Op-Ed in Dominion Post today

Why saying ‘I do’ is good for our families” is published in the Dominion Post today

On April 29, two billion people worldwide sat in front of their TV screens as they witnessed one of the most public weddings in history – the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  Nobody asked why they were getting married, why they didn’t get a civil union instead, or said that the ceremony was pointless and unnecessary. It was simply the dream that many aspire to. 

Just 20,900 couples got married in New Zealand last year – an all-time low. This has led to claims that a wedding ring is unnecessary to legitimise parenthood and sexual activity. Put simply: some think marriage doesn’t matter. On that basis, civil unions matter even less – just 273 couples got one last year. 

But do declining rates mean that it doesn’t matter? Should we be concerned that marriage rates are at an all-time low? 

Yes, we should. Marriage matters. The weakening of marriage is one of the most important social issues we are facing. 

A 2006 UK report said that the breakdown of the traditional married family was at the root of teenagers being involved in violent acts, taking more drugs, drinking more, and having sex at a younger age. 

But the report didn’t come from a ‘right wing think-tank’ or lobby group with a ‘moralist agenda’. It was from UK’s most prominent and influential left-leaning policy group – the Institute for Public Policy Research. It contradicted years of ideology that family structure doesn’t matter. 

Cohabitation in the 21st Century released this year by British social reform organisation the Jubilee Centre found that married couples with children are 10 times more likely to stay together than defacto couples – and marriages last an average of four years longer if partners haven’t lived together before getting married.   

According to the study, in 1993 70 per cent of couples who had children after they got married remained married at their child’s 16th birthday – increasing to 75 per cent in 2006.  Yet just 36 per cent of cohabiting parents were together for their child’s 16th birthday in 1992 – reducing to just 7 per cent in 2006. This indicates that marriage has become a more stable family background for raising children. 

According to Why Marriage Matters – a report co-authored by 13 leading social-science scholars, including Professor William Galston, a domestic policy adviser to the Clinton administration – parental divorce or non-marriage appears to increase children’s risk of school failure, the risk of suicide, psychological distress, and most significantly, delinquent and criminal behaviour. 

A recent report by the NZ Institute of Economic Research estimated that the fiscal cost to the New Zealand taxpayer of family breakdown and decreasing marriage rates is at least $1 billion per year and has cost approximately $8 billion over the past decade.  

As we tackle the harms of family violence, it is also significant to look at rates of child abuse and domestic violence within different family structures – something that policy makers and politicians seem unable or unwilling to do. 

In the Ministry of Justice’s Crime and Safety Survey 2006, the incident rate of domestic violence for legally married couples was 11 per 100 adults. The rate for de facto relationships was 31 per 100, and for single adults 50 per 100. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has just released their Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect report to Congress. It said children living with their married biological parents universally had the lowest rate [of abuse], whereas those living with a single parent who had a cohabiting partner in the household had the highest rate in all maltreatment categories. 

On average, children raised by married couples have the best outcomes in health, education and income, and by far the lowest involvement with the criminal justice system. Marriage – whether preceded by a period of cohabitation or not – remains the more stable form of relationship. That’s why marriage is needed and why marriage matters. 

It’s not simplistic. It’s not intolerance. And it’s not unrealistic to teach our young and future generations that the best environment for them as parents, and for their children, is within marriage. 

Those who claim that marriage is irrelevant and outdated would do well to be aware that majority of longer term heterosexual defacto relationships still end in marriage. 

Marriage isn’t perfect, but we ignore its benefits at our peril.


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