As a family court judge, Paul Coleridge saw thousands of relationships break down. He explains why it convinced him that the best way of ensuring a stable society in the UK is to strengthen marriage
Throughout my 30 years as a barrister specialising in Family Law, and then twelve years serving as a High Court judge with daily sittings in the Family Court, I witnessed the appalling pain caused by family breakdown. This pain was especially borne by the children involved. Often the cases involved disputes between estranged parents over the custody of their children. Although both parties often cited their love for their children as their motivation, in reality the primary motivator was the visceral bitterness felt by one spouse toward the other.
Tragically, 42 per cent of marriages in the UK end in divorce. But the steepest rise in the number of broken relationships is not among the married population but unmarried cohabitees. Despite high divorce rates, married couples still have a much better chance of making their relationship last. This realisation led me to conclude that marriage, with all its faults and imperfections, is still the best model for building a healthy society.
Contrary to popular belief, marriage needs to be championed in our culture. Otherwise it will be in danger of simply withering away in a blizzard of myth, misinformation and half-truths. There are plenty of voices claiming that marriage shouldn’t be privileged above any other form of family social unit. But every level of society suffers when marriage isn’t championed. From the royal family to the person on the street, families in this country are being sucked inexorably into the family justice system. The pain which each individual family experiences within this system is the same, regardless of their background or religious persuasion.
Every level of society suffers when marriage isn’t championed
You may think I’m preaching to the choir. Christians often say they understand the importance and sanctity of marriage. And it is true that the Bible, almost from its first page (certainly from its first chapter) until its last, illustrates the core importance of marriage.
The Christian understanding of marriage is the foundation of our relationship with God and with each other. But we can’t simply assume that Christian marriages are in good condition – they need as much care and attention as non-Christian marriages. And whether couples who get wed are Christians or not, the evidence shows that marriage is good for families and good for society.
Cohabitation on a mass scale only really took off in the early 1980s. It is no coincidence that the rapid increase in family breakdowns began soon after.
Parents who live together but are not married make up only 20 per cent of all couples with dependent children. Yet 50 per cent of all family breakdown comes from these cohabiting couples. The figures underline the fact that marriage tends to create a better chance for family stability. This contrast is often felt early on in the life of a child with 43 per cent of unmarried parents splitting by their child’s fifth birthday – as opposed to only 8 per cent of married parents splitting by this time. This distinction only becomes more stark as children get older. Among parents whose relationships remain intact by the time their children are young teenagers, 93 per cent are married.
If you marry today you will probably stay married for life
Britain has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. The annual cost of this is £48 billion. Stability is the single most important factor in a child’s healthy development and the stable relationship of their parents massively affects this. On every measure of successful development – physical and emotional health, educational achievement, financial security, and an ability to form future stable families, as well as happiness – children from stable families fare best.
Reversing the declining rate of marriage is, ultimately, the single most effective key to reducing family breakdown and ensuring stability for children as they grow up. Despite the prevalence of divorce, the majority of marriages do last a lifetime. The same cannot be said for other less formal relationships.
Divorce rates in the UK are decreasing – there has been a 29 per cent decrease in divorces granted to couples in the first five years of marriage. For couples who have been married for more than ten years, the divorce rate has not changed significantly since the 1960s. After ten years of marriage the divorce rate is 1.8 per cent and this decreases year by year after that. If you make it to 30 years or more, you are overwhelmingly likely to go on “till death us do part”.
While the divorce rate is on a welcome downward path, the rate of breakdown amongst the unmarried remains stubbornly high. In simple terms, if you marry today you will probably stay married for life. If you cohabit today and have children you will almost certainly split before your child’s 15th birthday. So at a time when your teenage children need the security and stability of a stable parental relationship it is most unlikely they will experience it unless their parents are married.
The income gap
One of the most concerning pieces of our recent research has been in relation to what we term ‘the marriage gap’. Before 1980 almost everyone who had children got married, regardless of social background. That is no longer the case. Our analysis of data from the Family Resources Survey between 1994 and 2012 shows an alarming widening of ‘the marriage gap’ between rich and poor. Mothers with young children are four times more likely to be married if they are wealthy than if they are poor. Among wealthier mothers with children under five, 87 per cent are married compared to only 24 per cent of the poorest earners. The position among the middle income families is not dissimilar. In 1994, 84 per cent were married. By 2012 that figure had dropped to 59 per cent.
A very significant gap is opening up between the life chances of the people on high incomes and those less well off. The more affluent, with all their material advantages, are also continuing to marry in very large numbers with all the other advantages that brings to family stability and so, ultimately, the well-being of their children. As you move down through the income brackets, children are far more likely to be affected by family breakdown. Isn’t that a matter of serious social injustice which we should all be extremely worried about and aiming to reverse?
Unapologetic about marriage
In answering the question ‘Why are you a Christian?’, one of the great preachers of our time Os Guinness replied, “The Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true.” (Time for Truth, Baker) for Christianity, marriage can be justified by reference either to biblical texts or the logic of social analysis, whichever you prefer. But, just as it may be difficult to convince people of the truth of Christianity by simply telling them to “read your Bible”, it may be impossible to convince most people of the uniqueness of marriage by simply insisting it’s a God-inspired institution.
We at Marriage Foundation are publishing ground-breaking research in order to heighten the public and government’s understanding of the scale of this national tragedy. We refuse to accept the status quo as inevitable and unchangeable. It’s why we are organising Marriage Week from 7–14 February. Our primary task is to support the case for marriage without reference to religion or the Bible but by reference to hard, statistically supported and research-based, fact. Unsurprisingly, when you do so, you will come to the unswerving conclusion that the Goddesigned model always has been and always will be the best way to bring children into the world, keep families together and secure the future of the UK.
Paul Coleridge is chairman of Marriage Foundation For more information visit marriagefoundation.org.uk
Marriage Week (7-14 February) is aimed at celebrating and strengthening marriage in the UK. This year, married couples are being encouraged to go on a 'date night'. For more information visit premier.org.uk/marriageweek & marriage-week.org.uk