What images does the word ‘wedding’ conjure up for you? Veiled brides in white dresses? Tiered cakes sold at triple the usual price? Fathers proudly giving away their not-so-little-girls? Me too. And that’s the problem. We can all picture how a wedding ought to look; the trouble for many is that it’s almost entirely at odds with how we live our lives nowadays, and simply does not reflect the diversity of our personal relationships.
So what real purpose do weddings serve in 2013? Apart from being public declarations of love, marriage is the only way for men and women to assume legal and financial responsibility for each other. Even today, family lawyers are occasionally asked for divorce advice by clients who believe they have a common-law wife or husband, a term which in fact has no legal meaning. Quite deliberately, cohabittees do not enjoy the same legal rights as their married counterparts for reasons of ‘public policy’, supported by successive governments. However, a possible sea-change in policy is just around the corner, prompted by recent developments affecting same-sex couples.
There has been much in the press over recent weeks on the Same Sex Marriage Bill, and the issue of whether gay & lesbian couples should be able to marry, seven years after legally recognised commitments first became available to single sex couples via civil partnerships. It is rather strange now to look back and think that it was ever otherwise; a bit like remembering when we all just put up with smoking in pubs and clubs, just a few years ago.
Back in 2005 civil partnerships were heralded as ‘gay marriages’ but they are, again deliberately, a very different animal. The creation of civil partnerships was essentially a compromise for those who wished to create a distinction from traditional marriages, whether due to religious beliefs, tradition or straightforward prejudice.
In 2013, we think of ours as a modern, progressive society. Surely it is simply a matter of principle then that gay & lesbian couples should be entitled to marry if they so wish? The fact that the Bill has passed its second reading suggests the law-makers finally agree.
In a new twist, the Bill is also being used for an entirely different purpose. Four straight couples could be on their way to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the law relating to civil partnerships, on the basis that they are excluded, which they say is just as discriminatory as gay & lesbian couples being unable to marry. It is perhaps hardly surprising that many straight couples are dissatisfied with marriage being their only option if they wish to confer on each other legal rights and responsibilities; even the wording of the marriage contract conjures up symbolism which many feel is at odds with modern values.
Taken to the extreme, the decline of the religious significance for many suggests that all couples (gay, lesbian or straight) who wish to assume such rights and responsibilities should simply be able to enter into a civil partnership, as they do on the continent. If a couple so wishes they could arrange a religious blessing after the legalities have been carried out, in the same way that UK couples belonging to non-Christian faiths do today.
Perhaps this is a reform too far, but I think it’s safe to say that the old adage ‘love and marriage … go together like a horse and carriage’ is about as old-fashioned as the mode of transport to which the song refers.