Excessive Verbosity Warning. Do not go past this point unless you have at least two packs of kendall mint cake and a powerade about your person.
[UPDATE : Office for Judicial Complaints now investigating Coleridge J – see end 5pm 15 May]
This weekend I listened to Coleridge J talk about his Marriage Foundation at the FLBA Cumberland Lodge weekend. Although Chatham House Rules apply to that event much of what was said has been widely and publicly aired by Coleridge elsewhere in recent weeks, and the material referred to is in the public domain. For those of you who want a bit of background, I have written about the Marriage Foundation before here and here.
At launch time I scoured the Marriage Foundation material for an understanding of why it was said that we should be promoting marriage specifically rather than stable relationships in general. There is a surprising lack of properly referenced evidence supporting the central tenet of the Marriage Foundation, namely that marriage is the “gold standard” through which we can stem the tide of family breakdown (unless you count quotes from Michael Winner). In the First Edition of the MF Newsletter bulleted assertions are set out in smart boxes. But there are few references and nothing that I could see of demonstrating causation rather than correlation. I think I identified the Government Survey that is cited for the proposition that “Cohabiting people are significantly less happy in their relationships than married people, and children are happier when growing up with both biological parents” – but by itself it doesn’t really help us to understand why that may be so. After a false start I tracked down the source of the following soundbite:
“All the evidence we have shows that individuals fare best, both in childhood and in later life, when they benefit from the economic and emotional investments of their natural parents who reside together continuously and cooperate in raising them.”
to a 2008 publication by David Popenoe, retired academic formerly of Rutgers State University (see footnote 15 here). Sadly that link is no longer valid so one cannot place the quote in context. But it is clear from looking at other publications by Popenoe on Amazon that his work relates to US society, in particular absent dads in inner city families and not to the UK where one suspects the sociological makeup of the population may be rather different. Out of fairness to the MF I have ordered this 2009 publication by Popenoe because I am interested to see whether my skepticism about the relevance and validity of that quote to the situation in the UK is valid (the MF material cites the quote as Popenoe 2009 so either that is wrong or the same quote is contained in the book I have bought). I will report back in due course (bearing in mind that I read about one book per annum at the moment). [Postscript – in fact I think the quote is probably from a 2009 article in Social Science and Public Policy here, and if so this does appear to survey a number of western societies including the UK.] Of course what is notable about that quote is that it is cited in support of marriage, but in fact it is supportive of co-parenting rather than the institution of marriage.
It is easy to postulate why statistics may show that married couples might be more likely to stay together – those in happy stable relationships are more likely to marry, those who marry are more likely to come from a more favourable socio-economic strata, and thus less likely to face the pressure of poverty…So, telling us that married couples stay together more often and for longer doesn’t add much and certainly went no distance towards persuading this skeptic. But then perhaps I’m just dense, because I can’t even work out how one can simultaneously adopt the position that option A is the “gold standard” alongside the assertion that options B – Z are not somehow second best. I don’t know – to me logic is the gold standard and political spin is second best…
But, as it happens, there IS some data in support of the MF core tenets and it is quite interesting. It remains a mystery to me why this is not properly signposted in the publicity material and why it does not seem to have been readily articulated from the outset. Perhaps it is not digestible enough for the media, not capable of immediate explanation in a one-liner. Perhaps it is planned to follow.
Speaking alongside Coleridge J this weekend was a chap called Harry Benson, one of whose hats is as the Communications Director for the MF, and another of which is as Director of the Bristol Community Family Trust. Once this is understood one can easily establish what it is that the MF bases its propositions about the benefits of marriage over cohabitation upon (in part at least). Because Harry Benson has been writing about it for years. He is a proponent of something called Commitment Theory which seems a compelling way of understanding relationships and how they develop – and why they survive or fail. Commitment theory involves the notion of constraints – things that make it harder to leave, and identifies marriage as one significant and deliberately self imposed constraint in contrast to the constraint of owning a house together or cohabiting, which couples may slide into rather than actively select. You can read some more about commitment theory here (p 7) – I don’t pretend to be au fait with this topic, but for me this way of viewing relationships highlights one of the real tensions in this debate – a constraint may make a relationship more likely to endure, but it is also a constraint which can trap an individual in an unhappy or abusive relationship – social or community pressure, financial dependence, embarrassment. The ties that bind…
Benson has written some interesting papers analyzing publicly available statistics about marriage, relationships and families (here). I don’t offer much of a view on that here as I have neither the qualifications nor the time to do a proper job, but as far as I can tell the material has not been subject to peer review or published in any academic journal so it’s difficult to assess it’s validity when it’s not my area. What is evident from the statistical analysis that Benson has carried out is that there are some quite stark statistics which tend to suggest that there is a lower attrition rate for married families. The Benson papers are all really interesting and I confess that the data seems to be at odds with my own views about the issue. It does seem to suggest that marriage somehow adds value rather than just being an indicator of already strong relationships.
But what those statistics also tell us are that there are other significant factors at play, which have a big impact on outcomes quite independently of marital status, other things that we should perhaps be focusing on – low income, young or poorly educated parents – all more likely to suffer relationship breakdown. Whilst this document certainly gives pause for thought, the stats relate only to parents of children up to age 3, and I have seen nothing that attempts any qualitative analysis of how different families deal with parental breakdown – it is too simple to equate parental breakdown with harm as if all broken families suffer similar levels of damage. No doubt the majority of families who find themselves in Coleridge’s court with a private law dispute to be resolved, involve children who have been harmed significantly by parental conflict. But those are at the extreme end of the spectrum. There are many parents who shield their children commendably well from the pain and upset they are going through and for those children family breakdown may be sad and life shaping but not catastrophic. Anecdote tells me that some of the worst cases of harmful conflict involve not the poor former cohabitees but the better off middle class – but wouldn’t it be interesting to explore that with some research? Elsewhere on this blog there is a discussion in comments about the need to educate kids about family life before they become parents. So many things we could be thinking about and planning without getting hung up on marriage itself….I doubt we can change people’s choices about marriage but we might be able to change some of the other contributing factors to family breakdown and to help minimise the impact of it when it occurs through education and support.
Anyway, the MF say they want to start a debate about the benefits of marriage. By all means lets have a debate about what these stats really tell us, about the sociology that has been done to think through these figures. Because I am open to the idea that my gut feeling, my strongly held views – may need to be challenged. I don’t have the skills to do this analysis but I’d welcome input from those who do (guest blog post anyone?).
But let’s be clear: unreferenced soundbites in glossy brochures are not equivalent to debate (in fairness there are a few fuller references on the main site, but in the words of someone “a URL doth not an argument make”). They are attempts to justify a particular position ex post facto. The MF has come out from the off stating firmly that this is not preachy and not a moral crusade. About this they protest too much. They preach. Too much.
This week the Law Society cancelled a booked event that was scheduled to be held at their buildings – it was to be hosted by the Howard Centre for Family, Religion and Society – World Congress of Families and Christian Concern, and Coleridge J was due to speak. It was called “One Man. One Woman. Making the case for marriage, for the good of society” (see image). Take a look at the WCF’s core principles on their website and there is rather too much use of the phrase “natural family” for my liking. Just as the term gold standard implies the existence of a not-gold standard, the concept of a natural family creates a rather concerning question mark about the possibility of an un-natural one. The MF may seek to steer itself away from uncomfortable questions about the moral or religious drivers for its campaigns. It may say it is not religious or on a crusade. It may say that it is not even moral. It may say that it specifically adopts no position on gay marriage. I need hardly to observe that the association of the founder of the MF with this event chimes oddly against those assertions and undermines the “neutral” stance that the PR strategy appears to depend upon.
This is in large part about perception. It is after all a public campaign, and attempt to persuade those of a different view to Coleridge J. And whilst it is harsh of me to criticise launch materials for not setting out all the evidence, first impressions do matter. The poor articulation to date of the research which does seem to exist and which does seem to raise good questions about whether and why marriage seems to add something in terms of stability of relationships, and the unfortunate association of the figurehead of the MF with organisations who are explicitly pro-marriage on religious grounds, and who are clear that they do not accept marriage except where it is between a heterosexual couple for primarily procreative purposes – leaves them inevitably open to criticism that this is all disingenuous, that this is indeed an old fashioned crusade, with a (transparent) PR veneer. The MF, I think, has lost sight of it’s audience, of who it needs to convert. That the MF has so carefully put together a wealth of launch materials without noticing the complete omission of any properly evidenced argument for why marriage should indeed be aspired to, is evidence enough for me that the elevation of marriage to a golden idol is the result of a deep held belief rather than the product of analysis. The stats may affirm a pre-existing belief, but I doubt they would change the views of anyone of a different view. If the MF wishes to persuade the skeptics among us it will have to fall back on evidence, and not the faith that they forget we lack.
And it doesn’t just matter from the point of view of making the campaign a success. When this Foundation is headed by a senior member of the judiciary, perception is also important in a different sense – this is a member of the judiciary who may be asked to make rulings about the family lives of diverse kinds of families: some gold standard, some natural, some one man and one woman. And some empatically none of those things. I’m not saying that judges shouldn’t have opinions. But I wonder what is the perception of those who may be compelled to ask the courts for a legal rather than a moral judgment?
[UPDATE 5pm 15 May : Office for Judicial Complaints now investigating complaint against Coleridge J relating to Marriage Foundation] [UPDATE 24/05/12 link to Sols Journal inserted on 15 May updated]