Emily and Mitchell should be married, but they're not. Meanwhile, Emma and Chris have been together 12 years. Will getting married change anything for them?
Starting from the assumption that marriage is no different to a long-term relationship, Lucy investigates the differences between marriage and cohabitation, emotionally, socially and legally. Is she right to think they're the same?
Note: There are brief references to domestic abuse and sexual assault in this episode. They are talked about in no depth, but in the context of legal rights. To avoid these references, skip 45.00-45.20 and 46.35-46.55. All victims of domestic abuse are entitled to help, married or unmarried. If you need help, these are recommended resources for those in the UK:
24hr National Domestic Abuse Helpline Freephone: 0808 2000 247 (24 hours) Gov UK Coronavirus - Support for victims of domestic abuse Controlling or Coercive Behaviour
Thank you to this episode's guests!
Mitchell, Emily, Jake, Abbey, Electra, Emma, Ibtisam and Rebecca
Sources used in this episode:
Music used in this episode:
Into Your Arms
Full Episode Description
Lucy's friends Mitchell and Emily should be married, but they're not.
Can you explain for people listening why that wedding didn't go ahead but you're still together?
Mitchell: So, we're all in shutdown. COVID-19. We did get to know in advance. We weren't booked to have the wedding as it happened.
Emily: It was a bit of a relief. because we were going through weeks and weeks of should we go ahead? Is that the right thing to do? If we cancel, are we going to get our money back? So many questions! And when the venue was like, nope, everything is stopped and basically it was the week that like the whole country shut down that we got told. It was quite a nice relief after that.
Mitchell: All of our grandparents had obviously pulled out a month or so before.
Emily: Your mum was actually the person most upset, wasn't she?
Mitchell: My mum's the most upset about most things! When you tried your dress on. Like I've been told Emily's mum did cry, a bit, definitely I saw her, but Emily's mum refuses this entirely.
Emily: No display of weakness!
Mitchell: No display of weakness.
Mitchell and Emily met as teenagers. Emily was friends with Mitchell's brother Callum, so they ended up in a lot of the same social situations. Lots of gigs.
Emily: There was that one really awkward gig. Callum had gone with his new girlfriend, and he’d brought two other friends who were also dating each other, and me and Mitchell. So at one point there were two couples making out, and then just me and Mitchell standing next to each other really awkwardly.
Mitchell: I made a joke about how we should make out. We both just laughed really awkwardly and that was the end of our interaction.
A few years later and Mitchell came home from uni for a movie night hosted by his brother Callum, and guess who was there:
Mitchell: I’d given Emily my seat on the sofa, which was sweet. But then I was like ‘Well now you’re not sat next to the cute girl now, are you? Good job.’
He needn’t have feared. Emily was clearly impressed, because the next seating adjustment saw them sitting together and holding hands! At the end of the night...
Mitchell: We kissed. Very hot. Very hot.
Mitchell and Emily have now been together for 7 years. They did a few years long distance, studying at different unis but these days they live together, settled into a cosy flat in Nottingham while Mitchell completes his PhD and Emily pursues her dream to work in ALL of the museums. She’s so far got the British museum and the one in Leicester where they found Richard III under her belt, so she’s doing pretty good.
They got engaged last year, and should have been married this April. Instead of the wedding, they did a social distancing livestream for their friends and family, and tried to make the best of things. Mitchell had proposed to Emily first time round, so Emily took the opportunity to propose back, and now they both wear engagement rings.
Mitchell: It's just sort of nice feeling it on my hand all the time. Of course it’s a very new feeling for me. It makes me happy to be reminded of it.
Emily: I hear tapping all over the house! Like, oo that makes a good noise when I touch it!
I phoned them a week later to talk about marriage. I'm trying to work out why I want to get married, and asking my friends feels like a good place to start. But talking to Mitchell and Emily…
What does marriage mean to you?
Mitchell: It's weird. I feel like asking the question is putting more weight on it than I think we have?
Emily: Yeah for us it's just like a-- we love each other quite a lot and we want to put a bow on it.
They’re in this kind of weird space, where they geared up for their wedding and to become a married couple, but it didn’t happen.
Emily: In our minds we are married now. It's-- you know, this would have been the day. This is enough. Once we have the piece of paper it’s not going to change a whole lot.
And this was what I phoned them to talk about because I'm curious - what changes after marriage?
There are lots of cultural narratives around marriage: from “it's your happily ever after” to “it's all downhill from here.” I have this vision of weddings in the past changing everything about a person's life, especially a young woman's. You'd upend your old life, leave your family home and set out with your new spouse to fulfil your roles as husband and wife: wedding dress off, rubber gloves on.
Now obviously we've come a long way since the be-piped and be-newspapered husbands of the 1950s, but marriage is still seen as one of the most significant things a person can do. I'm signing a contract here! What on earth am I signing up to? And does being married really feel any different to just being in a relationship? And if it doesn't, what's the point?
Mitchell and Emily are not convinced that much will change when they get married.
They were frustrated about not being able to celebrate their wedding, but not being actually married makes no difference to them.
Emily: This is the 21st century! It’s not actually going to change much for us in terms of how we go about day to day.
Mitchell: I think moving in was probably a bigger choice. Although to be fair I don't really remember it happening it just felt very natural at the time. You know. Maybe we should have thought of those things when we moved in together but we didn’t. I certainly don’t think the wedding will change anything else.
And as to the legal side?
Mitchell: I don’t think we’d ever weighed up pros and cons of getting married. We just thought it was something we would do. I’ve certainly never really thought about how we’d operate
Emily: It’s just nothing ever goes wrong so we don’t have to fix it.
Mitchell: Yeah. We’re pretty happy together.
Emily: We’re having a good time.
In the last episode, I asked if there was any difference between a married couple, and a committed unmarried couple. So over the next two episodes, I’m going to unpick that question: is marriage just a piece of paper? What’s the difference between marriage and cohabitation? This is part 1: Does Getting Married Change Anything?
What changes after you get married? Is it really any different? Nowadays, you can live together, get a house, have kids, adopt kids, the whole shebang, all without exchanging vows. But what happens if you do?
A proposal and a wedding.are huge emotional outpourings. They’re heightened moments, images of which have been fed to us practically since birth. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that they’re a big deal. So what happens after these moments pass and normality returns? My assumption is that a marriage feels no different from a long term relationship, because it’s just a relationship that has been recognised in certain ways, but is that really the case?
In the first episode of Knot Ready, Daniel demonstrated how marriage, and the dissolution of that marriage, could have a lasting impact on someone in their approach to future relationships. Making those promises, looking into someone’s eyes and swearing to be together forever - this is heavy stuff, and psychologically, that has to have an impact right? Promising something so huge, nebulous and all-encompassing as eternal love? And in such a formal way? That’s a big deal! It’s bound to have an emotional impact. It’s bound to change something, right?
And then there’s the legal side.
Jake: I think it’s always going to be a big deal to look at someone and be like I’m gonna stay with you until I hate you so much that I’m going to have to hire a lawyer to break up with you!
Lawyers, rights, contracts - I thought this was a love story! I hear that married couples get more rights than non-married couples. So do they? And what do they get? And is it worth the trade off of whatever’s in that marriage contract?
For example, when investigating deed polls for an upcoming episode, I found that married people need their spouse’s permission to change their name! That’s right - MY decision would legally require my PARTNER to sign on the dotted line. Now fortunately, this isn’t a gendered thing: it’s about spousal permission, not male permission, but I’m no legal expert. Are there loads of these things? How many of my decisions are going to legally require my partner’s, my husband’s, signature after we’re married? What is in that marriage contract?!
If I’m going to work out why I want to get married, I need to look at what the impact of marriage would be on my life, in practical and emotional terms.
Lucy starts her investigation by talking to people on the frontline: newlyweds. She introduces Abbey, who got married last year and met her husband Charlie while completing a charity project in Fiji.
Abbey: I had signed up to go on a volunteering trip to Fiji and then Charlie was already out there because he was doing like a year working for the charity. It was quite intense. Often like all day everyday together, sleeping on the floor, showering under a bucket like that kind of thing. I think you kinda see like more sides to someone.
It was when they got back to the UK, however, that sparks started to fly.
Abbey: Maybe like a month after we got back he came to Cardiff to like visit and it was like to visit everyone and then we were like oh, hi, nice to see you again! And then and that’s when we kind of started seeing each other.
They got married four years after that initial meeting in Fiji. Abbey wasn't sure about being centre of attention but it was OK on the day! She was most scared about crying in the ceremony.
Abbey: Walking down the aisle, I was really scared about crying. You know there’s like crying where it’s just a quick wipe of the eye and there’s crying where you can’t talk and it’s really embarrassing. I did not want that to happen to me!
Abbey and Charlie are Christians, so marriage was important for their faith, but also important to them as people.
Abbey: For me getting married is something that I always wanted to do and is important. The main thing is that commitment and saying that you’ll be with someone forever and I think also that commitment of - Charlie always hates this phrase - but of doing life together.
So did marriage change anything for them? Well, despite having travelled the world together, they decided to leave some pretty significant milestones until after their big day.
Abbey: I mean we kinda knew that we didn’t want to live together before we got married.
Because we’re both Christians, we wanted our faith to come out in our relationship and we wanted like that to be evident like from the outside. We had decided not to sleep together. For me that was really important. So that was like a big thing with obviously living together that would it would be very difficult to like for people not to think that.
For me personally I just like I was like if we live together before, do we have our own bank accounts and split the bills? That kind of thing. I just kind of wanted everything to be a team and I felt like for me it only made sense to do that as we were married.
With marriage you want it to be really important and a commitment. We had spent lots of time together so it wasn’t like a shock as such but it felt like more of a big deal. I know some couples who have like lived together and have bought a house and that’s obviously fine whatever suits them but it felt like a real change because getting married meant all the things that it means but it also meant setting up a life.
If you put such a weight on marriage, and save big relationship milestones for your wedding day, of course your life will be different afterwards.
Lucy then investigates how often these specific life changes occur in tandem to marriage.
I started by looking at the number of couples who make the same choice as Abbey and Charlie, to not cohabit and instead move in together after their big day. Unsurprisingly, they are in the minority. An ONS study from 2017 found that only 1 couple in ten chose not to live together before marriage, though this was slightly more common in couples who opted for a religious over a civil ceremony (2 in 10). Although most married couples do live together, moving in often comes well before marriage. It’s not typically something that changes upon tying the knot.
Similarly, it is less common these days to stay abstinent before marriage. While I couldn’t find exact stats on this, we do have an insight into public opinion on the matter from the British Social Attitudes survey. In the first survey in 1983, a majority of respondents said that they thought premarital sex was wrong in some or all circumstances. Now, this figure has flipped. In the 2019 release, a majority said that premarital sex was not wrong at all. It feels safe to assume, therefore, that the majority of people are practising what they preach and not saving sex for marriage.
Lucy then moves on to looking at change that is tied specifically to the act of marrying.
So if you live together, and sleep together, and are already doing life together, there doesn’t seem to be much room for marriage to impact your day to day life. Is there any change that comes from the act of marrying itself?
Let’s have a look. There are lots of studies about the differences between married and unmarried people. A common question on this topic is which group are happier. Many studies have found a correlation between marriage and happiness or life satisfaction. A survey of 35000 Americans, conducted over a thirty year period by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago found that 40% of married people said they were “very happy”. Only 24% of other respondents said the same. This statistic holds true when the results are controlled for age, income, and gender.
The office for national statistics found the same thing in the UK. Their findings from 2019 show that marriage is a powerful predictor of life satisfaction for modern brits. This has even been proven biologically - married people test lower for rates of the stress hormone cortisol, which impacts not just happiness but overall health. https://time.com/4671735/married-couples-healthier/ So marriage changes your life and makes you a happier person? Well not necessarily. As an article from psychology today points out, it may just be that happier people are more likely to get married. Researchers think that the truth here lies somewhere in the middle - happy people marry, and marriage makes them happier.
Some researchers take it further. In her book, Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong, Bella DePaulo argues that the research on unmarried people is woefully lacking some checks and balances. She says that the people who argue that married people are innately happier ignore the stigma around remaining unmarried, and other difficulties such as financial pressure that impact unmarried people disproportionately.
Some research also fails to make distinctions between those who have never married and those are now widowed or divorced. If the experience of marriage is meant to create a differential in happiness, surely a group who have been married are necessarily different to a group who haven’t. Though many newlyweds do experience a boost in life satisfaction for the first couple of years, the honeymoon period, some struggle with the post-wedding blues. Some see marriage as a happy ending, a cure to all their relationship ills, and are sorely disappointed. Not to mention that after divorce, women often exhibit an increase in extroversion and become more open to new experiences, as if, one BBC journalist declares, they have been ‘freed from the shackles of wedlock’. Yikes.
As for people in committed cohabiting relationships? In the ONS study, as on so many forms, this group fell under ‘single’, so we can’t know if cohabiting couples are different to married couples in terms of their overall happiness. The stats aren’t there.
Well, it turns out that getting married may be responsible for certain changes in a person’s behaviour and personality. A study of newly married heterosexual couples showed that many newlyweds exhibit similar personality changes over the first 18 months of marriage, regardless of how long they were together before marriage.
Well, it turns out that getting married may be responsible for certain changes in a person’s behaviour and personality. A study of newly married heterosexual couples showed that many newlyweds exhibit similar personality changes over the first 18months of marriage, regardless of how long they were together before marriage.
Lucy then introduces Electra, who had been married three weeks at the time of the interview. COVID-19 had also interfered with her wedding plans, but living in Sweden (where no full lockdown has taken place), she had been able to go ahead and get married.
It’s early days, but she has noticed some changes in herself since getting married.
Electra: I feel stronger in pointing out my views, even if my partner disagrees.
Electra's experience is in line with the research on marriage and personality.
The study I mentioned before, the one that tracked personality changes over the first 18 months of marriage, found that both husbands and wives become less agreeable after marriage, meaning they are more likely to assert themselves in a disagreement rather than avoiding conflict. Another finding is that women become less open to new experiences after marriage, but that they are also less prone to anxiety or self-doubt. Men - more conscientious but less extroverted....
Whatever the reasons for these shifts, the gendered nature of which makes me suspect, other studies have shown similar results, and have demonstrated that people in non-married couples don't show these same changes.
Crucially, as I mentioned before, these results hold when you control for the couples age and the length of their relationship. So it isn’t just the relationships or the individuals maturing, something about marriage itself triggers this personality change.
But why is this? Marriage is meant to be stressful, but not in a life-altering way, like a divorce would be.
This taps into a theory I’m developing, that marriage just feels different.
You know how parents can describe all of the details of parenting, nappies, sleepless nights, eternal unconditional love, etc, but then say you won’t really understand it unless you do it, like there’s an extra piece of the puzzle that you only unlock by going through that experience.
Is that what marriage is like? Something that feels so significant that it can change your personality, but in this really subtle way that is hard to explain? Marriage is promising someone that you will never break up with them, and making it legally difficult to do so. That must add a new layer to your relationship, right?
Lucy decides to test her theory out by reaching out to a really established couple. Emma and Chris have been together for years, have 2 kids and a mortgage. They got married earlier this year, but met 12 years ago while working a part-time job.
Emma: I was a barmaid and he was a barman. We met and hung out a lot and really liked each other, and then we were quickly in a relationship. Because of the junction were at in our lives, he was going travelling and I was finishing my masters, so I just went with him! We went to Canada for six months and when we got back things moved quite quickly. Within two years, we were getting a house together.
But they didn't get married. As a young person, marriage hadn't appealed to Emma.
Emma: There’s many reasons why we didn’t get married sooner. One of them being just how secure we felt with each other anyway. Just the fact that we felt really comfortable and easy. We’re both very independent and did our own thing and came back together.
Also I think I particularly - Chris was a lot more keen to get married - but I had real issues with the feminist side of it and how I’d feel about giving up my name that sort of thing. Although they’re not a given, we both come from quite working class families, very traditional, and there was an expectation that I would take his family name. Not even an expectation - an assumption. I didn’t know how I would feel about that when I was younger.
The other thing was we had friends around us who were in quite unhealthy relationships and they were getting married. We were wondering how healthy their relationships were, and it felt like everyone was doing it because it was the thing to do. That made both of us quite uncomfortable because we’d be like, well we’re much more happy and secure than they are, so why are they getting married? What does it mean to get married?
So they didn't get married and their relationship outlived some of their friends’ marriages. When they were ready, they had kids. After the birth of their first child, the conversation of marriage came up again, but this time the pressure was off.
Emma: Ever since our eldest daughter was born, I just felt like it would be a nice thing to do. Our lives were even more strongly linked and we were just so-- even more content than we'd ever been! All those anxieties I'd had about marriage just melted away.
Emma and Chris got married earlier this year. (Lucy got to go and had a great time dancing to their fab wedding band!) When reflecting on her wedding, Emma is pleased that she did it her way.
Emma: It's important to remember what you want and what's important to you. I think maybe when I was younger I got too caught up in what it meant to other people rather than what it meant to me.
Certainly in terms of how we spent money, we focused on what was important to us. Then some things surprised us.
In a way, I think our wedding was more traditional than we were expecting. That was because we wanted to make the people we cared about happy as well. My dad had a lot of assumptions about walking me down the aisle and I think if I'd have thought about that before, I'd have found it kind of annoying, but actually it was really sweet that it was so important to him. Because I am close to my family, I saw that as a positive rather than as 'bowing to the pressure'.
So to the pressing question. What has changed after marriage for them?
Emma: I suppose it hasn't changed anything day to day. We already had two small children so our lives were quite intertwined already. I think in some small way it has changed a little bit. In the sense of how we view our relationship. We're more intertwined than before.
Getting married means that Emma and Chris now view their relationship slightly differently to how they did before. They feel there is something else, something additional, bonding them together.
Lots of the couples I interviewed spoke about how their priorities also shifted after marriage.
Emma: Now I see us, our family unit, more as our priority. We've always been quite attached to other families, and now I see our family more as THE thing, THE priority. We're currently thinking about moving away from our other relatives, and I don't think we'd have considered that before.
Abbey: People say you don’t choose your family you choose your friends, but your husband becomes the family that you’ve chosen which is really fun.
Before there’s always a bit more I’ll do this or me and my family are going to do this and since getting married it’s more what are WE going to do? What is our decision?
Because you’re making decisions together and stuff there’s more of that thing of like oh this is OUR life now, whereas I think when you’re in a committed relationship, you’re definitely committed to being together but you do to some extent still live separate lives a bit more I’d say. When you're married, everything is more about being a team.
Being married can give couples the confidence to prioritise their relationship, to make the decisions they want to and to become an important family unit in their own right. Marriage can be a validating experience.
Emily: It’s almost like a nice validation for us. Cause when I think of you, you’re not just my boyfriend, which sounds really vague.
Mitchell: And a bit immature?
Emily: Yeah, the word isn’t right for us anymore. We’re us, we are more.
Mitchell: Yeah. It’s nice to say fiancée and it will be nice to say wife.
I definitely know what Mitchell and Emily mean here. Sam and I knew we would get married long before we even got engaged, and there was a period of time where not having that public label felt almost fraudulent. Like no one knew how much we really cared about each other and how serious this was and we were hiding something really important from our friends and family. Being engaged, and married, brings with it a sense of legitimacy, a societal capital that doesn’t seem to exist on the same level for cohabiting couples, at least not in a widely recognised way. Marriage is still seen as a step up from cohabitation on the hierarchy of societal relationship capital. In terms of getting your relationship accepted and recognised, you can’t go higher.
And this demonstration of love and commitment can be important in other ways too. When same sex marriage is made legal in a country, it opens these pathways of legitimacy to couples who have likely faced bigotry and non-acceptance. Now obviously LGBT relationships are legitimate whatever choices those individuals make and not all LGBT people want to marry, but for those who do it can be affirming to participate in this ages old societal institution. LGBT advocate Ibtisam Ahmed explains the importance of marriage for him as a gay man.
Ibtisam: I think marriage has a few different meanings. On an very emotional, symbolic level, I'm a bit of a romantic at heart and I do think that it has that emotional resonance of a very public commitment of our love. I don’t know whether once I get married I’ll feel any differently about our relationship. When we got engaged, there was no perceptible shift on the day to day, so maybe when we get married things won't actually be that different but I like this idea of it being part of something bigger. And it is a family thing too! It makes it feel, for me, like our relationship is just as legitimate as any heterosexual relationship is.
So my theory, that marriage creates these subtle bonds may have some legs. Married couples report feeling more tightly bonded to their partner after their wedding and the social role of marriage is recognised as so important that couples feel validated by their friends and families. This validation in turn grants them the freedom to prioritise their new union in situations where their priorities may have been split before.
But for Emma, whose bonds to Chris were formed before marriage, through 12 years together and two kids, the main change after marriage was not the emotional one.
Emma: Society still puts a lot of emphasis on marriage so it has changed our circumstances in some quite practical ways.
Lucy then begins her exploration of this episode's final topic: the legal side of marriage. This has had an impact on Emma's life after marriage, and for couples like Electra and her partner, it is a driving factor in their decision to marry.
Electra: Since I'm not Swedish, we both thought that it would be easier to get parental leave and be accepted and not have issues with finances. It would be easier to get financial support if we were married.
This was the bit I knew next to nothing about and something I really wanted to look into. Being married seemed like a good thing to be legally, but I didn’t actually know why.
The classic thing people bring up when you talk about marriage rights is tax breaks, so this was the first thing I looked up, and at least in the UK, yes, married couples can get a tax break. It’s called marriage allowance and it lets you transfer a certain amount of your personal allowance, which is how much money you can earn tax-free, to your partner. That means if you earn less than £12500 a year and your partner earns more, you can give some of your tax-free allowance to them and reduce the amount of tax they have to pay. As a couple you can save up to £250 a year. Not to be sniffed at but as the average wedding in the UK costs £31000 (!) it doesn’t seem like the best reason to get married.
So what else? There is a myth floating around about a little thing called common law marriage. This is the belief that couples who are living together or who have been together for x number of years are seen under the law as ‘common law spouses’, married in everything but name. The theory goes that couples with a common law marriage have equal rights with married couples. 47% of people believe that this is the case. It is emphatically not.
If you aren’t married, you can absolutely put legal structures in place to protect yourself and your partner, but the default is that couples who are cohabiting and couples who are married have different rights and will be treated as such by the law.
But other than tax breaks, what are these rights? And what does the marriage contract contain? I needed help. So I called up an expert.
Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Probert. I am Professor of Law at the University of Exter, and I have a long-standing research interest in marriage, cohabitation, bigamy and divorce.
Professor Rebecca Probert is the author of numerous papers on marriage and family law. If you need help on this topic, she is the woman for the job. We’re going to talk about rights in the UK, so if you’re not in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, this information may not be accurate for you, and you’ll need to check your own government’s website for this information.
A quick discretionary note: we will touch briefly on domestic violence and sexual abuse in this section, not in any detail but in terms of the legal protections afforded to married and unmarried people. UK law is very clear that both married and unmarried victims of domestic violence are equally entitled to help and protection from abuse. I will leave details on how to access support in the show notes (see top of this page).
So to marriage rights in the UK. What do you get? Well...
Rebecca: That is quite a difficult question because there isn’t a nice list of the rights that you get when you’re married. You don’t acquire any interest in any of the assets of your spouse. You do always have a right to occupy the matrimonial home, called home rights. And each spouse has a duty to financially support the other during the marriage. There is no obligation to contribute equally - duty of support usually comes up where a marriage has broken down but there hasn’t been a divorce.
There is this idea of a tension between marriage as a contract versus marriage as a status. On the one hand it’s a contract because you’re entering into an agreement to get married, based on the full and free consent of both parties. And on the other hand it's a contract set by the state. The law rather than the couple sets the contract and the law can change over time.
So the obligations and rights of married people will change with the law over time.
Think about it - when marital rape was outlawed (far too late) in 1991, it applied to all married couples, not just those who got married after the law was signed! Your marriage contract is not neatly filed and static, it changes over time with the law, and these laws can impact your marriage differently to someone else’s depending on how your relationship develops.
Rebecca: Now you can of course do a pre-nup, but if that ever comes into a dispute then any clauses that differ from the law will be very hard to enforce.
Rebecca explains that divorce courts are focused on ruling on what is fair. If a divorcing couple have been married 20 years and have children, especially if one partner had been a homemaker or stay-at-home parent during that time, a fair outcome for their divorce is going to be different than for a couple who have been together 1 year and have no children.
Lucy then asks how these rights differ for unmarried couples.
Rebecca: There's no legal duty to support each other if you're not married, and there's no mechanism by which one partner could be compelled to support the other. There are potentially rights to occupy the family home, but those are temporary and the main context there is if there is a relationship of violence and one partner needs to be removed for the other's safety. If cohabiting couple splits up, there is no power of court to reallocate property between them. The court focuses on what they actually owned.
Cohabiting couples can get protections without marriage, at least in the UK. The citizen’s advice bureau suggests that couples can work with a family solicitor to draw up a cohabitation agreement. Couples can use this to outline their rights and obligations within the relationship. As well as this contract, these couples can draw up a ‘declaration of trust’, which is a statement of how they share their property. This can afford both parties protection in the case of separation. To ensure that they’ll inherit from you, you’ll need to draw up a will.
However, being married automates this process somewhat. In terms of inheritance on death and rights on separation, spouses get rights just for being married.
Emma: If anything it's less administration. Before you'd have to state if you want things to go to your kids or partner but now it's by default.
Another thing that happens when you’re married is that fathers get the right to name a legal guardian for their child after death, a right which all mothers have automatically but that is not afforded to all unmarried fathers.
Ok. But say I’m alive and don’t split up from my partner. Does marriage make any difference to a functioning relationship?
Rebecca: I suppose you're promising a level of exclusivity in that you can only be married to one partner at a time. All the other things that you associate with marriage, the love and affection and mutual support-- even in the past when policymakers tried to keep couples together, they never tried to legislate any obligation of love between them.
Ok so don’t marry anyone else. That’s your legal obligation met.
But can being married affect you in real terms while your relationship is still good?
Unmarried couples are sometimes worried that they might not be able to visit their partner in hospital. There’s this idea that unmarried partners cannot be next of kin, but this is inaccurate. Now legally, a next of kin is someone who can make decisions on the part of a minor. The use of ‘next of kin’ to mean an adult’s close family member or spouse has no legal weight in the UK. It is just a useful way for certain institutions to recognise a person’s family members.
So can an unmarried partner be your next of kin? Yes, as can your mum, or a close friend, or yes, your spouse. In the context of a hospital, next of kin can get updates about a person’s condition, and may be granted extended visiting hours. So you do not need to be married to obtain this access should your partner be hospitalised.
But what about making medical decisions on behalf of your partner? Is a spouse trusted to make these calls where an unmarried partner is not? Well no. Neither a spouse nor an unmarried partner can make decisions about your medical treatment. That is up to you and your doctor. If you want someone to make these decisions should you be incapacitated, you can appoint that person using a lasting power of attorney document, but it is not an automatic right of spouses, and an unmarried partner could be named as your attorney should you wish.
So getting married does not give your partner any extra rights over your care, and you don’t have to be married to have your partner with you in hospital.
But next of kin can still cause some issues. There is no requirement for other organisations to recognise your unmarried partner as your next of kin. An insurance company, for example, may have a policy that does not see unmarried partners as next of kin or beneficiaries, and there won’t be a whole lot you can do about it except complaingi. If you’re married, however, this will never be called into question: your partner will be assumed to be your next of kin, and will be accepted as such by all organisations.
Being able to call someone your husband or your wife can also make certain transactions easier, as Emma explains:
Emma: You get a lot less confusion and questions. It's easier to say husband and for people to know what you're talking about, especially with the legal work.
As being married is still the default, the systems and the people running them are set up to expect married couples, so marriage might just make these interactions run smoother. But before I tie the knot just to make my life easier at the bank, there was one last thing I wanted to ask Rebecca.
Lucy asks Rebecca to clear up the question about deed polls and needing permission from your spouse to make decisions after you're married.
Rebecca explains that in the case of deed polls, you can change your name unofficially to whatever you like, use that name everywhere, and your partner has no say in that decision. It's only when you want to formalise that decision with a deed poll that your spouse gets a say (and this permission can be dispensed with if you can demonstrate why it should be).
In normal circumstances, yes, your spouse may have some say, legally, over your decision making. Personally, I don’t love this for myself, but I’m still happy to marry because I trust Sam to never stop me making the decisions I need or want to. And Sam, if you’re listening, think very carefully Buddy!
She then goes on to discuss times when you arguably should have the option to veto your spouse's decisions, but you don't.
Rebecca: Some jurisdictions have what's known as homestead legislation where they treat the family home as special property. But in the UK, if one spouse is sole owner of the property, they can dispense of it however they see fit without consulting the other spouse.
It makes sense that a spouse shouldn’t be able to unilaterally decide to sell the marital home but in the UK at least they can. And staying unmarried won’t help you here by the way; just make sure your name is on the lease.
According to Rebecca, needing spousal permission is quite rare, and sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it really doesn’t.
So legally there are some wins and some losses with marriage. Staying unmarried means a lot of paperwork to obtain the same protections afforded to married people automatically, but it also means that you are in control of what that paperwork says. When you get married, you get the legal status and all the automatic rights that come along with it, but your marriage contract is dictated by the state and, as the law currently stands, this means giving up some of your legal autonomy to the other person. So the decision is yours!
Rebecca: I do think one of the great things about modern marriage is that it's what the individuals involved want it to be. We have same sex marriage now. There can be no assumption that when you're getting married you have to take on particular gender roles. I've never felt any pressure to change my surname to that of my husband's and he's the one that has the dinner on the table every evening!
So to my question: Does Getting Married Change Anything?
For some couples, marriage is the start of a whole new way of living, but that doesn’t have to be the case. And, usually, it isn’t. For most couples, life is not much different after marriage in terms of their day-to-day lives. However, even if nothing day-to-day changes after marriage, everyone I spoke to mentioned noticing subtle changes, in the way they saw themselves and their partner, in their approach to decision making, and in the way that their relationship was viewed by the people around them. Being married still holds enough societal power to make your life easier in certain situations, and it clears up any ambiguities about the nature of your relationship. From the legal side, becoming someone’s spouse grants you some rights, but in most situations you can obtain these by other means if you’re willing to complete enough forms.
Is there a difference between a married and a cohabiting couple? Yes, in terms of their legal status, in the way they are viewed by society and maybe even in their personalities.
Marriage today may look like just a party, but it’s still a serious and impactful decision that might just change your life.