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The Iona Blog

Why do most cohabiting parents marry?

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 28th February 2012

The finding of an ESRI study that most cohabiting couples get married shortly after they have their first child confirms what we in the Iona Institute have repeated many times: marriage is mainly about children and even today most people believe this as the actions of cohabiting couples with children testify.

The study showed that, while “childless couples under 45 are now more likely to cohabit than be married “ couples with children “are much more likely to be married and the likelihood that a cohabiting couple gets married increases sharply after the birth of a first child”.

Children, in fact, are the main reason why marriage is a social institution rather than a merely private arrangement. The institution of marriage was developed to ensure that the greatest number of children would be raised by their biological parents.

It may indeed be the case that not all married couples have children, but it remains a fact that all children have a mother and a father. We can’t simply pretend this basic fact of life doesn’t matter.

Since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, we have seen a decades-long experiment to separate childbearing and childrearing from marriage. For many marriage is now simply an emotional impulse related purely to adult happiness. Once the “happiness” and the feeling of “being in love” go, the marriage is thought to be a nullity. 

The children will “get over it”. As the film title has it, The Kids are Alright.

Sadly, it is only as we see the results of this separation of the institution of marriage and children that we can see why our forebears insisted on the two being linked.

Children raised outside the union of their biological parents tend to do far worse educationally, economically and emotionally (not to speak of their health and other outcomes).

The 2006 Census shows that many Irish couples still instinctively understand the importance of the link between marriage and children; however it also shows that increasing numbers have unfortunately lost this sense.

One in four children is now raised in a non-marital family. There has been an 80pc rise in the number of children being raised by single parents, and 33pc of Irish children are now born outside wedlock.

And this is all despite the fact that Irish policymakers, who have had opportunities to look at this trend and to take stops to arrest it, have had decades to see the consequences of the experiment.

Meanwhile, the website of the UK paper The Independent carries an article which demonstrates the kind of thinking which you get when you separate marriage from children.

Blogger Terence Blacker has said that marriage contracts should be limited to 10 years, and suggested that the idea of lifelong marriage is “an absurd illusion”.

He wrote: “Perhaps changed priorities and attitudes within marriage require a new approach altogether.

“Instead of the increasingly absurd illusion that a new union will, or should, last for life, a system providing a marital licence for a fixed period – to be renewed, or not, every 10 years, say – would bring a healthy element of jeopardy to this jaded institution.

“The idea of living together, an arrangement in which the sense of obligation is based on love rather than a contract, might also be encouraged.”

For Blacker, marriage is all about adult happiness (albeit a rather limited view of happiness). The notion of commitment or of staying together for the sake of one's children are clearly alien to him.

But it is these very values that are at the core of the institution of marriage (no-fault divorce notwithstanding). The wedding vows “In sickness and in health”, “till death do us part” reflect this idea that the marriage is about more than simply the day-to-day happiness of the two people involved. And it is precisely these values that are being lost in the current debate about marriage.

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