New figures published this week show that the number of cohabiting couples in the UK has risen by nearly 40 percent in a decade. In 2001 there were 2.1 million such couples; today the figure stands at 2.9 million. By contrast, the number of married/civil partner couples fell from 12.3 to 12.1 million.
This is a remarkable figure when set against the current debate over equal marriage for same-sex couples. Society seems to be pulling in two different ways; one group clamouring for the right to be married; another voting with their feet against it.
This tension reflects a deeper ambivalence towards institutional commitment. We retain a romantic attachment to the idea of life-long commitment under law, and even under God – and will fight for the right to enter into the marriage contract. But we also want to feel free. Joni Mitchell captured this tension well in her song ‘Help Me': “We love our lovin’/ But not like we love our freedom.”
So how do we manage this tension between freedom and commitment? Do couples typically live together for a while until they decide they would like to settle down, and start a family? No doubt some do, finding that the container of marriage offers a safer context in which to have children. But the idea that most do is a myth.
The reality is that the same proportion of cohabiting couples have children as married couples: 38 percent. This seems to undermine the view that cohabitees are simply ‘married couples in waiting’. Rather, it suggests that there is a significant proportion of couples who start families with no intention of getting married. They have made a deliberate choice to take commitment out of an institutional setting, and domesticate it.
Commitment is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be; but it would be a mistake to say that it is no longer there. Clearly, a couple who have chosen one another, chosen to live under the same roof, and chosen to start a family together, are displaying a symbol of their commitment every bit as visible as a wedding ring.
The danger for such couples, however, is that the law has been slow to catch up with the solidity of their commitment. In England and Wales, cohabiting couples who break up have very few of the legal safeguards enjoyed by married couples. In Scotland, the situation is better: the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 ensures some legal protection – for example, over property rights – for cohabitees who break up.
But the irony of the Act is that it abolished a form of marriage that had held its ground since Roman times. Roman Law acknowledged that a couple who had been cohabiting for a year, by consent, could be regarded as married under Common Law. It is astonishing that this was abolished as late as 2006, in Scotland. Perhaps this is the very law we need, across the UK, to ensure that the real commitment of cohabiting couples is recognized, valued and safeguarded.