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Fairy tales about marriage are a way for rich people to feel as if they deserve their charmed lives

The usual research has been trotted out to back up marriage as the superior family structure, blurring the lines between causation and correlation

If the upcoming referendum had an official soundtrack, it would be faint scrunching noises.

That’s the sound of knickers getting in a knot across Ireland over the proposal to recognise “other durable relationships” alongside marriage in the part of the Constitution that deals with families.

In fairness, if any occasion warrants some elastic twirling, changing the country’s fundamental legal document is probably it, as opposed to the usual catalysts (Taylor Swift ticket prices, the discontinuation of Animal Bars).

But there’s something about the arguments that deserve a double-take.


The usual research has been trotted out to back up marriage as the superior family structure. Citing evidence that “unskilled workers” are less likely to be married than professionals, the message is that marriage is what good and successful people do and they might even be good and successful because they got married. Marriage equates to money, education and status, making it a supposed no-brainer for couples.

However, this ignores the possibility that people who have higher levels of education and income might just be marrying more because that’s their social norm. It’s like going around to a load of upper-class mates’ houses, poking around, and deciding Veja sneakers, Aga stoves and having a weird thing for Brian O’Driscoll are key ingredients to getting rich.

Blurring the lines between causation and correlation when pushing marriage as the answer to escaping disadvantage is a problem.

The eagerness to point to family structure to explain socioeconomic disadvantage in black communities in the United States not only ignored racial and income inequality but led to years of ineffective policies, according to Dr Deadric Williams. “Public opinions about why racial inequalities exist have shifted away from open endorsements of biological inferiority toward endorsements of cultural “deficiencies,” such as differences in family values,” Williams wrote in 2022.

It’s easier to put the responsibility of disadvantage on the individual instead of overhauling the system. Providing affordable public housing, income safety nets, free higher education, free childcare and a working public health system feels like they would be the Christian thing to do to overcome disadvantages. But apparently that seems to just be telling people to get married.

Underneath it all lurks the cosy middle-class delusion that their good lot in life is a result of their choices rather than their circumstances. They chose to get married, go to university, get a “good” job and while it wasn’t easy, look how well things turned out. Socioeconomic disadvantage, in this view, is simply caused by bad choices, like having a child outside of marriage or not asking your dad to help you out with a flat deposit. These are the fairy tales people tell themselves to feel deserving of a life they happened to luck into.

We could all be our best selves if we had intergenerational wealth, couldn’t we?

While a bang of classicism wafts off some anxieties over recognising unmarried relationships, others are based in a regulatory panic. What if someone uses the Constitution to claim property? What if someone forms a durable relationship with one person, and then leaves and shacks up with a new person? How do you prove your durable relationship even exists? In Ireland, couples could be perceived as being in a durable relationship if people send Christmas cards or wedding invitations to both members in the couple, the chairwoman of the Electoral Commission has said.

If you ask my parents why they never bothered to get married the answer ranges from ‘the bathroom needed retiling’ to ‘can’t be arsed now’

In my home state of Australia, the answer is a simple online form. In Australia de facto couples have almost identical rights to married couples. The sky did not fall and the fabric of society did not collapse with overlapping families and property claims. Legislation just got written.

Currently the Government is having it both ways. My relationship is not deemed durable enough to get the tax benefits doled out to married couples. But when I go to claim some government benefits then suddenly my partner and his income become durable enough for me to become ineligible.

In some ways (my tax returns), the political is always personal. My family would melt the heads of traditionalists. We’re working class, low income, blended, immigrants in some parts, Indigenous in others while the majority of us left school at 16. But we are successful, healthy and happy. Having six grandparents was not a source of instability as a child, just an impressive amount of birthday presents.

Someone once said my parents were “living in sin”. Which is a funny way of describing two retirees who have been together for 46 years and are very strict about separating their recycling. If you ask them why they never bothered to get married the answer ranges from “the bathroom needed retiling” to “can’t be arsed now”.

Their relationship is based on love and something much more enduring than a marriage certificate: having a partner to go on holidays with and knowing there’s probably no one else out there that would put up with them. That’s all that really matters in most relationships at the end of the day – married or not.