Anyone who has ever studied history or read almost any novel written before 1900 will know that marriage has always been a contract about property and money, with romance a very poor second. What absorbed Moll Flanders and appalled Edith Dombey was the knowledge that the only way a woman could enjoy status and security was to snag a solvent husband. Single women didn’t count. Divorce was beyond the pale. (Winter being a time for long evenings reading classic novels, I’ve been up to my neck in corsets and corsages since before Christmas. The references will get more contemporary as we get closer to Spring).
Fortunately families have evolved since the 1840s, although politicians don’t seem to have kept up. This morning’s radio scrap between Ed Balls and David Willetts, about whether or not it’s worth paying people to get married, was infuriating for its reactionary (Tory) assumption that the only families that count or work are married ones, and the patronising ( both of them) assertion that government knows what’s best for families.
The magical properties of marriage have always baffled me. I got married for tax reasons, so maybe the Tories have a point – finance can work as a stick to drive people towards the registry office. Whether or not you should wield it is a different matter. We were together for ten years before we married and we had two children. I felt not one whit more committed to the three of them after I had a ring on my finger than I did before and I defy anyone to tell me that we weren’t a “proper” family during the time we were living in sin – which sounds so much more exciting than the reality of nappy rash and teething rings.
There is a job for government on this issue. But it’s around dispelling the myths that surround “common law marriage” rather than frog-marching couples up the aisle. Let the unmarried know their rights (or lack of them) to property and pensions or decisions affecting their children. Then butt out. Let us make our own choices about how we want our families to be and leave us to get on with it.