The Marriage Foundation: dodgy statistics and Victorian-era morality

The Marriage Foundation is a lobbying organisation that was recently created by Sir Paul Coleridge for £150,000 to “be a national champion for marriage, strengthening the institution for the benefit of children, adults and society as a whole”. [1] It’s based here in Cambridge, run out of the Jubilee Centre, which describes itself as “a Christian social reform organisation that offers a biblical perspective on issues and trends of relevance to the general public”. [2]

It’s tempting to just laugh at this – after all, if people want to “be a national champion for marriage” what’s the harm? It seems almost too funny and old-fashioned to take seriously. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a dangerous ideology that’s being used to justify vicious attacks on women, on families, and on the working classes in general. The people pushing this ideology just happen to be rich, and linked to the Conservative Party.

Sir Paul Coleridge, an older white man wearing a judge's wig

Sir Paul Coleridge: “As a senior judge, Conservative member of the House of Lords, company director, and descendant of a long line of judicial toffs, I am totally the right person to tell ordinary people how they should run their relationships.”

The ideology behind the Marriage Foundation

Here it is, in point form:

  • The only morally correct type of family is a married heterosexual couple with the woman doing the bulk of the child-raising work. Every other kind of family is morally bad.

  • The most important and fundamental cause of all social problems is families that are morally bad, i.e. families that don’t fit the married heterosexual mould. People who are poor, homeless, unemployed, addicted to drugs, or criminal, are that way because of their own moral defectiveness, and specifically because they (or their parents) are not married.

  • Thus the way to solve all of society’s problems is to make everyone get married. Obviously.

These ideas are so ridiculous that I feel silly even writing about them, except that they are actually being used by the government to shape social policy. This is the ideology behind Daily Mail headlines about “scroungers” and “feral youths” and “Broken Britain” and “neighbours from hell”, although you won’t catch the luminaries behind the Marriage Foundation using such uncouth language. And this is the ideology the government uses to justify its vicious attacks on the welfare state. The lower classes don’t need decent schools or Sure-start centres, or affordable childcare, or housing, or money for the unemployed or for disabled people or for those whose jobs to not pay enough for them to live above the poverty level; no, they just need to get married.

Here’s a quote from the Marriage Foundation website:

Family breakdown has significant and widespread consequences for our society. Examine the background of almost every child in care or the youth justice system and you will discover a broken family. Children from broken families are, on every measure of success, less likely to achieve their proper potential and, as their life chances ebb away, the wellbeing of our whole nation suffers…

Private and public attitudes need to change; reaffirming marriage as the “gold standard” for couple relationships is an essential first step.


Although the ideas behind the Marriage Foundation are clearly based in social conservatism and old-timey Christian beliefs, there is an attempt to dress it up in a social science-ey sounding theory (which has about as much real scientific validity as the nutri-ceramides and peptide complexes in your shampoo).

The “science” of the Marriage Foundation:

  • Children of parents who are married have better social outcomes.

  • Therefore being married must cause those good outcomes.

  • Therefore if we can get more people to get married and stay married, we will bring about better social outcomes.

That’s it.

An XKCD comic showing two stick figures, a man and a woman. Man: 'I used to think correlation implied causation. Then I took a statistics class. Now I dont'. Woman: 'Sounds like the class helped.' Man: 'Well, maybe.'

I guess Sir Paul must have skipped statistics class.
(Comic by Randall Munroe, licensed Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.5))

It turns out there is a whole cottage industry of right-wing think-tanks pumping out sciencey-sounding reports all built on this one error in logic. Coleridge repeatedly uses ‘research’ done by the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank that was founded by Iain Duncan-Smith, to justify his pro-marriage crusade. I’m using the word ‘research’ here in the loosest possible sense. Tom Slater, writing for the New Left Project, pointed out that: “Not a single social scientist was a member of any of the CSJ (Centre for Social Justice) working groups studying the five ‘pathways to poverty’”. He also noted that the surveys used to gather data were methodologically unsound. [5]

Here’s a snippet from the Centre for Social Justice report ‘Breakthrough Britain: Every Family Matters’:

Report: 'Every Family Matters

Married couples are far less likely to break up than couples who live together without getting married even after adjusting for the influence of such factors as income, age and education. Data shows that only 8 percent of married parents, compared to 43 percent of unmarried parents, had separated before their child’s fifth birthday. The empirical evidence… shows that intact marriages tend to provide more beneficial outcomes for adults and children than cohabitation or single parenthood. Children tend to do better in the areas of physical and emotional health, educational achievement, financial security and their ability to form their own future stable families….

Most of the authors of this report are lawyers (or solicitors or barristers, I’m not sure what the difference is), and several are writers for think-tanks. The only author listed as having a PhD is a Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy. Based on these qualifications, these authors don’t have any business using phrases like “adjusting for the influence of”, “data shows that”, or “empirical evidence”, which imply that they know something about statistics. They don’t.

The Marriage Foundation has a “sister organisation”: the The Relationships Foundation, based here in Cambridge, in the Jubilee Centre, which also hosts the Marriage Foundation. They produced the report Counting the Cost of Family Failure 2012: £44bn. The £44 figure is calculated by assuming that if all the parents who currently are not married, could be convinced to suddenly get married, then they would magically become as healthy, wealthy, and productive as those who are married now – despite the fact that those who are married now tend to be better-off to begin with. (In other words, the £44bn figure is a steaming pile of horseshit.)

The Relationships Foundation does a great line in sciencey-sounding jargon: they have a ‘Family Pressure Guage’, a ‘Triple Test’, a ‘Cost Of Family Breakdown index’, and, my personal favourite, the ‘Penumbra Model’. Their website offers dozens of reports for download. These reports are not peer-reviewed, don’t always list their references, and sometimes don’t even list their authors. It’s actually kind of hilarious, except when you think that these clowns might have an influence on government policies that affect people’s lives.

Just for the record, here’s what actual peer-reviewed science has to say about the effects of marriage. This is Alissa Goodman, one of the co-authors of ‘Cohabitation, marriage, and child outcomes’, a study based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) and the British Cohort Study (BCS). This research was carried out by social scientists working for the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. [4], [7]

Our findings do indicate that children who have married parents compared to co-habiting parents have significantly improved outcomes. Their cognitive development is more advanced and there is an even bigger gap in social and emotional development.

But these differences are due to married parents being more educated, having a higher household income, a better job and stronger relationship during the child’s early life, according to the findings. The study suggests that it is these factors that lead to better outcomes for their children, therefore questioning the causal evidence that links marriage to the improved outcomes of children.

These differences in socio-economic status and relationship quality between married parents and co-habiting parents seem to account for the differences in their children’s development.

Our findings indicate that even if more couples decide to get married because of a financial incentive that would probably have very little difference on children’s outcomes.

Some quotes from organisations linked to the Marriage Foundation:

Here’s a quote from the report ‘The Penumbra Effect: Family-centred Public policy’, which was published by the Relationships Foundation, and does not list its author(s):

This report is not about moralising or lecturing, it is about what works. The facts speak for themselves. The facts (from the UK):

Almost 50% of cohabiting parents split up before their child’s fifth birthday,
compared to one in twelve married parents.

Three-quarters of family breakdown affecting our young children now involves
unmarried parents.

Hilariously, they reference Andrea Dworkin:

The Family is not without its detractors… Radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin argued that, ‘Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice’. Some gay-rights activists oppose the family, primarily in its nuclear form, though many within it now seek a redefinition to include same sex relationships…

In part because the objections outlined above, family stability has been in decline in the West for some time and is coming under mounting pressure in other parts of the world. There has been a reluctance by policy makers to ‘grasp the nettle’ of family breakdown…

…governments make little effort to assess the social costs or capture the potential social dividends of their policy decisions. Relationships reflect a much deeper agenda of who we are, and what is important to us. A good society builds on good relationships, from family and community to public service and business.

By “good” relationships, it’s pretty obvious by now they mean heterosexual, married ones. A little further down in the same document, the knives really come out:

The problem

The attack has been subtle. Abolishing marriage and in particular the family is not an easy task. Instead those involved have sought to undermine the social and legal need and support for the marriage contract. Rather than punitive sanctions they have advocated the removal of any privileges for marriage, thus putting all relationships on the same footing. Illegitimacy is abolished by giving all women, married or single, the right to give legitimacy to their children, regardless of ongoing male involvement. Welfare benefits and tax allowances are changed so they are based on individual need or contribution, regardless of the family unit. Alleged neutrality and individualism are championed. By depriving the plant of light and water, and cutting off its roots, it is hoped that it will wither and die.

Jon Snow from 'Game of Thrones': a young man dressed in black, with snow in the background.

Jon Snow from Game of Thrones: “A bastard boy with nothing to inherit, off to join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch.”

So, basically, treating people equally whether they are married or not, is an “attack” on marriage and the family. And also: we should bring back the stigma of being a bastard. Because that will create a better world for our children?!

In fact, there’s quite a lot of “won’t somebody please think of the children?” hand-wringing. Here’s Paul Coleridge, quoted on the Marriage Foundation website:

Don’t give up on your marriage. My message is mend it – don’t end it. Over 40 years of working in the family justice system, I have seen the fall-out of these broken relationships. There are an estimated 3.8 million children currently caught up in the family justice system, I personally believe that’s a complete scandal. My focus is on the children. I get intensely frustrated: I see hundreds and thousands of people traipsing through the courts and nothing is being done about the problems that sent them here.

Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons, looking upset.

“Why, no, actually, I’m not attempting to manipulate you emotionally and gain the moral high-ground despite the obvious holes in my arguments. I just want you to please think of the children, that’s all!”

Family lawyer and blogger Marilyn Stowe wrote about the hypocrisy of the ‘Every Family Matters’ report, which purports to be about caring for children but in fact advocates discriminating against children whose parents are not married:

This report highlights the plight of children born to single women out of wedlock. It describes how they are more likely to take drugs, commit crimes and live in poverty, if not in care of their local authorities.

However, the authors argue that unmarried couples – and by extension, their children – do not deserve the legal remedies afforded to those families that have embraced the “utopia” of marriage.

In other words, if you are a product of an unmarried relationship, the authors are sweeping you under the carpet. If a couple divorces, their children must be brought to the court’s attention. The children’s rights and welfare are prioritised; indeed, there may not be a divorce until the court is satisfied that suitable arrangements for the children have been made.

However if a couple’s relationship breaks down and they are not married, that couple’s children do not have to be brought to the court’s attention at all. They are all but invisible. They deserve better – and the authors of this report should know better.


Here’s Julian Brazier, a Conservative MP and member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, who was quoted, along with Coleridge, in a Daily Mail article about the launch of the Marriage Foundation:

This can only help make the political and legal establishment aware of the importance of marriage.

Too much family law has been driven by judges for the past two generations – the courts brought in no-fault divorce, marginalising the rights and wrongs of the behaviour of husbands and wives, well before Parliament considered it.

No-fault divorce means divorce where it isn’t necessary to prove that one of the couple was guilty of wrongdoing. Brazier is calling for a return to the ‘good old days’ when divorce was seen as shameful, was difficult to obtain, and could be refused if the judge didn’t think the couple’s reasons for splitting up were good enough.

And just in case there was any doubt of the Marriage Foundation’s roots in fundamentalist Christianity, here’s a quote from the website of the Jubilee Centre, which hosts the Marriage Foundation and produces ‘research’ supporting the pro-marriage ideology:

The Jubilee Centre is a Christian social reform organisation that offers a biblical perspective on issues and trends of relevance to the general public.

We believe the Bible describes a coherent vision for society that has enduring relevance for Britain and the world in the twenty-first century. At the heart of this social vision is a concern for right relationships. We seek to study, disseminate and apply this vision in order to provide a positive response to the challenges faced by individuals, communities and policy makers.

The Big Picture

I don’t think Sir Paul is necessarily an evil person. As a judge he’s seen the pain that families go through when breaking up, and I think he genuinely does want to make things better, and to help children. It must be nice to imagine that all of society’s complicated problems have such a simple solution as marriage. And, as a member of the upper classes, it must be comforting for him (and for all his upper-class chums) to imagine that the problems of the lower classes are caused by their own moral failings (but they don’t know any better, bless them!) and not by, say, the widening gap between rich and poor.

However we should look at the Marriage Foundation in a wider context: we are living through a time of unprecedented transfer of wealth from poor to rich. The UK is slipping further and further towards becoming a US-style plutonomy, a society with most wealth concentrated at the top, a shrinking middle-class, and ever-increasing levels of deprivation and misery at the bottom. The banks were given £456 of tax-payers’ money as a present because they are ‘too big to fail’, tax evasion by the rich is ignored, while ordinary people, particularly families, are being made to pay for the bankers’ mistakes. As a member of the Conservative party, Sir Paul must share some of the responsibility for its policies:

Reductions in Housing benefit have increased the rate of homelessness, and forced people to move to places where the rent is cheaper, leaving behind the networks of friends and family who provide crucial emotional support and often free childcare for struggling families. The removal of EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) has hurt families with college-aged kids, and the massive tuition fees increases have made it much harder for working-class kids to even imagine going to university.

Changes to ESA and Disability Benefit have made the lives of some disabled people a living nightmare, and have put more pressure on families to act as carers. Changes to Disability Benefit have pushed some disabled people into unemployment, since without the benefit they are unable to afford adapted cars, special wheelchairs, or other equipment that they need in order to work.

A lack of affordable childcare forces parents out of work, pushes families into poverty, and in two-parent families pushes one parent to stay home full time, which they may not want and which leaves them financially dependent on their partner. Services that help children and families, such as Sure-start centres and youth programs, have been cut, as have services for women and their families who are fleeing domestic violence.

Amid all of this, Sir Paul and his toff chums have the nerve to tell the rest of us, based on a combination of dodgy statistics and Victorian-era moralism, that our problems are our own fault, caused by our insistence on living in sin.

There are plenty of real, evidence-based ways to bring about positive changes in people’s lives, but the government has no intention of using them. This is a government run by the rich, for the rich, and its policies are designed to increase inequality. Sir Paul may just be stupid enough to believe his own rhetoric, but that isn’t true of his supporters and his party. The Marriage Foundation, however well-intentioned, is just another right-wing propaganda factory, spitting out whatever lies best-suit those in power.

On the upside though, their ideas are so ridiculous that it’s easy to make fun of them 🙂








7. “Cohabitation, marriage and child outcomes: an empirical analysis of the relationship between marital status and child outcomes in the UK using the millennium cohort study”, Ellen Greaves, Child and Family Law Quarterly, forthcoming

3 Comments on “The Marriage Foundation: dodgy statistics and Victorian-era morality”

  1. RomseyGirl says:

    I really wish organisations like this would stop pretending that domestic abuse doesn’t exist when they form their opinions and policies. Stigmatising divorce and single parent families, making divorce harder, telling women that divorce will result in terrible outcomes for their children’s future… all these are obviously going to result in more women staying in violent relationships. In the UK, 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence so a large proportion of divorces are due to domestic violence (whether or not the woman is able to say this publicly or has enough evidence to ‘prove’ that her husband is abusive) and a large proportion of custody battles are due to domestic violence (sadly, many abusive men demand custody of their children for no other reason than to punish and control their ex partners). As it is, 2 women a week are killed in the UK by their abusive partners or former partners. If get-married-and-stay-married-at-all-costs social policy and values are not stopped soon then this number is sure to rise.

  2. RomseyGirl says:

    I just came across another Cambridge blogger writing about the same thing:

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