Written evidence submitted by Dr Andrew Kirk [HAB0123]


Possible Changes in the legal status of cohabiting couples

Although the practice of couples living together may be a growing option amongst British adults, it is fundamentally important to recognise that this is a conscious choice on their part. They have chosen not to get married or live in a civil partnership, where all the necessary legal entitlements would be in place for them.

Although some cohabiting couples extend their relationship for many years, many break up after a fairly short time. It has been calculated that, on average, 50% of cohabiting couples split apart when their first child reaches the age of 5. Whereas, for married couples this is the case in only 15% of cases. It is a statistically proven fact that cohabiting couples separate much more swiftly and on a much greater scale than do married couples. One would think that any government would far rather promote stable family relationships than try to suggest that a cohabiting arrangement is the equivalent of marriage.

It is a sad, and wholly counterproductive, reality that real marriage has been undermined by successive governments in recent years, despite what the political rhetoric may say to the contrary. No doubt under pressure from campaigning groups self-confessedly bent on undermining the age-long traditional patterns of marriage and the family legal mechanisms have been put in place that suggest that marriage is not necessarily the best place to nurture the next generation of young people. This is contrary to all peer-reviewed research on the subject.

No comparison can be made between cohabiting and marriage. The latter is grounded in solemn vows, made publicly, made by the two partners that they will live together “till death separates them”. Cohabitees, whatever their strong feelings for one another may be, simply decide to live together, without any external formal commitment. It is argued that it is better to experiment in what life together might be like than to marry straightaway and then regret the decision. However, cohabiting is not like an experimental version of true marriage, so the trial is not going to be a foretaste of what the real, lasting relationship is likely to produce.

It is true that a number of cohabitees eventually decide to get married. The argument seems to be that circumstances, especially financial pressures, did not favour marriage straightaway once they knew they wanted to be committed to each other, and therefore they come together first and postpone marriage to a more favourable time. This argument seems to be based on the phoney notion that weddings have to be elaborate and costly. The pandemic has probably proved that to be a false suggestion, when couples have had to experience small gatherings and have actually enjoyed not having to invite all and sundry.

On the basis of the arguments so far, there is no cause to promote the idea that cohabitation should be treated equally with marriage. The so-called equality card is a sleight of hand. For one is a matter of a life commitment and the other is a convenient scheme that avoids the responsibilities of marriage. There is, therefore, no call to treat them as if both deserved exactly the same legal privileges. This would undoubtedly debase and discriminate against marriage and (incidentally) lead to a much greater annual cost to the Exchequer, when the partnerships fall apart and children have to be legally protected against potential incriminations.

When all is said and done, if cohabiting couples wish to gain the legal status of married couples, why do they not take the plunge and commit themselves to marriage?

June 2021