In the eyes of the law, the institution of marriage is still more important than the people in it

Photo: Getty Images

Weddings may look less traditional now, but a court ruling this week showed just how restrictive – and outdated – the rite of passage is in modern Britain, says Rachael Sigee

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By Rachael Sigee on

These days, weddings look less and less traditional. There isn’t always a white dress or a bouquet toss. They might not be at a church or a hotel or even at a stately home. (There will probably be jam-jar cocktails, personalised cupcakes and hand-picked wildflowers.)

But speeches, outfits, food and schedules are all up for creative reinvention. More and more weddings are veering leftfield to buck tradition and reflect modern love, but, in legal terms, marriage is the same as it ever was.

Yesterday, Siobhan McLaughlin won a Supreme Court ruling that ruled it was illegal that she had been denied bereavement benefits on the basis that she was not married to her late partner.

That denial amounted to a refusal by the government to acknowledge her relationship, which had lasted 23 years and produced four children.

McLaughlin and her partner, John Adams, decided against marriage as Adams had promised his first wife, who had died aged 35, that he would not remarry. It’s a legitimate reason not to walk down the aisle, among many other legitimate reasons.

But there does always need to be a reason. Unlike the decision to get married, the decision not to must be justified to everyone you know – and, often, plenty of people you don’t.

The fight for same-sex marriage was and is a hugely important part of social progress, and a milestone for the LGBTQ+ community… at least, those in that community that want to get married. It does not mean that everyone wants to get hitched, nor that being married at all ensures happiness, safety, security or success for anyone.

Not wanting to get married doesn’t mean someone isn’t romantic, or dedicated, or that they are incapable of love and happiness. But it does make you a social anomaly and this is true of all the unmarrieds: the singles, the polyamorous and the celibate included.

However, when the fastest-growing type of family in the UK is unmarried couples who cohabitate – 3.3. million in 2017 – recent court cases have shown that even those coupled up, as society so desires, are still not ticking the right boxes, at least legally.

Mostly it’s just a social irritation – explaining yet again that you don’t want to spend the money or have experience of very unhappy marriages or how you just don’t see the point or that it’s just none of their business. But when it becomes something that makes people legally vulnerable, it’s evident that marriage law is simply not keeping up with modern mentalities.

McLaughlin didn’t receive what would have been almost £40,000 in benefits and was forced to take on an extra evening job to support herself and her children. Having lost her partner to cancer, it is horrific that she was then told that legally, their love and life were essentially worthless, her children were not as valid as children born in wedlock and that she did not deserve the financial help that would have been available had they tied the knot.

When it becomes something that makes people legally vulnerable, it’s evident that marriage law is simply not keeping up with modern mentalities

In 2016, Martin Loat and Claire Beale became the first UK couple to have a heterosexual civil partnership. It took place on the Isle of Man, the only place in Britain that allowed it at the time, but was (and is) not recognised in the rest of the UK. Getting married didn’t appeal to them early in their relationship and later, after 25 years and two children together, they still didn’t feel the need to prove their commitment. But they did want legal and financial security that their family unit was safeguarded.

Specifically, they became involved in the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, after Loat wasn’t allowed to arrange a replacement passport for his then-15-year-old son, who had been born before a law change in 2003 that allowed unmarried fathers to have legal parental responsibility for their children.

Like McLaughlin’s case, this issue also ended up in front of the Supreme Court this summer. In June, it unanimously ruled that it was unlawful not to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, siding with Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who have been fighting since 2014 for this decision on the basis that they hold "deep-rooted and genuine ideological objections to marriage" because it was "historically heteronormative and patriarchal".

Neither of the rulings mean legislative change, but both put pressure on the government to consider it. The problem is that, generally, politicians are scared that weighing in on marriage will alienate traditionalists.

And the traditional is still pervasive, even if you want to get married.

When Pool contributor Louise Ridley got married in 2016, her choice of a humanist ceremony meant that she and her husband, George, had to also schedule a civil-marriage ceremony, as humanist weddings are not recognised in England by law (unlike in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland). It cost more money, held no emotional value for the couple and was simply a bureaucratic necessity.

Another marriage-related case heard by the Supreme Court this summer, but without a victory, was that of Tini Owens. The 68-year-old was seeking a divorce from her husband of 40 years, Hugh, stating that their marriage made her feel “unloved, isolated and alone”. However, she was unable to meet any of the five criteria needed to be granted a divorce: adultery, unreasonable behaviour (on the part of her husband), desertion, living apart for more than two years and both agreeing to the divorce or living apart for at least five years, even if your husband or wife disagrees. Because Hugh Owens refuses to agree to a divorce, his wife is legally unable to separate herself and must remain in the union.

While the government debates the option of introducing no-fault divorces (which wouldn’t require attribution of blame), Owens remains, for all intents and purposes, trapped in a marriage she desperately wants to escape.

All of these situations – and court cases and hearings and appeals – are apparently preferable to allowing people to get married or not get married how they choose. We are expected to fit into a system that may no longer comfortably accommodate us. And it is not a surprise that recent examples centre on women, nor that we are, once again, dependent on tenacious women doggedly fighting difficult battles in order to enact change. However many people defiantly walk down the aisle alone or resiliently keep their surnames, the institution of marriage is rooted in the patriarchy and, as such, women and their rights are secondary.

People who want to get married are still told how to do so by the government, people who no longer want to be are forced to remain in unions and people who choose not to marry are legally viewed as lesser.

In the eyes of the law, the institution of marriage is still more important than the people in it.


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Photo: Getty Images
Tagged in:
marriage equality
Modern marriage
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