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Breaking up with marriage—why our relationships matter to our rulers

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With a new law making divorce easier set to be passed in Britain this year, Sarah Bates asks why the people at the top of society still care about marriage
Issue 2736
New legislation is set to make it easier to get divorced - but why is marriage still so important to those at the top?
New legislation is set to make it easier to get divorced – but why is marriage still so important to those at the top? (Pic: Eric Minbiole/Flickr)

Until 50 years ago this month, unless you were very rich, you would probably be married until the day you died—for better or worse.

Until 1 January 1971, a divorce required an individual act of parliament—an action so prohibitively expensive that most couples had to put up and shut up.

And half a century later, the snails’ pace of change in divorce law says a lot about how the state is desperate to cling on to the supposedly sacred institution of marriage.

Even after the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, the dissolution of a marriage isn’t easy.

Still today, people have to petition a court and allege adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion. Or they must argue for a divorce on the basis that their relationship has “irretrievably broken down”.

But even that’s not simple.

Couples have to be separated for five years if one party doesn’t want to divorce or to have lived apart for two years if they both agree.

There’s no doubt that the process makes people ­miserable—and forces them to fork out a small fortune in ­lawyers’ feeds.

Major legal changes this year look set to address some of these problems.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, due to be passed in the summer, could mean that divorces are much quicker, cheaper and less painful for all involved.

It means couples won’t have to accuse each other of conduct worthy of a divorce, and the idea is to institute a “no fault” process.

The Ministry of Justice said of the new changes, “We will always uphold the institution of marriage.

“But when divorce cannot be avoided, the law must not create conflict between couples that so often harms the children involved.”

It’s a welcome step that the legal changes should make it easier and cheaper for people to divorce. But why does the government care at all about the “institution of marriage”?

It’s because the nuclear family, which sits at the heart of class society, supports the interests of the state. And marriage makes it much harder for most to break away from the family unit.

Of course now, many couples now don’t choose to get married. In fact the number of couples tying the knot has fallen drastically.

In 1940 there were 471,000 marriages in England and Wales compared with 236,000 in 2017. But despite marriage rates dropping, the pressure to settle down with a long term partner, especially for women, is still dominant in society.

The ruling class wants people to stay in marriages or ­long-term relationships because it allows their system to ­continue to operate smoothly.


Under capitalism, individual women and men, in ­relationships and in families, undertake the responsibility of raising the next generation of workers. This is hugely beneficial to individual bosses and the capitalist system as a whole.

As a result, the ideology of remaining in long-term, monogamous relationships is pushed down on us from the rich and is structured into society.

And couples—especially married couples—are rewarded for adhering to this.

For instance, married couples are allowed to escape inheritance tax, and receive some tax breaks. More broadly, rents and mortgages are priced at two adults sharing the burden, and Universal Credit is dished out to only one person in a family.

And the ruling class also continues to push the idea of marriage—despite its increasing unpopularity—because it makes obscene amounts of profit.

Some 400,000 people in Britain work in the wedding industry and it generates £14.7 billion for the bosses every year.

The ideology of remaining in long-term, monogamous relationships is pushed on us from the rich and is structured into society

Marriage rates have been on a steady decline for decades but weddings are being celebrated in ever more elaborate and expensive ways.

It’s understandable that people want to enjoy their ­weddings, a day when friends and family can celebrate together and as an expression of love and connection.

But for many, both the stress of organising the “most important day of your life” and the reality of marital bliss can fall short.

The pressures of ­everyday life build up inside families and turn them into the places where people are most likely to experience abuse and neglect.

It’s not a coincidence that the first weeks of January are one of the busiest periods for ­lawyers dishing out divorce advice to married couples.

Solicitors firm Richard Nelson LLP said its research showed searches for “I want a divorce” rose by 230 percent in the first week of January 2020 compared to December 2019.

Weddings are expensive - and profitable

Weddings are expensive – and profitable (Pic: Steve Tom/Flickr)

The entire shape of weddings, marriage and divorce is a new phenomenon—and one changed by the development of capitalism.

In the 18th and 19th century, in many parts of Britain, marriage could be formalised by a handshake or jumping over a broomstick. Divorce could be agreed by similar informal ceremonies.

But the industrial revolution changed all that.

The growing capitalist state, and the bosses, became fixated with the private lives of ordinary people.

The mass migration of workers from the countryside to the cities changed the way people lived, worked, and engaged in relationships.

Workers, many of them ­teenagers or children, were dying younger, and coming into the factories sick and unable to work.

To ensure the long-term supply of labour power, bosses granted male workers a so-called “family wage”.

This was an attempt to keep women and children away from dangerous factory work—but wasn’t out of a charitable desire to keep them safe.

The bosses wanted children kept healthy and strong until they could be reliable ­workers in adulthood. Alongside this, there was an explosion of same sex relationships and prostitution.

So there was an ideological offensive organised by the ruling class about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family unit.

The state also whipped up homophobia in an attempt to bolster the nuclear family as the reproductive unit across society.


The family, modelled on the bourgeois Victorian family, with marriage at its centre, was born.

Of course, the family has undergone huge changes since then. A particularly sharp turn has come in the last two decades.

New legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married is rightly celebrated as a step forward, and one which campaigners fought for decades.

But it’s also an attempt by the ruling class to absorb ­relationships that used to sit outside the “traditional” nuclear family, to be incorporated into the structure of it.

It’s another example about how the family under class society is resilient.

Socialists think that sexual relationships should be a question of personal choice, and not involve the state or legal proceedings at all

Many people don’t get married at all, or wait longer to do so. Most women now do work outside the home and many have children outside of marriage.

People aren’t always held hostage by strict divorce laws. Many couples will choose not to legally separate at all and simply live apart.

But none of these changes actually alter the fundamental relationship between the privatised unit of the family.

In this way, private sexual relationships have been completely shaped by the needs of production across society.

But there is another way.

Socialists think that sexual relationships should be a question of personal choice, and not involve the state or legal proceedings at all.

Sexual relationships would be completely transformed after a socialist revolution, when ordinary people would be in charge of how society works.

If people want to get married or divorced, it could be a private decision and, if necessary, a quick administrative procedure.

That’s what happened in Russia after the revolution there in 1917. Russian ­revolutionary Leon Trotsky reported in 1923 that people enjoyed the ­freedom to marry and divorce without interference from the church or capitalist state.

“The workers’ state has rejected church ceremony, and informed its citizens that they have the right to be born, to marry, and to die without the mysterious gestures and exhortations of persons clad in ­cassocks, gowns, and other ecclesiastical vestments.”

This is what socialists stand for—a real choice for ordinary people.

It’s right to fight for a society where everyone has the freedom to enter or leave relationships as easily as possible.

These decisions should be based on no other consideration but real love, and not hampered by the restrictions that capitalist society places on all of us.

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