After five years of campaigning that took them into both the national headlines and the Supreme Court, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan can now finally call themselves civil partners. The new law introducing mixed-sex civil partnerships came into force on New Year’s Eve and 84,000 cohabiting couples are expected to take advantage of it this year, as traditional marriage declines further as more modern alternative ways of living are available. Entering a civil partnership will grant couples almost the same legal rights as those who are married, in terms of property, inheritance and tax entitlements, catching them up with couples in countries such as France, South Africa and the Netherlands, where they have been legal for years.
Cohabiting is a rapidly growing way of living across the world, and in the UK, there are 3.3 million cohabiting couples, a figure that has doubled in the last twenty years. Of course, for some couples, this is a natural step towards marriage, something like a trial run, but for others, marriage is, and will never be on the cards. Money can be a factor, especially now the average wedding costs around £30,000, which some might prefer to put to other uses, such as buying a house.
Rings as a symbol of ownership, the bride being given like property from her father to her husband, wearing white to symbolise purity and virginity – it doesn’t exactly feel very 21st century
Equally, some couples don’t feel the values of marriage align with their own personal values, both in terms of religion, but also, as Steinfeld and Keidan have argued, its associations with patriarchy. Rings as a symbol of ownership, the bride being given like property from her father to her husband, wearing white to symbolise purity and virginity – it doesn’t exactly feel very 21st century.
Everyone is entitled to live their lives the way they choose, that aligns with their own personal values, as long as they aren’t harming others. It therefore seems unfair for these couples to lose out on the rights afforded to married couples simply because they do not believe in marriage and are going against tradition. It’s an antiquated, archaic system that the Supreme Court even ruled discriminatory, given that same-sex couples have been able to become civil partners ever since it became legal for them to get married.
Not doing something because it isn’t what people have always done is illogical and impedes sometimes necessary change
Furthermore, it will give unmarried couples with children greater security, something that is especially needed when more babies are being born to parents who hadn’t tied the knot. Women in particular will benefit from the legal protections a civil partnership will offer, especially if their relationship breaks down when they have children, or if their civil partner dies, given that women on average live longer than men.
If the idea of mixed-sex civil partnerships has faced any pushback, it has come from conservative traditionalists who have argued that they will undermine tradition and the sanctity of marriage. Former Prime Minister David Cameron even expressed this sort of disapproval while in office, fearing that marriage would be ‘weakened’ if they were legalised. This is an opinion that seems as outdated as the idea of marriage being necessary for everyone: not doing something because it isn’t what people have always done is illogical and impedes sometimes necessary change. Tradition is only worthwhile if it serves us – if a couple have been campaigning for a change in the law to accept the way they want their relationship to be recognised, then clearly, the institution of marriage isn’t serving everyone as well as it once did.
One day, we might be looking at a future where mixed sex civil partnerships are the new normal, and that world will be better for it
And as for undermining the sanctity of marriage – we’ve done that enough ourselves. It is well known that four out of ten marriages end in divorce; when couples stand at the altar and declare that they will be together forever, they do not even know whether they will fulfil that promise. While divorce is never desirable, and affairs are never acceptable, the damage is already being done, and marriage will probably never have the prominence and status it did in the past again. Mixed-sex civil partnerships aren’t going to be anywhere near as harmful, and to present them as so would be an exaggeration.
One day, we might be looking at a future where mixed-sex civil partnerships are the new normal, and that world will be better for it. Legalising them not only improves fairness; it improves freedom for couples to have their union recognised in the way they want, without discrimination, and celebrated how they want – unconstrained by tradition, religion or the niggling worry that a big white wedding might make you a bad feminist. Keidan and Steinfeld’s win is not just a personal victory; it is a victory for millions.