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Mary Kenny: 'When it comes to marriage and partnerships, the options on the menu are ever expanding...'

 

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Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

'Choice' and 'equality' are the buzzwords of our age, so it's not really surprising that a new form of equality and choice in the marriage contract has been introduced in England and Wales.

Before same-sex couples had the entitlement to marriage (on grounds of equality), civil partnerships were made available for gay couples who wanted to make a lifelong legal commitment. Then, opposite-sex couples came to feel that this was unfair and clamoured for equal rights to the civil partnerships which gay couples had (preceding gay marriage). An opposite-sex couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, regarded marriage with disdain - because of its "patriarchal" trappings - and campaigned to obtain a civil partnership instead.

As everyone must have the right to everything they choose, it seems, the British Supreme Court ruled that, indeed, opposite-sex couples should have equal rights with same-sex couples to enjoy a civil partnership contract: this would give them legal and inheritance rights, but would not be exactly the same as marriage.

And thus the new law came into force at the end of last month, and on December 31, the first joyous couple, Tracey Robinson and her partner Clayton, 'tied the knot' in Blackpool (at the seaside town's "Wedding Chapel"). Tracey's reason for choosing a civil partnership sounded entirely sensible. She said it was "a perfect way for both of us to secure our financial and legal standing as a couple without the formalities of a wedding". No big expense, no big day, but exemption from inheritance tax, and joint responsibility for children.

If this sounds materialistic, marriage has often been undertaken for economic advantage. The dowry system in Ireland could be quite mercenary. And in countries like India the money gifts and lavish dowries are often the focus of an elaborate wedding.

Quite a few couples marry - especially mature duos who've co-habited blithely for decades - for tax reasons. Civil partnerships may suit them well, and the government in England and Wales expects about 84,000 within the first year. Some people will choose civil partnerships for practicality, but some from sheer principle. The campaigning couple, Rebecca and Charles, who have two children, felt that only a civil partnership could be regarded as a genuinely equal arrangement between a woman and a man, because marriage, even shorn of any religious rite, still carries the "baggage" of a patriarchal culture. Civil partnership advocates are especially irked by such practices as the bride being "given away" by her father, or a proxy family relation. This harks back to a time, they claim, when women were but chattels - passed as a possession from a father to a husband. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the admittedly rather beautiful ceremony includes the words: "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?" at which point the father steps forward. Yeah, totally patriarchal, and yet, some brides and some couples still choose to honour the tradition.

You couldn't get more 'woke' or progressive than Meghan Markle, yet she not only chose a traditional wedding ceremony, but when she decided that her own somewhat flakey dad wasn't up to the job, she was delighted when Prince Charles walked her down the aisle to 'give her away'.

But the more choice available, the more likely that different people will make different choices. This can defeat equality: when differences emerge, it becomes evident that some social choices have more status than others.

No one is forced to wed in free societies today: there's a choice to stay single, to co-habit, to have a civil wedding, a religious wedding, and soon, probably everywhere, civil partnerships. There is also a rising number of couples choosing LAT - "living apart together" - like the novelist Margaret Drabble and her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, who kept their own gaffs after marriage. (For couples with young families, this mightn't be ideal for the children.)

Yet with this wide menu of choice available, there's still the full Monty wedding day, costing €30,000 and all the trimmings. Many will choose this: some women still dream of their own special day walking down the aisle in a fabulous designer wedding frock. The full wedding ceremony may even grow in value, representing the "gold standard", in contrast to the basic civil partnership.

Some marriage traditionalists think that civil partnerships will stem a demand to equalise marital status with co-habiting, since some cohabitees now demand the same rights as marriage couples. But there are problems with defining co-habitation. When does shacking up together become a committed co-habiting? And shouldn't an individual be free to choose NOT to be committed, even though they are co-habiting? Or, if someone has lived with, say, three different partners over a decade, and death suddenly occurs: which partner claims inheritance rights? Civil partnerships not only allows people to choose: it will sometimes force partners to do so.

Weekend Magazine