two people exchanging wedding rings

Is ‘I do’ all it takes?

By Anne Kazimirski 25 October 2013

The proposed marriage tax break is due to target one third of married couples (generally middle earners). The focus of the message is on marriage as the basis for a family. It’s not been a crowd pleaser, with critics including:

  • The single parent charity: it stigmatises single parent families
  • The economists: it will lead to refusals of pay rises
  • The Conservative backbencher: it should have been for all married couples regardless of income

The Centre for Social Justice has argued that the main point is to encourage commitment and lasting relationships—the focus on marriage is just because it’s easier to identify married people than cohabiting people in the tax system.

There is no denying that stable relationships are important, at all stages of life, and that work towards supporting people to maintain good relationships should be applauded. My main focus this year has been on working with charities supporting offenders (or ex-offenders) with their relationships, including those with partners, as an important pathway to rehabilitation. We are working to help these charities measure the impact of their work.

On this project, it has been interesting to see the work of charities aimed at helping offenders distinguish between positive and negative relationships. So, while a charity might support an offender to sustain a positive relationship, ending a negative one can be a successful outcome too. This could be an abusive relationship, or one associated with a destructive influence such as drug use. And here’s where the message of the proposed policy becomes particularly debatable.

The policy is in danger of implying that being in a relationship is always better than not being in one. When I interviewed parents about their reasons for separation, as part of a research project for the Child Support Agency, I uncovered tortuous stories of couples separating. These were not marriage or relationship break ups on a whim. Research comparing couple families experiencing high levels of conflict with single parent families found that children fare less well in conflicted couple families. And as some have stated, the policy risks underplaying the significance of domestic violence, including forced marriage (research I carried out in 2009 suggested 5,000 to 8,000 cases of forced marriage a year).

The policy might also imply that it’s up to you as an individual whether you want to fall in love, marry and stay together, that it’s a deliberate choice completely within your control, that we shun commitment and need encouragement. And that there’s no luck involved. With so many people using dating websites to find a long-term partner, I’m not convinced we need to be told that ‘commitment, responsibility and stability that helps to bind families’ is a good thing.

As the rehabilitation organisations we are working with know well, supporting positive choices to help individuals build a positive future might end in “I do” but, equally, it might not. A slightly more complex message perhaps, but an important one.