We live in a society in which sexual relationships are common among young people. It may be socially acceptable, but the risks and the penalties remain the same. I did not compose the following letter in the abstract: I have 14 grandchildren.
My dear Grandson,
I hear, on the family grapevine, that you and M. have moved in together, presumably for the long term. M. is such a splendid young lady, and you clearly seem suited to each other.
Please don’t think I am interfering if I write to you about some matters which I think you and M. owe it to each other to discuss. I am not in any way judging you; I just feel that I would be letting you down if I did not bring some facts to your attention. You are free to take no notice!
I presume that you have decided to share a flat with good reason. That is, you love one another deeply so it feels right to be together. But I think you should both be clear about how you see the future. What is perhaps partly a matter of convenience now is likely to convert into a way of life. And problems can come up because, instead of sitting back and deciding whether to commit yourselves permanently to each other, you are drifting into a closer relationship.
You can’t avoid this. Nature hasn’t heard of the “permissive society”; she is intent on creating and strengthening the bonds which will create the secure parenting she has in mind for future conceptions. She does this with the help of “bonding hormones” so that the more satisfactorily you express that bond the harder nature will work.
And here is the source of a problem. It does not follow that two people in a relationship will develop the same feelings in the same way. One reason for this is that the two sexes experience relationships differently, another is that feelings vary in intensity and duration. If problems arise, as they do in all relationships, it is exactly this difference of feeling which comes to the fore. A relationship of any worthwhile depth does not end without at least one, or often both, people being badly hurt – any more than you can rarely count on escaping unscathed from a head-on car crash.
Of course, you might claim that just the same could happen in marriage. And indeed it could. But it’s less likely to because married people have made a conscious decision and a committed undertaking to hold on however difficult it may get. I know that you grandchildren think that Grandma and I have a very close marriage. And we have. Well, you can put that down to our solemn promise to cope with the bad bits as well as the good.
I know that you prefer facts rather than opinions, so you may think I am prejudiced by my own experience here. But I was looking at an analysis of census statistics carried out in 2010. It established that, of those who were cohabiting, 61 per cent stayed together for at least 10 years, while the figure for the married was 82 per cent. Of course we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, cohabiters have stated by their actions that they reserve the right to abandon the relationship. You haven’t? Pop down to the registrar and sign on the dotted line. That’ll prove me wrong!
There are some people who nevertheless say that it’s better and cleaner to break up a long-term cohabitation than to break up a marriage. It isn’t. Where marriages have legal ground rules to try to ensure that justice is done, a break-up of cohabitation is just asking for fights and bitterness. Some people believe that rights are established over time through the concept of “common law marriage”. That stopped in 1753! The Law Commission described the current law as “unsatisfactory, complex, uncertain, expensive to rely on, and… often gives rise to outcomes that are unjust”. Is that the injustice you are offering M. and she is offering you?
I imagine that neither of you is planning to start a family right now – although nature will be trying to trip you up the whole time. But babies can be a real problem for cohabiters. A baby changes your finances, your accommodation and your roles. You have to make a decision under pressure – and that’s a vulnerable moment. But there is one good reason for cohabiters to avoid children: twice as many children born to cohabiters will not see out their childhood with the same parents as those born to married parents. This is not a risk which you take; it is the risk you oblige your children to take – and they may pay the price for a lifetime.
And one more thing: you may feel that your cohabitation is a useful trial for marriage. People were optimistically claiming that 50 years ago. It wasn’t true then; it isn’t any truer now. The records show quite simply that cohabitation is a lousy guide to a future happy marriage. Nor is it a reliable guide to long-term sexual satisfaction. Our old friend nature supercharges sex in the early days to promote conception. But once you’ve passed the peak likelihood of conception, it’s largely up to you. That’s when the quality and commitment of your relationship really counts. If you want irony, the evidence shows that couples who wait until after the wedding tend to have significantly better sexual lives than those who jump the gun.
Your loving Grandfather.
Links to the evidence supporting the views in this letter: