent institution. It had become coloured with insecurity and risk. In response to no-fault divorce, couples were more likely to have children late and less likely to invest in their spouse’s education. They might be each more likely to maintain their own independent income. This resulted in a decline in interdependence so marriage became more likely to break down.
This mechanism gives us a handle on understanding the consequences of cohabitation. Evidence suggests cohabiting couples’ levels of commitment are not the same. For example, twice as many cohabiting couples as married couples felt that their partner didn’t have the same level of commitment. In the absence of a demonstration of trust, there is a lack of the trust response.
The detrimental effects of cohabitation are important because although rates of divorce are decreasing, cohabiting relationships contribute over half of family instability and rates of cohabitation are only going up.
The promotion and protection of marriage therefore becomes key to individual and childhood wellbeing. Marriage increases social equality and social mobility as well.
What can be done?
Marriage is a demanding relationship. It is not just about loving and cherishing another. This is perhaps the easier part. It involves risking one’s life and wellbeing because one has to trust that one’s spouse will love and cherish in return. Risk and trust are essential to the marriage contract and may explain why marriage produces high rewards.
However, the benefits system has undermined this essential social contract. This is because the risk and benefits between the man and women need to be somewhat equivalent or the possibilities of marriage are undermined.
The state provides the woman, through motherhood, with a fallback position. Trustful dependent behaviour is no longer required of a woman. She may therefore also be unlikely to elicit a supportive and trustful behavioural response.
With the state effectively acting as a third party in the relationship the core of interdependence is hard to build.
The dependence of the least well-off on the benefits system may help explain how the association between poverty and family break-up is maintained and reproduced.
If we want to increase marriage among our young people, enabling them to be independent of state handouts should be encouraged whatever the cost.
Our benefits system as it currently stands discourages cohabitation by reducing benefits when couples start to live together. But as cohabitation is inherently unstable, if the benefits system discourages it, this could actually play a useful role. The trouble is that our benefits system does not distinguish between cohabitation and marriage. Instead it takes a sledgehammer approach.
However, if the state recognised and rewarded marriage, (while discouraging cohabitation) for example by significantly increasing a married couple’s access to council housing, this could actually work out rather well.
Not only would it increase the number of married couples which we know is so good for society, it would also free council housing. The current welfare system encourages couples who may actually be living together to maintain two different residences to pretend they are living apart.
And instead of penalising couples when they wed, our tax system should recognise the whole family unit. It should look at household earnings and also take into consideration any young people as well as any elderly those earnings support.
Marriage is the key and cornerstone to social justice. It has widespread appeal and social support. It benefits individuals, couples, children and even the elderly. It is high time the government recognised its importance and gave marriage economic and political support.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Scottish Family Party please see their website here.