Tory tax breaks wouldn't support marriage, they would undermine it

By Tom Beardshaw
April 9, 2010

The Tory party is offering a new tax break for married couples and civil partners in a bid to support stable relationships. The tax reform will be modest, so if one parent stays at home, they will be able to transfer some of their tax allowance to their working spouse.

The trouble is, this does not really support marriage. It aims to support a certain type of marriage - one that is out of touch with modern relationships and makes for unhappy couples. If the token £150 a year actually succeeds in changing behaviour, it could even increase separation and divorce.

In the 1950s, 60s and to some extent the 70s, the ideal of fixed gender roles had a social approval that made it the basis of an accepted standard contract for couples - mum would stay at home, look after the children, cook the food and clean the house. In exchange, the dad would go out to work and earn the money. That's what was expected and accepted, despite the unhappiness it often created.

Women have roundly rejected this ideal in modern times where 70 per cent of mothers work at least some of the time. We all agree that young girls should have a broad vista open to them in their future lives. The idea they should be restricted to the home is anathema to modern women and the men who love them. Women can, want to, and should be able to participate in any aspect of public life and not be restricted to the private realm of home and children. Men are changing too - more and more now yearn for a life beyond the workplace - a real relationship with their children. There has been a huge increase in the amount of time and effort - and aspiration - of men in being involved in raising their children. No one ever said on their deathbed "I wish I [had] spent more time at the office".

The trouble with the Tory proposals is that they are firmly aimed at couples who have taken the decision to hold to the traditional old school division of labour - one parent works, the other stays at home - and they seem to think that this is what defines marriage. Wrong. Marriage is a publicly committed relationship, not a 1950s conception of the domestic gender division of labour.

Only a third of Britain’s 12.3 million married couples would benefit from the proposals. Those who would gain the most advantage would have one partner on a low to middle income and one without a wage.

The Tories are interested in the stability of marriages - for the benefit of children. Fair play. It's a laudable aim. Children thrive within stable relationships. But the stability of a marriage has become more and more dependent on the satisfaction of the partners in the relationship. When society held to a strict gender division of labour and divorce was frowned upon, marriage stability did not depend on how satisfied each partner was - couples would stay together, often even if they were incredibly unhappy.

Not any more. Without enduring satisfaction in marriage, there is a strong likelihood of the marriage falling apart - people do not really put up with abusive, unhappy, dysfunctional, loveless relationships any more. So any policy that is going to increase the stability of marriage had better have a positive effect on marital satisfaction.

So what happens if couples organise their lives to take advantage of the Tory's tax proposals? One parent (usually the chap) has to take responsibility for all the earning, so inevitably plunges himself ever deeper into his career and has to carry the weight of responsibility for providing financially for the family. The other (usually the woman) will become a professional child carer / houseworker / cook - staff to the home and kitchen.

In other words, their lives will diverge almost completely - the man will have very little experience or understanding of what his partner's life is like, and vice versa. They will experience very little of each others' stresses, joys, frustrations etc. They will begin to lead separate lives.

It is going to be very hard to develop and sustain empathy in the relationship - which might be pretty high on the list of factors that are going to fuel marital satisfaction. Dad will not be able to relate to mum's experience of being at home with the children all day, and she will not be able to understand the pressures on him at work. Isolated mums and workaholic dads.

If a 'marriage' policy is going to be successful, it has to be focused on making relationships better - and that includes the opportunity to share the tasks and responsibilities of family life around. Just as men and women share the workplace, so they are increasingly sharing the parenting - and all the signs are that this is what young marrying couples aspire to. Children benefit in all sorts of ways from having strong relationships with both parents instead of just one. It is good for children and adults - and good for their relationships.

So it is important to acknowledge that the Tory proposals do not actually support marriage, they just support a certain vision of marriage - one that has been rejected as unfeasible and undesirable and probably leads to unhappy couples. If the policy actually works in changing people's behaviour (which is debateable at £3 a week) it will lead to less empathy in relationship, more isolated partners, and ultimately, higher levels of separation.

But the majority of criticisms will focus on the unlikelihood that such a financial incentive will lead to a change in behaviour. Let us hope the critics are right. If this policy did actually result in couples making the choices the Tories want, it could lead to a rise in separation and divorce.


(c) Tom Beardshaw is the publisher of Dad Info and previously a Director of the Fatherhood Institute and Head of Research for Care for the Family.

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