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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 11:47 GMT
Is marriage still relevant?
Fewer people believe couples should get married before starting a family.

The annual survey by the National Centre for Social Research published this week found that in 1989 seven out of 10 people believed children should be born in wedlock, but now only 54% do.

A clear majority (67%) thought cohabitation was acceptable, even if a couple did not intend to get married.

Now that cohabitation is widely accepted as a prelude to marriage - is marriage going out of fashion?

Is marriage still relevant in today's society? Do children need married parents?

This Talking Point was suggested by Debbie F, from the UK. She said:
According to a survey, fewer people believe couples should get married before starting a family. Do children need married parents? Is marriage relevant in today's society?

If you have any suggestions for Talking Point, please click here.

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

So as more people think marriage is increasing irrelevant we see an increase with problems in society, specifically regarding children. Is really that difficult to put 2 and 2 together?
Peter B., USA/UK

The depth and sweetness of the marriage relationship cannot be matched by any other

Victoria, USA
I love being married. The depth and sweetness of the marriage relationship cannot be matched by any other relationship. It is difficult, yes. But the mystery and beauty would not be possible without actual marriage, the vowing together before family and the Universe that we are one. I would appreciate it if "society in general" were more supportive of people staying married, putting the marriage ahead of individual desires. Personally I find that as I "lose" myself in the marriage, the better, richer individual I become. I would also be interested in hearing from intentionally celibate people.
Victoria, USA

For all those who believe that marriage is just between two people and a piece of paper, 1) The paper has not held those together that don't want to stay together and 2) Once children are added to the family, it is no longer between just two people. Even two stable working parents are not enough to make it work without the help of family, friends and neighbours. I can't imagine the life of a single parent whether by choice, death of a spouse or even one parent travelling all the time. I've lost track of all the favours I have asked from my family and friends for all kinds of situations and I am not even a single parent.

So, maybe signing a paper is not important. But it is important to share the union in some kind of a ceremony with family and friends because they will be part of your lives for more than just a party.
Haleh Alberg, USA

As a Non-Religious, well paid, over taxed Gay Man, I fail to see why my lack of contribution to world over population should result in my subsidising yet more self cloning in the name of the Victorian concept of marriage.
Derek Northcote, UK

How can they have complete trust and peace of mind without it?

Mark Robinson, Netherlands
Some people say (also on this page) that marriage is just a piece of paper! When I married my wife, I promised in front of family, friends and God many things, including to stay together in good and bad times. That promise, made in front people I care about, is the foundation of our marriage. We both know that, no matter what, we will never part. That is a guarantee that many others do not have. How can they have complete trust and peace of mind without it?
Mark Robinson, Netherlands

As long as the parent or parents are happy it makes no difference if they're married or not. I know from my own experience that I am far happier not being married and therefore a much better mother to my children.
Jacky, UK

Marriage is an innovation of religion to begin with to save a family, then a tribe, township, city county and country. It fosters strong sense in children to follow the footsteps and benefit from it. Once without marriage, humankind was known as 'barbarians.' Now, we are all known as 'civil.' It is a basic unit of humanity. One cannot count census based on singles without having a household. The sense of 'household' arguably springs out of marriage.
Habib Hemani, USA

You have to look back at the changes in family habits last century. Family homes were just that, housing multiple generations. Marriage was a prerequisite of the elder generation for couples to live and procreate within their household. Over time, this changed. Having a place of your own (albeit local) became the main objective, but marriage was still very much part of this. Then as job movement allowed couples away from the home base, so family ties became stretched and the family closeness was lost. The additional comfort factor, life experiences and in built security of elders was lost. Marriages built on young, inexperienced lives had no back up, no tolerance, no future. If marriage is what you want it should be based on sound experience of life and relationships and a responsible commitment going forward. Therefore individuals need to get everything out of their system beforehand and make up for the lost cross generation of experience. i.e. don't get married until you are ready for it.
Richard Philips, UK

Cohabitation is lazy, pessimistic and uncommitted

Shane Watts, Utah, USA
Marriage is more relevant than ever! In today's society, it takes planes crashing into skyscrapers to remind us that some things really are sacred. Cohabitation is lazy, pessimistic and uncommitted. It is temporary, transient. When the going gets tough, cohabiters cut and run. Married couples are the builders of families, which are the builders of communities, which are the builders of societies and nations. The trendy phrase "United We Stand" is a beautiful sentiment, but it's just so many words if the society which utters it is not built on a foundation of commitment, responsibility and fidelity. Marriage and families are that foundation.
Shane Watts, Utah, USA

Marriage is only as important as the community that surrounds it. Marriage exists as a way of people to put their faith in bonding of two people for the sake of their children and their community. It is not so easy for two people to be committed to each other in times of stress and is a way for people to maintain a bond between each other that bears necessity for the good of a community, being for families, friends and children.

I think that it is important to put your faith in something that will enable you to put your own needs aside for the sake of the children you may be raising or the well-being of the people you live amongst. It can be a religious and/or a social bonding. Saying that we should do away with the idea of marriage would be the same as saying we do not need friendship or family. Be it between the same or opposite sex, or from any type of spiritual or social ideology, it signifies a vow of loyalty and respect for another person, and that you have faith in principles that stand outside of your own needs. I do not think that we are enlightened enough to do away with that.
Jim, USA

Cohabitation is a conditional arrangement - "I'll stay if you'll stay". Marriage has at its heart unconditional promises of permanence and exclusivity - it is unconditional. Fully put into practice these foundations make for a fundamentally different relationship. Sadly most couples in the UK are never given the opportunity or the relationship skills to live their marriages to the full, instead seeing it as a form of "cohabitation with a launch party!" Marriage is, and should be, a radical lifestyle choice in the 21st century!
Dave Percival, UK

There are still too many people who favour marriage. Although slowly, but surely old beliefs are changing. This phenomenon is triggered by social evolution. No one can stop it.
Agha A, USA

If marriage were merely one of the many options a modern couple has it would be a fantastic union of love and/or spirituality but when it is a national institution and something that is expected upon people then is it any wonder we have the divorce rates we do? If the traditional married family wasn't promoted as being so superior all the time and the tax benefits were abolished then it would make marriage a thing that people do because it is what they really believe in after weighing up all other options and because they truly love one another. Only then will the credibility return into the concept of marriage and only then will divorce rates fall.
James Pittman, England

I am engaged to my partner of over 2 years. I do not need a ring on my finger for him to know that I want to spend the rest of my life with him. I do not need a wedding ceremony for others to realise that I have made a commitment to this person. When we have the money for a half decent wedding we will get married, but it is not central to our relationship. Relationships are not about a ceremony, presents and a piece of paper they are about love and caring. I have made a promise to care for my partner come what may and I don't necessarily need a certificate to prove it. However, I do believe that it is time that the Government recognised long standing relationships of couples who are not married in various legal elements of our society today.
Rachel, UK

What's all this rot about a "legally binding agreement?" Marriage is a divine sacrament, not a human invention. It signifies an objective change in the state of a man and a woman who have entered into a union before God. The law is irrelevant. It cannot define marriage any more than it can define the speed of light, which is a much less real thing. The law can only be modified so that it corresponds as closely as possible to reality.
David Szondy, USA (British)

Strictly speaking, marriage is only relevant to Christians

John, UK
Although marriage can cement the stability in a relationship that can provide the best conditions for bringing up children, strictly speaking it is only relevant to Christians seeing as the vows exchanged during the ceremony are intended as lifetime endorsements of Christian religious principles and values.
John, UK

I'm with those who basically say that it's up to the individual, or the couple in this case. There's no point in being judgemental or even philosophical about this. Whether a couple marries or not is theirs and no one else's business. If it means something to them, by all means let them get married. If it doesn't, you don't have to do it.

In the US I would say that marriage is still very important, at least in terms of a legal contract. Because we are married, my wife is entitled to health insurance from my company and is the automatic beneficiary if anything should happen to me. Personally I take great comfort in the fact that my wife and daughter will be taken care of if I'm no longer around.
Jeff, USA

I feel that marriage is still the ultimate sign of true love

Peter, Finland
I feel that marriage is still the ultimate sign of true love. It also gives both parties the promise and responsibility for their future. But even marriage is nowadays becoming a trend, with increasing break-ups.
Peter, Finland

All the scientific research suggests that children who are part of a stable, loving family do far better in life psychologically, socially, educationally and even economically, than children in single-parent or unstable families. That said, marriage neither guarantees such stability, nor is it the only way to achieve it. But it's the best way most societies have found so far.
Peter Nelson, USA

After I split from my long-term partner, and mother of my child, I discovered that as an unmarried father I had no immediate or legal right to see my child. Luckily my ex-partner is co-operative and I have some access. The law, it seems, does not treat unmarried men and women equally.
David, UK

I recently read that live-in relationships involving children break up at a rate 3 times higher than marriages

Jeff Garner, USA
To Kathy, UK - The marriage certificate does not say you should stay with your partner. It is a legal agreement based on a commitment you make to someone you care deeply about and want to share your life with. If you have children with someone you choose to live with rather than marry you would still face "vast amounts in solicitors' fees" if the relationship ended because you would be involved in a custody dispute. I recently read a study that found that live-in relationships involving children break up at a rate 3 times higher than marriages, which means that live-in couples will actually spend more on legal fees than those who choose to have children within a marriage.

As for growing up with married parents one of whom was violent, I know people who grew up in single-parent households with a troubled and/or violent parent. Violent parents will continue to exist with or without marriage.
Jeff Garner, USA

I stay with my partner because I want to and not because I have a piece of paper that says I should or because to leave would cost vast amounts in solicitors' fees. He knows that. As for children needing two parents, my siblings and I grew up with two married parents, one of whom was violent and abusive. Frankly we would have been far better off with just one parent who did all the providing and caring anyway. So all the sweeping generalisations on this page are just that.
Kathy, UK

In my experience society takes you more seriously as a couple if you're married

Kirsty, UK
Davina, I'd love to hear about the "tax credits and benefits" - I recently married and as far as I'm aware there aren't any. I married in a civil ceremony at a licensed venue. This is a choice that is becoming increasingly popular since the Marriage Act of 1994. I think that shows that for many couples these days it's not anything to do with religion. It's about showing that you are happy to make a public commitment to each other. In my experience it's also true that society takes you more seriously as a couple if you're married.
Kirsty, UK

Marriage is first and foremost, a legally binding union. Once married, couples gain legal benefits in terms of splitting assets in the case of divorce, tax credits and benefits, insurance beneficiaries, wills and so on. I see no reason why people with or without children should get married if they don't want to. But, particularly if they have children, they have to weigh up the 'cons' of marriage against the 'pros' of legal status.
Davina McBride, UK

I am in one of the last generations who will get married

Richard N, UK
I'm 27 years old, and I think I am in one of the last generations who will get married. Broken homes produce people who mistrust the longevity of marriage, and to top it all not many young couples can afford 5k+ to get married when the cash would be better spent on a house deposit or preparing for a baby. Who knows what will replace marriage?
Richard N, UK

Marriage was important when the woman stayed at home and the man went to work. It was about the woman looking after 2.4 kids and the man making the money. Isn't co-habiting just a way of saying "I'm different to that generation"? Personally, I am not religious, but when I meet the right person, I want to make a public declaration of my commitment to that man.
Sandra, UK

When two people commit themselves to their marriage instead of themselves, something wonderful happens

Faye, USA
I am appalled by the number of negative comments regarding marriage here. Marriage is relevant no matter what your religious beliefs are. It is a public declaration of your decision to spend the rest of your life with the person standing by your side. Whether it is a small civil ceremony or a big church bash, making a commitment to someone, in public, seals the deal. This is not a bad thing. I have been married long enough and am old fashioned enough to believe that when two people commit themselves to their marriage instead of themselves, something wonderful happens. A supportive, caring family is created, and the total becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Faye, USA

The problem isn't with marriage, it is with divorce

The problem isn't with marriage, it is with divorce. People are scared to marry in case things go wrong and they have to divorce. My partner is married but he can't afford to get divorced. The idea of splitting everything 50/50 is ridiculous. He can't leave because he would be left with nothing.

About as relevant as religion in general.
Jim, UK

It would be better to throw a party to celebrate your happiness

JRH, Scotland
As a Christian, I believe strongly in marriage. For those without that sort of belief, marriage is a meaningless ceremony and a simple waste of money. If you are not making committed vows before God and your fellow man, then why bother? Surely it would be better just to throw a party in your house and invite your friends round to celebrate your happiness? The laws for common law spouses should make it easy for a couple who have been living together for a couple of years to be seen as married in the eyes of the law without the needless expense and meaningless gesturing that marriage ceremonies are becoming.
JRH, Scotland

I am 24 and my generation still sees marriage as relevant

Cathy, UK
It always has been, and always will be relevant if you believe in God and His commandments. If not, your decision should be based on the well being of your relationship, not pressure from society, family or friends. We got married seven weeks ago, after five years together, and we've found so far that marriage has re-affirmed our commitment to one another, and re-focussed our relationship. However, as a Christian, I would respect (not follow) my friends' decision not to marry. I am 24 and all my friends, Christian or otherwise, in long term relationships are married, which shows my generation still sees marriage as relevant.
Cathy, UK

If you are planning to have a family and you regard marrying your partner as a means to securing them into the relationship, you are categorically with the wrong person.
Wendy, UK

Yes, marriage is still important - I am relying on it to net me the fortune I never earned.
Chris, UK

We should stop punishing those who choose not marry their long-term partners with inequality in the eyes of the law.

Zoe, Wales
As I have recently married I would say that marriage is a good thing, and is still relevant. The reasons for its relevance in our society differ from what they were when my parents married over thirty years ago. I believe that the commitment I have made to my husband has cemented our bond and made us closer. However, we had a strong relationship in the first place, and I don't think that marriage can form a strong bond that is not already there. There are a lot of jaded and cynical attitudes to marriage on this page, with men saying that you can only gain from it if you are a woman and vice versa. Marriage would not work for these people because it should be an equal partnership, entered into with an open mind and a willingness to work at it. For marriage to be truly successful and relevant in our modern society, we should allow all couples who want to demonstrate their long-term to commitment to marry if they wish, regardless of sex or sexuality, and stop punishing those who choose not marry their long-term partners with inequality in the eyes of the law.
Zoe, Wales

Marriage isn't just a signature on a piece of paper. It is a legally binding, publicly made commitment, and a statement that you at least intend your relationship to be for life. People seem to move in together at the drop of a hat these days for economic and practical reasons as much as anything. How can you be sure when people are just living together that they are not just waiting for something better to come along?
Jane, Wales, UK

Too many people want a wedding and not enough seek a marriage

Pete, Wales, UK
I got married because I wanted to spend the rest of my life together with my wife. Marriage does not come with a warranty and needs constant work and commitment. With the world in its current state, is it not time for us to be tolerant of each others views? Let those that want to commit to marriage do so without harassment and those that don't likewise. I do think too many people want a wedding and not enough seek a marriage though. Each to their own.
Pete, Wales, UK

Either you make a life-long commitment to your partner or you don't. If you do, why NOT get married? It's only a piece of paper, as so many people keep pointing out! And if you don't really want to make that commitment, why on earth do such couples have children?
Steve, UK

It's only relevant to religious people. What use would atheists have for it? After all it is a religious obligation.
James Clarke, UK

Our society can do without marriage. It's just a legal thing that complicates things if you want to change your life. I do not believe that the marriage vehicle itself contributes to a relationship between two people.
Volker, England (ex Germany)

If you can't be bothered to sign up in front of the registrar, how committed are you?

It takes as many people to bring up a child as to procreate it. Preferably the same ones. Those who argue that commitment is worth more than the marriage certificate miss the point: if you can't be bothered to sign up in front of the registrar, how committed are you?

In today's society when so many people are atheist or agnostic it seems very hypocritical to bother to get married. Pretending that a big service in Church has some relevance other than to show off your other half or relative wealth to people you don't see very often and don't care about. What does have true meaning are the feelings that you share with your other half, in private, the intimacy that makes your relationship meaningful, the shared experience that adds to your wish to stay together - your free commitment to each other. How can marriage realistically celebrate or demonstrate that?
Ellen, UK

I wonder if there's a correlation between the aspirations and achievements of children and whether their parents are married during their childhood?
Chris Cowdery, UK

Society has changed and marriage is the casualty

Adrian, UK
Marriage worked - most people were reasonably happy, the kids had a good start in life and it gave a stable base for all involved. The sight of so many grandparents pushing prams around with their children's offspring in and seemingly looking after them for long periods of time is just one example of how society is now altering giving no time for family values. Society has changed and marriage is the casualty - the results are to be seen all around us.
Adrian, UK

Marriage is a public declaration of commitment to a relationship. Anyone making that commitment without marrying is denying his or her closest friends and relations the chance to celebrate and join in a great rite of passage.
Anthony, UK

Let's face it: all marriage was about originally was financial security

Jenny, Durham, UK
There are two aspects to marriage - the practical/legal side and the emotional/ religious side. The practical and legal side, with security for children or other dependants and rights within pensions, seems vitally important on a practical level and I think that every couple who intend to stay together for life should have the right to make this legal commitment ensuring their legal security. Let's face it: all marriage was about originally was financial security, and that still has its part to play today. The second bit, the emotional/religious bit, is a different matter. I can understand why it is important to some people and not to others to make this commitment before friends, family and/or God. Essentially, I think that the two "functions" of marriage should be rather more separate than they are today.
Jenny, Durham, UK

I have two children and I live with my partner. I love her and my two children with everything I have. We provide a loving, caring atmosphere for the children to grow up in, and the idea that you need two bands of gold and a piece of paper to provide a stable relationship is rubbish. Gary,UK:your argument no holds no water. The idea that an unmarried couple or single parent provides an unstable place for children is utter rubbish.
Jason, Manchester, England

I am disgusted at the inequality dealt to homosexuals in this country in denying their right to marry

Adam Higgins, United Kingdom
I think there is still a place for marriage in our society. Being a straight male, I am nevertheless still disgusted at the inequality dealt to homosexuals in this country in denying their right to marry. They lose out on pension rights, death in service payments, not to mention tax incentives.
Adam Higgins, United Kingdom

I have been co-habiting with my partner for 17 years. Both of us had been married before with my marriage lasting the longest at three years! We have a nine year old child and what is important is not that we are married but that we provide him with a happy, stable, loving home which he has. My partner and I have no desire for marriage, as we both know that it doesn't come with a lifelong guarantee. Anthony, you should look up the legality of entitlement in divorce, it is not 50/50.
Fiona, UK

This obsession with marriage is farcical

Steve, England
This obsession with marriage is farcical. So long as the parents are able to offer a loving, stable environment with which to bring up their children, who cares whether they've signed a piece of paper?
Steve, England

Any man who gets married nowadays is a fool. Should the marriage end he will find, even if he is blameless, the whole weight of the state will be against him. Equality goes out of the window if you are a married or divorced man.
Gerry, Scotland

I'm in my mid thirties, and most if not all of my friends have married from stable relationships within the past couple of years, so yes marriage is still popular, and no, none of my friends have had children out of wedlock (not that it really matters, as a stable relationship is the important part).
Rob, UK

How very telling that most of the positive comments re marriage come from men, bearing out my suspicion that there are far fewer advantages than men in this out of date institution.
Janet, UK

My friend lived with her partner for 10 years and they had 2 children. Shortly after they got married, she left him. He wasn't a very considerate man and marriage raised her expectations. She is now living with another man and they have a baby whilst her other children chose to stay with their father. He also has a new partner and baby. I am not sure what this proves, but it certainly disproves the theory of marriage making relationships more secure.
Gill, UK

When the going gets tough, we work it out - the idea of splitting up is just not an option

S Fowler, UK
Marriage doesn't have to be expensive. My husband and I spent less that 100 on our wedding. What was important however, was the commitment we made to each other. Now when the going gets tough, we work it out. The idea of splitting up is just not an option.
S Fowler, UK

To S Fowler,

Why was splitting up an option before you were married but not so afterwards?
Jim, UK

I think children need parents who are committed to each other, and marriage is only a way of showing that commitment. I think all parents should marry. These days, the ceremony itself can be as simple or as grand as you wish, and is not really the issue.
Andy Brown, UK

Why am I left with the suspicion that the 54% who support marriage were the women?
Guy Chapman, UK

It seems to me that more people who do get married want a nice day in a church, than a solemn ritual in front of God. Or they treat it as a parent pleasing project. Also I think people are more confident about making a life long commitment to each other on their own terms.
TW, England

The one advantage of marriage is practicality. The British Courts are full of couples who lived together and split up, arguing about who owns what. And after the solicitors take their share there is not much left. In a proper divorce it is split 50/50.
Secondly living together doesn't show much commitment does it? If you can sign for 10 of petrol on a credit card, why can't someone sign on a marriage certificate?
Thirdly. There is a much bigger chance that you are going to split up if your not legally married. Sometimes in life there are these important moments when you have to make your mind up and choose. Choosing a partner for life is one of those.
Anthony, England

I don't think marriage is for everybody

Lizz, UK
I don't think marriage is for everybody. My sister married her long-term boyfriend after cohabiting for a while, and seems happy with that decision. I have been seeing my boyfriend for almost as long, have been cohabiting for two years and have not yet seen good reason for marrying him. I don't honestly know whether starting a family would make a difference to my attitude, but I see marriage as a big expense, and I'd rather spend my money on living comfortably than on a fancy day to which I have to invite relatives who I barely see otherwise.
Lizz, UK

You do not need an expensive wedding to get married, as Lizz, UK, said. A witness or two at the registry office is all that you need. Liz you are depriving us of a good day out and a chance to get dressed up! I bet you never throw a party either. I hope you turn down the next wedding invite you get, because you don't believe in spending the money yourself.
Mark, England

Yes, children need parents, one male and the other female.
Tom, UK

A child needs two parents but those parents do not have share the same house let alone be married

Ian W, UK
I agree wholeheartedly with Tom and Gary (both UK). A child needs two parents, and stability in those relationships. But those two parents do not have share the same house let alone be married. To bring up a happy, secure child, it becomes relatively unimportant whether the parents now or previously cohabited, or were married, or neither. This does rely on the parents being adult and responsible and remaining on good enough terms with each other to act as a proper parenting team and to provide together for the emotional and financial needs of the child. If only more people (with particular emphasis on the fathers!) took proper responsibility where their children are concerned, 'broken' and 'single-parent' homes would not be the issue that they are.
Ian W, UK

According to what I've read in the press over the past few days: far from needing married parents, in theory children no longer need parents at all. So I'm inclined to suppose that unmarried parents might be better than none.
Chris B., England

At least it looks destined to stay popular amongst celebrities

Richard P, UK
Even if for the rest of us marriage is a decreasingly popular optional-extra, at least it looks destined to stay popular amongst celebrities - after all it guarantees them loads of free publicity in the tabloids and 'Hello'-type magazines.
Richard P, UK

YES! It is relevant, as all the evidence shows it is the best environment (a stable 2-parent family) to bring up children.
Gary, UK

See also:

25 Jun 98 | UK
Marriage out of fashion
26 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Mixed marriages 'more acceptable'
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