Evidence Based Policy: Love and Marriage

by endlesspsych

by Keir Liddle

The quiet man, Iain Duncan Smith, has decided to once again break his silence– this time, on an issue of some volatility for our coalition government: marriage (in the heteronormative sense).

IDS is seemingly wedded to the idea that marriage is a fundamental institution, and one that should be supported and encouraged by the welfare state. This is at odds with his Lib Dem colleagues’ views that for the state to engage in the social engineering of people’s relationship statuses is paternalistic and unwarranted.

To support his case, IDS talks of the dangers of family breakdown and its impact on children, using research from his own thinktank to back up his opinions.

“Research by the Centre for Social Justice has found that a majority of people out of work or in part-time work think low-earning and unemployed people are better off living apart than as a couple. Only those with money say that money has no bearing on whether people stay together.”

Asides from the confusion caused by a social policy thinktank seeming almost devoid of social scientists, it is worth considering whether the quiet man has a point.

The benefits of marriage have been explored empirically, and been described as incontrovertible by some researchers. These include:

  • Married women having much lower rates of poverty 
  • Married women having less dependence on government assistance than single or divorced mothers
  • Children do best being raised by both biological parents.
  • Married couples also have better mental health, lower rates of alcoholism, and are more likely to be civically engaged.

However, these studies do not make a distinction between low term monogamous cohabitation (perhaps because the data is more difficult to gather, or the relationship harder to classify) and marriage. It would seem likely that a couple who were committed to each other and cohabitating for a prolonged period of time would have access to similar benefits. What does the research have to say about this?

Some research indicates that cohabitors and married couples differ in what they look for in a relationship. Cohabitors are more individualistic than collectivist married couples, for instance. Cohabitors share employment responsibilities more than married couples, and female cohabitors tend to spend more time in work than their married counterparts. Cohabitating couples are more prone to dissolution if there is a disparity between the male and female’s earnings (if the female’s earnings are substantially higher). In an economic sense, cohabiting couples can generally be determined as more equal than married couples.

There is further evidence that suggests that cohabitation and marriage are different in the process that engender and promote cohesion in relationships, and that the risk of dissoluton is higher with cohabiting couples. It is possible that this is due to the fact that marriage is far harder legally to leave than cohabitation, but this raises the spectre of people staying in unfufilling relationships simply because the hoops that they have to jump through to leave them are too large.

There are potential confounds to much of the research mentioned above, the main one being that a significant number of cohabiting couples had previously been married, or in a cohabiting relationship with someone else. This was itself predictive of dissolution.

In summary, I would say that, although there is evidence that strongly suggests marriage is indeed more beneficial than simple cohabitation, the reasons for this are not yet entirely clear. I would further suggest, as much of the research I have mentioned is from the USA, that it’s applicability to the UK may be limited as different attitudes on cohabitation exist in the two countries. Recent data from the Scottish Centre for Social Research suggests that traditional attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation may be on the wane.

Interventions to promote marriage have been attempted in the USA under the guise of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Attempts under this banner to encourage stable two person families have generally been regarded as problematic at best, and intrusion by the state at worst.  The research does suggest decreases in new divorce rates, but also show a decrease in new marriage rates. This seems to imply that the policy’s focus on divorce prevention may be successful at keeping couples together, but that attempts to promote marriage have be unsuccessful.

Taking all this into account I would say, perhaps at odds with my own biases, that IDS seems right to take a traditionalist stand in promote marriage. However, the benefits conferred from marriage may well be down to its status in society, which increased cohabitation numbers seem to indicate is decreasing over time. When marriage is no longer seen as a sacred institution, will traditionalists confer the benefits associated with marriage to cohabiting couples?

Indeed, perhaps that would be a better solution – to allow cohabiting couples similar rights and benefits to married couples. There are likely various advantages and disadvantages to such an approach, but it would avoid accusations of social engineering at least.