Presented at the Marriage Summit - 18th September 2007
Parliament House Canberra,
by Chris Meney
Let us consider for a moment the importance attributed to marriage as defined under the Marriage Act (1961) and the Family Law Act (1975). These refer to the 'need to protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life'. Why do societies feel the need to enshrine such understandings within legislation? What is so important about marriage? How does marriage contribute to the social estate? What are the advantages which result for individuals who are situated within a formal structure of family relationships founded on marriage?
Marriage as a social institution supported by law and public policy in the service of the common good has a number of important aspects. These pertain to marriage's interpersonal dimension as well as to its procreative and nurturing functions. We know that not all persons will use marriage in the correct way and to varying degrees will neglect or reject some of its principle aspects. For some spouses fidelity and commitment may not receive the attention and effort that is warranted. For others, procreation will not be pursued and for some couples procreation will not be possible. However, the manner in which marriage is codified in law and the way in which societies develop social norms in support of marriage are both vitally important. This is because marriage is a significant social good which contributes to the society in a profound way. This remains true even though a society cannot possibly monitor all the different ways in which individuals might choose to use or misuse 'marriage'.
An exploration of some of the promises made within a marriage ceremony may prove useful in exploring the social capital that can be found within marriage:
"I take you to be my lawful wedded wife/husband' In 2000, High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson commented that 'The modern law regulates marriage, and the incidents of marriage, closely...Entering into marriage carries with it an obligation of publicity...people who want to marry must publicly register their status. These requirements of formality, exclusivity and publicity reflect a view of marriage, derived from religious teaching. '
Public pronouncements of the marriage vow are important because although married life is personal it is never private. Couples who marry participate as individuals and also witness to something that is a part of a broader social institution. The state demonstrates its public interest by attaching to marriage a range of entitlements, rights and duties with respect to welfare, inheritance, the giving of evidence in court and the care of children etc. As Barry Maley says in 'Family and Marriage in Australia' (2001), "Such privileges and protections are incomprehensible and hard to justify except as expressions of the public and private interest in securing not simply the rights of the spouses as individuals, but also the integrity of the union between them and the implications of that union for any children they might have and for society at large".
All societies, from Graeco-Roman to modern, have recognised the importance of the public face of marriage and have sort to lend marriage support. They have attempted to codify its various aspects including the mutual responsibility of spouses for one another, various property rights, the connection of spouses with their children and their responsibility for them, inheritance rights etc. But it was not the case that marriage became important as a social institution simply because it had a legal context. Rather, legal frameworks came into being because heterosexual marriage was seen to be of great importance to the society. Indeed marriage and family precede the state. As Aristotle argued in his Nichomachean Ethics: "Man is by nature more inclined to live as a couple than to associate politically, since the family is something that precedes and is more necessary than the state"
"To have and to hold" The scope of this commitment encompasses both the interpersonal relationship between the two spouses and the relationships of each with any children which may result from their union. The relationship between the spouses may be the cornerstone, but marriage involves more that the couple alone and its effects are not the same as those which stem from simple cohabitation. Married spouses are happier on average than cohabitating couples. Cohabiters report more conflict, violence and lower levels of satisfaction and commitment than married couples. Where children are involved the adverse effects are more widespread. Any disruption of family units tends to be destructive of the relationships between children and their parents. As adults, children from divorced parents are twice as likely to report a poor relationship with their mother or their father. Similarly, children raised in divorce situations see their fathers less and have a less affectionate relationship with them when compared with fathers who remain in an unhappy marriage. Where there is a significant diminishment in the quality of the relationships between parents and their children, it is bad for society.
"For richer or poorer" The economic advantages to both the persons involved and to the wider society when marriage is accepted as a desirable social norm are significant. Historically, poverty has been the result of a lack of employment and poor income. Today, it is increasingly the result of family structure. The consequence of parents failing to marry and to stay married is that more children are likely to experience poverty. One Australian study of 500 divorcees with young children revealed that 80% of those mothers were dependant on social security after 5 years and that they sustained income losses of up to 26%. In contrast, marriage seems to create wealth. This appears to be the result of factors beyond the simple effects of two incomes. Marriages stimulate the growth of partnership and mutuality and result in productive wealth accumulation through initiatives such as the purchasing of a home. Intergenerational transfer of wealth from grandparents is more likely to eventuate where couples are married compared with those who are cohabiting; single mothers rarely receive financial assistance from a father's family. Although we continue to live in a land of comparative opportunity, poverty in childhood still militates against educational achievement and in general terms, this limits adult socioeconomic achievement. As such, marriage has an important protective effect against intergenerational poverty.
Marriage and family health also promote the economic wellbeing of the wider society. The prominent sociologist Daniel Yankelovich commented on this as follows:
"There exists a deeply intuitive sense that the success of a market-based economy depends on a highly developed social morality - trustworthiness, honesty, concern for future generations, an ethic of service to others, a humane society that takes care of those in need, frugality instead of greed, high standards of quality and concern for community. These (are) economically desirable social values... (and) the link in public thinking between a healthy family and a robust economy though indirect, is clear and firm" .
"In sickness and in health" Any decline in health has personal, relational and social consequences. The Journal of Marriage and Family (literature review,1990) described the protective effects of marriage as follows: "Compared to married people, the non-married...have higher rates of mortality than the married: about 50% higher among women and 250% higher among men" . Unmarried persons including the divorced, widowed and singles, appear to be significantly more likely to become ill and die from various heart diseases, pneumonia, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver as well as experiencing premature death by car accident and suicide. A six year study of suicide in NSW found that never-married men had (suicide) mortality levels 90% higher than the standard rates and married men up to 43% below the standard rate. Another study in the Australian Medical Journal revealed that married separated males are six times more likely to commit suicide than married men. Australian research also shows that in terms of mental health, married women have a significant level of benefit over separated, widowed and divorced women. There is a substantial social burden which results from the premature death and disablement of significant numbers of what would otherwise have been capable and productive members of a community.
Marriage both preserves life and protects health. As the social researchers Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher comment, "Despite the fashionable tendency to regard marriage as an institution of declining usefulness, the health gap between the married and the non-married in developed countries is growing rather than narrowing" . Both married men and married women feel healthier and are significantly less likely to suffer from chronic illnesses or disabilities. Studies by Waite and others also confirm that simply sharing a living space with someone else does not confer the same level of protection as being married.
Marriage breakdown can also harm the general wellbeing of children by placing them at greater risk of criminal behaviour and of abuse. A long term study of over 500 Australian children found that: "The relationship between cohabitation and delinquency is beyond contention: children of cohabiting couples are more likely to be found among offenders than children of married couples" . In addition, children who live with step fathers or mother's boyfriends are more likely to suffer abuse. In Australia, the Human Rights Commissioner Brian Burdekin stated that there was an alarming 500-600% increase in abuse of girls in families where the adult male was not the natural father.
All of this indicates that the overall health and wellbeing of both adults and children is significantly enhanced when a man and woman opt to get married, to remain committed to one another and to care for and raise any children of their union. Where individual personal health and wellbeing is promoted, society benefits substantially in both the immediate and longer term.
"To the exclusion of all others until death do us part" Why are things like fidelity and permanency so important? If we want a snapshot of what is at the heart of marriage it is worth looking at what are the two most overwhelming reasons why couples divorce. A study by the anthropologist Laura Betzig reviewed 186 different societies and found that the two reasons which stood out were firstly adultery and secondly, sterility. These suggest that in a very real sense, for most people marriage is intuitively about the intimacy of sexual union and about procreation. This means that being faithful to one's spouse and not being promiscuous is a key part of what being married means. Adultery is always frowned upon by the vast majority of people even within what might otherwise be seen as quite liberal societies. Fidelity is regarded as a social and moral 'ought' even if it is not a legal 'must'.
Fidelity and permanence contribute to marriage's fundamental character. They balance notions of rights with an awareness of a person's duties to their spouse and to the wider society. They reflect that marriage requires an exclusive and willing commitment and that this is important at both the interpersonal and the broader community level. Marriage may involve two persons in a relationship but it does not follow that marriage means whatever those two persons choose it to mean as their right. As Blankenhorn says in his book "The Future of Marriage": "Defining marriage as a set of 'rights'... obscures the fact that the married spouses are not simply rights-bearing individuals in an interpersonal relationship, but are agents of society in a vital social institution".
All societies construct various social frameworks to reinforce their beliefs. As with all social institutions, marriage has attendant formal and informal constraints comprised of various norms, conventions and codes of conduct and their enforcement characteristics. This is because all flourishing societies realise that marriage is more than a conditional agreement where both parties stay together as long as all their needs and wants continue to be completely satisfied. Eric Fromm says in his work 'The Art of Loving', that "Love should be essentially an act of the will, of a decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is indeed the rationale behind the insolubility of marriage...To love somebody is not just a strong feeling - it is a decision, it is a judgement, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. "Emotions may ebb and flow but marriage is a living embodiment of those virtues of promise-keeping, commitment and trust that are so important for any society.