Written evidence from Sharon Blake, University of Exeter [HAB0379]


Commitment Research Summary for Inquiry into the Rights of Cohabiting Partners

Submitted by: Sharon Blake (LLB, MA, MRes), Honorary Research Associate at University of Exeter Medical School and currently Research Associate on the Nuffield Foundation project ‘When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies.’



1.0 Introduction

1.1   I write to summarise a qualitative study I conducted in 2018 which provides evidence in relation to the Inquiry’s questions regarding equality issues raised by the lack of legal protection for cohabitors and whether cohabitors should have the same rights as those who are married, or in a civil partnership. I am an experienced qualitative researcher with an interdisciplinary background in Law, Social Sciences and Health.


1.2   My evidence specifically relates to the position of long-term non-marital cohabitors but also highlights how relationship rights provision based on relationship form may be reproducing social inequalities. The key findings suggest formalising a relationship (to marry or not) are not necessarily autonomous or reflective decisions to make a financial or legal commitment and whilst commitment may be conceptualised differently, how it is lived and displayed within long-term couple relationships is the same regardless of relationship form.


1.3   I will now briefly describe the background to the study and then provide further details regarding the key findings. For more information, please see the full papers which provide further theoretical and contextual detail (citations provided at the end).

2.0 The Study


2.1   Existing theories of commitment have largely been developed from studies with opposite-sex couples at a time when there was less divergence in relationship practices (e.g., when weddings were held towards the start of a union rather than a capstone event, which outside of religious groups, can often be the case today). Relationship research to date has largely sampled one relationship form rather than taken a comparative approach. Although it is small and exploratory, this study was in-depth and aimed to further understanding of commitment across contemporary relationship forms.


2.2   The study involved a narrative analysis of interviews with 10 couples of different relationship forms, resident in England. Couples were interviewed both together in joint interviews and separately in individual partner interviews. 4 were married (3 opposite-sex, 1 female same-sex), 2 were male same-sex civil partnerships and 4 were non-marital cohabitors (3 opposite sex, 1 female same-sex). Each couple had been living together for between 17 and 54 years. The aim of the study was to explore what commitment meant, how it was displayed and what, if any, were the similarities and differences across relationship forms.

3.0 Meaning of Commitment and Decisions to Formalise a Relationship


3.1   Two distinct commitment narratives were found – for some, the future was clear, there was a belief in the ideal of a life-long commitment to one partner and a sense of permanence from towards the start of their relationship. For others, commitment was a gradual process with life-long promises unrealistic when the future is unknowable, and undertakings regularly reviewed and renewed instead. For the participating opposite-sex couples, their relationship form reflected these different meanings of commitment (those who married believed in the ability to make life-long promises, those who cohabited did not). The relationship form of the participating same-sex couples did not fit this pattern. For example, a same-sex couple married with bespoke vows for the relationship’s lifespan rather than for life.


3.2   The differences in meanings of commitment and decisions to formalise their relationship reflected two key interlinked influences – both of which question how autonomous and reflective decisions regarding relationship forms are:


3.2.1         Social experience of marriage and divorce

The couples who married (whether in opposite or same-sex relationships) all described a positive social experience of marriage – all of their friends were happily married and their parents’ relationship remaining intact during their lifetimes. In keeping with the notion of the intergenerational effects of divorce, the five participating individuals whose parents had divorced, all rejected the idea that it was possible to make life-long promises. All six of the cohabiting couples and civil partners associated marriage with a negative change in relationship based on the experiences within their social network. As per one of the cohabitors: It’s brilliant that people can, but all the lesbian gay couples I know that have gone for a civil partnership or marriage, it has ended in tears.

3.2.2         Heteronormative life-stage trajectories

For opposite-sex couples, the narratives also suggest the decision to marry can reflect a ‘life-stage’ which had been internalised as normative. While same-sex couples described a lack of pressure or expectation to get married, opposite-sex couples described both marrying at a time when their friends were doing so, and a continuing assumption of marriage with parenthood. None of the opposite-sex couples who married raised legal or financial aspects of commitment, largely surprised by such questions. Contrarily all three of the same-sex couples who formalised their relationship had considered legal and financial reasons for doing so.

3.3   These findings suggest that if tax breaks and the availability of legal remedies upon death or relationship dissolution are based on a somewhat false presumption that relationship forms mirror autonomous and reflective decisions to make a financial and legal commitment, this is likely to reproduce social inequalities. As an individual growing up with limited role-modelling of healthy formalised relationships is already at risk of poorer outcomes, if this influences their ‘choice’ to cohabit rather than formalise their relationship, not providing legal protection for long-term cohabitors may be reinforcing this risk.

4.0 Displays of Commitment

4.1   Often there is an assumption that commitment for cohabitors is contingent on personal satisfaction, with a lack of shared investment, so that individuals can easily end the relationship. Indeed, a lack of financial interdependence in cohabiting relationships has been given as a reason for different regulatory treatment. Assuming financial interdependence as a characteristic of a committed relationship may not reflect contemporary relationship practices. In this study, across relationship forms there was instead an emphasis on financial independence, with couples predominantly using separate financial accounts - whether they had formalised their relationship or not.


4.2   Instead of presumed differences between formalised and cohabiting relationships, the narratives suggested that commitment in long-term relationships is displayed in the same way across forms. Even if perceived as gradual and renewable, commitment was not contingent on personal satisfaction. In all the relationships explored in this study, commitment reflected mutual reciprocity (‘give and take’) and moral consistency values (loyalty, sense of perseverance, acceptance of differences, openness to growth) to stick together in the inevitable good and bad times.


4.3   These findings suggest that whilst there may be differences in the meanings of commitment with some able to commit for life and others preferring to commit on a gradual and renewable basis, this did not mean that one was more committed than another. These couples in long-term relationships, regardless of relationship form, made sacrifices and supported one another through life stressors. A lack of legal recognition and protection for long-term cohabitors fails to recognise the unpaid care and support within their relationships.


4.4   The lack of fair treatment was particularly felt by one of the cohabiting couples who had experienced a nasty car accident: If either of us… had been unconscious and unable to communicate, the other person was nobody, we wouldn’t be allowed into the room necessarily, how is that possible? We could hate each other, not live together, but have a marriage certificate and be afforded all that kind of stuff in terms of legal standing.

5.0 Recommendations

5.1   To address inequality in the legal protection and rights offered to those in couple relationships, account needs to be taken of the social influences upon relationship form (notably the impact of divorce within social networks) and how existing notions of what signifies a committed relationship, may not reflect contemporary relationship practices.


5.2   Whilst, as it started from a long-term perspective, this study did not aim to explore at what point commitment becomes similar across relationship forms, the shortest relationship duration of the cohabiting participants was seventeen years. This suggests that rights for cohabitors could be recognised as per married and civil partners from at least this point.


5.3   Further research is needed to explore the findings of this exploratory study and what signifiers may be used consistently by regulatory processes to recognise committed relationships across the diversity of contemporary relationship practices (i.e., cohabitors but also those who live apart together) in order to confer rights and duties.


September 2021