The New Statesman – 12th May 2003
I am a marriage counsellor who has never married. If this seems slightly redolent of a
Catholic priest giving advice on G-spot technique, bear with me. I have also been
“happily unwed” to the same woman for 27 years. We have three adult children (two
stepchildren) and more cats and mats and cooking pots than I care to list.
As a therapist, I also understand the reasons why the majority of my fellow citizens will
decide to marry. It is a traditional institution with something to recommend it. For me,
personally, I cannot entirely see what. But at the very least, you end up being called
husband and wife instead of that litany of uncertainties commencing with ‘partner’ and
ending in ‘whatsit’.
The reason I am sharing my prejudices on this page is that I am angry. I am angry with
Gordon Brown – nothing unusual there. I am angry, too, with the sheer dead weight of
the forces of governmental conservatism. And I am most alarmed by the prospect of
Through no fault of my own, I have acquired a piece of property in which I live. As time
and markets go by, this property has increased in value. Nothing odd there. Yet as a
result of these increases, my solid, reliable partner and I either have to face a shotgun
wedding or hand over to Gordon Brown the price of a small Chateau in France.
Tax in general and inheritance tax in particular evoke many feelings, some of them
confiscatory. However, when it comes to your own hard-earned cash, you feel
differently. All right, I feel differently. Whatever the size of the sum it does not seem
ideologically proper for the Treasury to snaffle this loot on a matrimonial anomaly.
You see, apart from a quick fix at the Registry Office, there is no other way to save our
bacon. The rules of Inheritance tax state that while husband and wife pay nothing on
mutual transfers of marital property, a couple living together just get fined for their
presumption. My actuarial calculation is that, without this wedding, any surviving partner
of our union will be skinned for about £220,000. He or she will then lose our home to
meet this bill. [You may say it shouldn’t be worth so much. I will say that is beside the
So what’s the big deal about signing up? If students are now prepared to embrace
bankruptcy to cancel their loans, where’s the hardship in getting married to escape
Gordon Brown’s Presbyterian caress? Well, I will tell you. It deeply offends my
First, there’s a simple matter of equity. The tax rules governing long-term cohabitations,
gay relationships and all other forms of marriage ought not to be discriminatory. If you
are recognised for most purposes as a stable household, above all in the Census, then
you should be taxed as one.
Second, I’ve invested years defending our status quo. For instance, when we had a
child, I had no right to register the baby because I “wasn’t married to the mother”. On the other hand, I COULD register the child since I was “present at the birth”. The
Registrar eventually, albeit reluctantly, resolved the conflicting rules in my favour.
Gaining other paternal rights was more complex. To give me formal legal standing as a
father, we finally had to draw up a will in which the mother named me as the child’s sole
guardian upon her decease. During her lifetime, it’s been on trust.
Third, I object to the matrimonial ideology. One of the joys of our arrangement is that
we have never taken each other for granted – indeed would have been foolish to do so.
A voluntary partnership requires constant affirmation. We have no stereotypes to snare
us – no “ball and chain”, no “er indoors”, no “old man” or “old lady”. We retain our
Fourth, who wants to join a failing institution? Things are far from well with the nuptial
movement. If marriage were quoted on the stock market, the shares would be in free
fall. One third of all new marriages end in divorce within five years. Many of those who
were formerly married have since renounced the institution for good. Modern mums tell
their daughters to see the world and establish a career before settling down. Their often
unspoken assumption is: “Don’t make the same mistakes I did by marrying in haste”.
Traditional marriage, in our view, is an implicit cause of divorce; containing the seeds of
its own downfall. The terms of the marital contract are grandiose, sketchy and in some
cases impossible to fulfil. You cannot promise to be the same person for the next five
years let alone for the rest of your days. The basic causes of domestic friction are never
addressed. Where in the marriage contract does it tell you whether to have one bank
account or two? Or who takes the children to school? Or who loads and empties the
As for sex, the traditional deal, while silent on the need for good pillow books, manages
to make a fetish of phallic penetration. To this day, no marriage is lawful in this land until
a husband’s penis enters his wife’s vagina. Apparently, oral sex and mutual
masturbation simply won’t do. Church and state require intromission. This, I contend,
is a distasteful invasion of personal liberty.
Underpinning our objections, I suspect, are contemporary philosophic shifts away from
the official regulation of private feelings or personal morality. I have never believed my
domestic sleeping arrangements are the business of any man or any woman from any
ministry. I “married” my partner, as it were, in the act of choosing to make a home with
her, as she did with me. Today, fully one third of men and a quarter of all women prefer
to cohabit. This to me represents the one truly authentic “deregulation” of the Thatcher
era – the “privatisation of marriage”.
To those grotesque Anne Atkins caricatures in the Daily Telegraph and Mail who protest
that research shows cohabitation is inherently unstable relative to marriage, I ask which
university of the blindingly obvious did they attend? The state of marriage, by definition,
attracts all those who believe in lifelong monogamy. Cohabitation, on the other hand,
includes those who say things like “Well why don’t you move in for a bit and we’ll see
how it goes but no great dramas if we split up, eh?” When you compare apples with
pears you get sour grapes.
I also think that obsession with marital status distracts attention from the one really
portentous vow we ever have to make in life, namely our decision to reproduce. This is where legal and ideological reforms need to bite. Technically, you can never divorce
your children, nor should you try. But in our society men, in particular, sometimes dump
their offspring in order to achieve a more gratifying marriage.
If find it scandalous that we make so much relative fuss about the scale of adultery while
remaining utterly blasé when parents enter a second union before they’ve finished
looking after the children from the first. I would prefer to live in a society where anyone
who caused a birth was deemed to be legally, morally and fiscally “MARRIED” to that
child for 20 years at least.
To this end, we should update our folklore. The narrative mantra ought to run: – “You go
into puberty. You eventually have safe sex. Then you have some more. You leave
education. You grow up. You shack up. You break up. You settle into your career
zone. You live with someone else. And then comes your truly, madly, deeply BIG DAY.
Shall we have a baby?
I believe all the emphasis in our legislative and tax system, as well as the organisation of
private ceremonies, should be poured into this single, defining moment. The state
should be preoccupied with parenting, not partnering. The vital question for any
responsible adult is mating, not marriage. Ring out those natal bells! But for god’s sake
let’s reform inheritance tax first, before I am forced to swallow too many principles and
make a thoroughly dishonest woman out of a thoroughly decent partner.
C 2003 Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and
Psychotherapy. The views expressed are entirely personal.