Equal Partnerships: The Consequences Of Choice 

Published on 14 December, 2021 | Alison Fernandes

We live in a time when change seems to be the only constant.

In less than two years, the coronavirus pandemic has overturned many of the accepted wisdoms about how we live, work and interact with others.

However, just a few months before the world was placed into lockdown, another significant development occurred which continued a pattern of substantial change in British households over the last couple of decades.

On the last day of 2019, the first civil partnerships were entered into by opposite sex couples across England and Wales.

They included Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who took the Government all the way to the Supreme Court in an effort to have civil partnerships made available to heterosexual couples.

Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 solely for same-sex couples as an important step on the road to the first same-sex marriages in March 2014.

As the 2018 judgement in favour of Steinfeld and Keidan made clear, they were adamant about not wanting to marry because they believed marriage to have a “historically patriarchal nature” (https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2017-0060-press-summary.pdf).

Newly published figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) provide at least a snapshot of the wider response to the success of their legal battle.

The data shows that 7,566 opposite-sex couples formed civil partnerships in England and Wales during the first 12 months that they were possible.

However, the data is, I would argue, more revealing in terms of what it indicates about those who chose them – or did not – rather than the simple popularity of partnerships and their possible motives.

For instance, even though civil partnerships were created following pressure from same-sex equality campaigners, they appear to no longer be in vogue with same-sex couples.

Last year, 785 same-sex couples entered into civil partnerships, down from a record figure of 14,943 in 2006 – a drop of 95 per cent.

The change in priorities is evident from a glance at the latest marriage statistics issued by the ONS in August (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2018).

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of same-sex marriages increased by 42 per cent. That would reinforce the longstanding argument advanced by the same-sex community; namely, that they viewed the equality represented by marriage as something of a gold standard.

The civil partnership figures, of course, highlight how many opposite-sex couples do not agree with that position.

If we look a little closer, other critical differences emerge which may point as to why opposite-sex couples have decided to enter civil partnerships.

The average age for those registering opposite-sex civil partnerships is older than their same-sex counterparts. That is the mirror image of the age profile for those who choose marriage.

I reckon that is more than merely an incidental detail.

Some of those individuals who feel that a civil partnership is for them may have philosophical preferences which echo those of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan but others may regard the practicalities of relationships as being more important.

Those men and women who form civil partnerships which do not last the distance benefit from rules on the division of joint assets which are identical to those of married couples.

Despite several attempts to ensure a level financial playing field for everyone leaving a failed relationship – including a Private Members’ Bill introduced by the LIberal Democrat peer Lord Marks – cohabitees do not currently enjoy the same protections.

Spouses and civil partners can also take advantage of tax rules relating to inheritance which are not open to those who are neither married nor in civil partnerships.

It’s perhaps natural for men and women of older age groups to be thinking about later life financial planning and looking after those with whom they are intimately involved.

In fact, the ONS’ data illustrates how almost half (49 per cent) of civil partnerships featured one or both individuals who had previously been married.

That is almost twice as large as the proportion of same-sex couples who had previously been in a “legally recognised relationship” (marriage or a civil partnership).

A substantial number of opposite-sex civil partners, therefore, may want to make provision for each other without the prospect of going through another divorce if things do not eventually work out.

Pre-partnership agreements can be signed before a civil partnership is entered into in order to regulate the financial outcome in case the relationship fails, in exactly the same way as those choosing to marry can put a pre-nuptial agreement in place.

There is, of course, another practical consideration which we should not forget, one which could be connected to the circumstances which continue to afflict countries across the world.

Although the terminology is different, civil partnerships and marriage have the same legal status but one has traditionally been regarded as an important and often lavish ceremony.

With that ceremony, comes the kind of expense which some people may have been unwilling to take on during a pandemic.

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