May 4, 2012

Why it’s not about marriage versus cohabitation

By Peter Jones, Partner

The news pages and airwaves have been buzzing this week following the announcement that, in a highly unusual move for a serving judge, Sir Paul Coleridge has launched a campaign to promote marriage.

Backed by senior legal figures and Church leaders, Sir Paul’s comments divided the nation over whether marriage really is the solution to cure society’s ills, or whether living together can be just as fulfilling and beneficial to the family unit.

I was delighted to appear on two regional BBC radio stations, addressing the challenges that face couples whose relationship, regardless of its status, is breaking down. It was a great opportunity to examine the real issues here – and it’s really not about pitting marriage against the alternatives.

No matter how much we promote the institution of marriage, no matter whether a couple is married or living together; the statistics bear out the fact that a certain proportion of those relationships will break down. Here at Jones Myers we focus more on tackling the breakdown in a dignified and amicable manner – and do our level best to prevent the acrimony, pain and anguish cascading down onto the children.

Setting aside the moral and Christian aspects, one of the most significant commitments within a marriage is a legal responsibility to your spouse. It’s easy to forget in the first flush of romance that living together implies no obligation on either side. One party or the other can enjoy years of cohabitation then up and leave with everything or nothing – leaving an almighty mess in their wake as well.

If someone doesn’t believe in marriage, they can replicate at least some of the security of a marriage contract with a cohabitation agreement. Even those who refuse to believe that their joyful romance could ever end in recriminations should acknowledge that their partner deserves the reassurance of some form of agreement, should an accident or illness lead to unexpected death.

We should accept that some people have emerged from a turbulent, often anguished family upbringing convinced that they will never make the same mistake of getting married. That should not preclude their right to security in a relationship – security that is so important not only to help the relationship thrive but, should it fail, to enable it to be dismantled sensibly and sensitively so everyone involved can move on with their lives.

Sir Paul Coleridge has been married for nearly 40 years and has three children and three grandchildren. He said this week: ‘In order for a relationship to last, you have to hang in there and adjust and change and alter and understand. Long, stable marriages are carved out of the rock of human stubbornness and selfishness and difficulties.’

I couldn’t agree more, and would add simply that we should do everything in our power to prevent that rock of human stubbornness blocking anyone’s right to a happy life both during and after a relationship.