Critically discuss the importance of the institution of marriage in contemporary Britain - Sociology Essay Example

We are continually informed that marriage is in decline and divorce on the rise - Critically discuss the importance of the institution of marriage in contemporary Britain introduction. Are these trotted out statistics a sign of a major shift in the institution of marriage, or are we simply experiencing a moral panic? Is marriage still a significant part of our lives? This essay will set out to answer these questions. The essay will also evaluate what sway marriage brings to those legally recognised by the state to be married in modern Britain. It will examine the way in which marriage normalises certain forms of sexuality by excluding others. The importance of marriage to certain agencies in Britain will be assessed also.

Firstly, in order to discuss contemporary marriage, the history of marriage will be looked at. This will allow for a more informed view of modern marriages. At the beginning of the modern era (16th century) the function of marriage was to unite two families rather than two individuals. The parents and elders of the community were largely responsible for the choice of spouse. There was little chance for the individuals concerned to refuse their family and there was even greater pressure for the bride to-be to comply with her family (Dominian, 1981).

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Historian G. M Trevelayan wrote of the consequences of a bride disagreeing with her parents wanting to marry their daughter off to the highest bidder: ‘If the victim destined for the altar resisted, rebellion was crushed – at least in the case of a female ward – with physical brutality almost incredible. Elizabeth Paston, when she hesitated to marry a battered and ugly widower of fifty, was for nearly three months on end beaten once in the week or twice………

Many parents seem to have cared very little who married their children provided they themselves got the money’ (Fletcher, 1973). Spouses were chosen only if they were ‘of a suitable rank and age, physically fit and attractive, even-tempered, held compatible religious and/or political views, possessed useful kin and other connections’ these attributes varied according to needs – a family with debts might rank money above all else whereas a farming family would prioritise physical fitness.

Love and marriage were mutually exclusive in these times. It was only in the latter stages of the 18th and into the 19th century that love began to be seen as an essential component to marriage. This can be seen in Jane Austen’s novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, she argued that marriages should be based on romantic love. Feminists also began to argue for the reversal of the secondary position, which men enjoyed in marriage.

Women were no longer happy with the submissive domestic role expected of them – this went on late into the twentieth century, although the gender roles are still not entirely equal within marriage. These changes and transformations both within the law and of people’s expectations regarding marriage means that, what we now view as marriage is radically different to the marriage of the past. It has evolved from an economic institution to a mostly psychological one in the eyes of those individuals getting married (Rice, 2003).

It is argued that the view we now hold on marriage, is due to the consequences of modernity and the individualistic society we presently inhabit. Society has evolved from an objective force into a social interaction that has arisen from the mutual agreements of free agents; this has had the effect of undermining the objective power of marriage and reinforcing the subjective. Marriage is now viewed as a partnership in which importance is placed on personal fulfilment and happiness something both parties willingly enter.

The individual’s subjective feelings for one another are now the main reason for marriage. Ones feelings are the basis of the relationship, and if they change, then there occurs a breakdown of the relationship. Beck et al also commented on this state of affairs in The Normal Chaos of Love. They argued that modernity had led to individuals having to find a successful formula for love. In order to do this, individuals have to try out a range of arrangements, such as cohabitation, marriage and divorce in their search for love (Beck et al, 1995).

Martin Jacques also wrote of this new attitude towards marriage, due to the personal freedoms and opportunities afforded to us in a so-called selfish society: ‘Marriage, not so long ago the institution which defined the sacred union of human beings, governed by a myriad of rights and responsibilities, has become for many a temporary arrangement and, for even more, a commitment to be postponed or even avoid’ (Jacques, 2002).

The rise of so-called secret weddings is testimony to the modern view of marriages, the family, once the organiser of the marriage and chooser of their child’s spouse do not have to be there to witness the marriage, friends don’t have to be there. Only the two individuals marrying are present. Gretna Green fulfils this need, people on the street are often asked stand in as witnesses. The recent union of Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin may be an unnecessary point in this essay but it reflects this growing trend in modern marriages.

Cohabitation is a situation, which arises from a modern society; this seems to be a new phenomenon, which has had an impact on the marriage statistics. While the number of people marrying has decreased – ‘official figures show that in 2001, there were 6. 5% fewer weddings in the UK than in 2000. That figure continued the long-term downward trend that began in 1973’ (BBC, 2003), the numbers cohabiting has increased. This is also attributed to individualisation. Lesthaeghe (1995) found that increasing cohabitation could be found within cultural traditions, which promote individual autonomy and self-fulfilment (Silva, Smart, 1999).

Cohabitation began to emerge in the 70s as a precursor to marrying. In the UK, around a quarter of non-married adults aged 16-59 were cohabiting in 2000/1. Between 1979 and 2000/1 the proportion of non-married women cohabiting rose from 11% to 30%. Not all of these unions lead to marriage, as they would have in the past, in 2000/1, 14% of 16-59 year olds reported at least one cohabiting situation which did not result in marriage (Social Trends, 2003). More research has shown the replacing of marriage with cohabitation: Barlow and Probert identified evidence from Britain, which suggested a restructuring away from marriage on a large scale.

They estimated that one million couples were living together without being married, with these couples seeing their situation as a long-term alternative to marriage. Some researchers have also argued that this has become a normative life stage (NFPI, 2001). Cohabitation and the ‘love them and leave them’ aspect of individualism seem to be factors which threaten the importance of marriage in contemporary Britain. So why do people still marry? In 2000, there were 305,900 weddings in the UK – 1. 6% more than in 1999 and the first time the number has increased since 1992 (Morrison, 2002).

We are continually told of the 40% of marriages ending in divorce yet this means 60% of marriages do not end in divorce. ‘A special Guardian/ICM poll found the proportion of people who expected marriage to become more fashionable had doubled since 1999 – up from 19% to 41%. The in-depth coverage of Posh and Becks showbiz-style weddings in magazines such as Hello! and OK! is believed to have contributed to this surge in popularity. In the words of the editor of Brides magazine: “We’ve gone through the time when it was trendy not to get married, then there was a plateau, and now people want a sign of commitment (Guardian, 2002).

Another reason for couples to decide to be recognised legally is the simple fact that marriage benefits those who enter it, while cohabitation does not. While most marrying would not cite this as the reason for their decision: love, security and stability more likely to given as reasons – 62% of respondents gave love as the reason (Morrison, 2002). This is said to be due to widespread ignorance among unmarried couples: ‘a recent social attitudes survey found that 56% of people – rising to 59% for cohabitees – thought “common-law marriage” conferred the same rights as a marriage ceremony.

In reality, there has been no such thing in England since 1753, and legal protection for cohabitees is minimal’ (Dyer, 2003). The English law could be said to be punitive towards unmarried consensual unions and does not give cohabitees the same rights and responsibilities towards one another as spouses. When unmarried couples separate, property disputes cannot be settles through the same channels as those used for married couples that divorce. The rights of cohabitees have to be established on the basis of property law principles that depend on how the property was acquired and if it was jointly owned.

As a result, cohabitants are in a more vulnerable situation than married couples if the relationship were to break down (Hantrais & Letablier, 1996). This reflects the part the state plays in the private lives of couples: marriage is seen as a relationship between two individuals and the state, the famous words of Princess Diana come to mind – ‘there were three of us in this marriage’. Marriage is viewed as a public political institution due to the policies in place, which support and promote the marital relationship.

Wills, inheritance, rights of property, pensions, separation, children and access to them are all affected by the decision to marry. For example, regarding situations involving the next of kin, hospitals will give information to blood relatives and spouses yet would be reluctant to give the same information to people who are not blood spouses/relatives i. e. the partner of a cohabiting couple. While a married couple will have automatic parental responsibility of their children, only the mother in an unmarried couple will have this responsibility, the father has to have the mother’s agreement to share this. MacErlean, 2003). New Labour has prioritised marriage and has shown this in the policies, which have been introduced during their time in government.

A change to sex education or “sex and relationship education” as it is now known, came into place in November 2000. Guidelines highlighted the need to establish the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care. The guidelines stated that: ‘pupils aged seven to 11 “will … be aware of different types of relationship including marriage”. Between 11 and 14 they “will learn … he role and importance of marriage in family relationships” as well as the roles and responsibilities of parents.

Aged 14 to 16: “Pupils will learn … the nature and importance of marriage for family life and bringing up children”. David Blunkett, then in the capacity of Education and Employment Secretary stated,” “The commitment that is made by people through marriage is a way of emphasising … stability to children,” (BBC 1999). The now infamous consultation paper Supporting Families published in 1998: a policy paper on marriage and the family caused a backlash on publication.

This paper proposed to bring in: ‘measures to strengthen the institution of marriage, including an enhanced role for marriage registrars’ it also aimed to provide support for all families, including better advice on adult relationships’. The state also intended to mediate between those couples intending to divorce by setting up information meetings before divorce to increase the chance of saving more marriages (Home Office, 1998). Labour were criticised for being intrusive into the personal relations of individuals and for being a nanny state. The government continue to promote marriage over cohabitation.

An Army circular sent to British troops stated that those with unmarried partners would not receive compensation if they were killed in the recent and ongoing conflict in Iraq. Barbara Roche, the Minister for Social Exclusion, announced that gay couples were to be offered equal partnership rights to married couples, but these rights were not offered to unmarried heterosexual couples (Hoggard, 2003) The benefits of being married as opposed to merely living together have been established. The state normalises heterosexuality through the institution of marriage by excluding homosexuality from this convention.

Diane Richardson discusses the private and public recognition given to married relationships, which is not accorded to other sexualities. This recognition acts in the form of citizenship, a citizenship, which is most strongly linked to marriage and the family. These citizenship rights entail: civil/legal, political, social, national, cultural and consumerist citizenships. This leads to the issue of those who cannot marry, those who don’t fit into the coherent, natural, fixed and stable category which is assumed to be universal and monolithic: heterosexuality (Richardson, 1996) What citizenship rights do these groups have if they cannot marry?

Richardson examines this in ‘Theorising Heterosexuality’. Homosexuals are said to enjoy recognition within consumerist form of citizenship: ‘ as consumers with identities and lifestyles which are expressed through purchasing the appropriate products’ (Richardson, 1996). The ‘pink pound’ as it’s referred to recognises this characteristic of the gay community (BBC, 1998). This citizenship can fail to be acknowledged though, Sandals – a Caribbean holiday resort has been criticised for advertising their holidays as only for mixed-sex couples (Hinsliff, 2003).

Social citizenship has been the most problematic for those non-married couples, the Local Government Act of 1988, which described non-heterosexual families as ‘pretended family relationships’ (Weeks et al, 1999) and Section 28 which prohibited local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality or gay “pretended family relationships”, and prevented councils spending money on educational materials and projects perceived to promote a gay lifestyle, contributed to the problems experienced. Citizenship rights, which apply to married couples, have recently been extended to gay and lesbian partnerships.

The changes, which apply in England and Wales, allow a registered partner to benefit from a dead partner’s pension, grant next-of-kin rights in hospitals, and give the same exemption as married couples have from inheritance tax on each other’s estate. They also have the right to register their partner’s death and be able to inherit a tenancy of a rented home. Couples can have access to these rights by signing an official document at a register office in front of the registrar and two witnesses (Dyer, 2003).

Heterosexual cohabiting couples are denied from these same rights as it is argued, that they can acquire the same legal status by marrying. This essay has established that marriage is an important institution for the state, in terms of citizenship and as an institution for bringing up families. It is also an important institution for another facet of Britain: capitalism. Various businesses make their money from the promotion of marriage in the UK. Magazines, websites and holiday companies are just a few of the businesses involved in the substantial empire that is the wedding industry.

The cost of an average wedding in Britain is estimated to be i??61 per minute – i??25,500 in total, in the 70’s the average cost for a wedding was i??43 (Guardian, 2003). Chrys Ingraham discusses the relationship between capitalism and the wedding industry in her ‘White Weddings’ (1999) article. The wedding dress becomes an object, which is fetishized -an important part of capitalism. This causes an alienation of social relations as the need for the ultimate commodity – a designer wedding dress – becomes an all-consuming pursuit (Ingraham, 1999). Celebrity weddings are also big news for capitalism as has been mentioned previously.

The appearance of a celebrity couple on the cover of OK! can push up the sales as well as benefiting bridal shops etc as individuals rush to copy their favourite star. Capitalism hides the real side of the wedding industry by romancing the heterosexuality involved in marriage. Ingraham draws attention to the way this ideal masks the ways in which it protects the racial, class and sexual hierarchies in place: ‘practices reinforcing a heterogendered and racial division of labour, white supremacy, the private sphere as woman’s work, and women as property are reinforced’ (Ingraham, 1999) within the wedding industry.

In conclusion, whilst it cannot be argued that marriage is on the wane, this does not necessarily mean that it is any less important than it once was. What we have witnessed is a change in attitudes towards marriage. It is no longer a familial process in which individuals have little or no say but a union in which both parties enter willingly and for personal reasons – love and support for example.

The individualisation of the society in which we inhabit means a lessening influence of the state on personal lives whilst, the way in which personal relationships are conducted have also changed, cohabitation is now a stage many people enter before marriage. The statistics show that marriage is decreasing but this does not measure the perceived importance of marriage to individuals in contemporary Britain. What is obvious though is the critical importance of this institution to the state and capitalism, in particular, the wedding industry. Marriage is still important in contemporary Britain although to whom and why, raises different answers.

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