Difficulties in developing marriage policies

Liz van Acker

Dr Liz van Acker is a Senior Lecturer, School of Government and International Relations, Griffith Business School.

It is difficult for neoliberal governments in Australia, the UK and the US to regulate not only marriage, but the range of relationships and family forms when there are so many conflicting values and complex implications for public policies. Due to the diversity of families, there is a strong case to be made for increased policy attention to adult relationships - and a much weaker case for marriage. Neoliberal policy reforms of each country showed the different ways that governments have sought to remain at a distance from ameliorating the structural determinants of marriage and relationship instabilities, but also moving into the private sphere. On the one hand, they wish to pursue market principles and have prioritised cutting welfare programs and family benefits, so that people take more personal ownership for their economic wellbeing and self-interest. On the other, they have simultaneously attempted to extend their policy reach through prescribing education programs that encourage healthy marriage and relationships. I argue that it would be preferable for governments to concentrate on addressing economic problems to improve family stability by working towards providing secure employment, education and access to good quality housing and child care. Responding to changing family formations portends moving beyond a hodgepodge of ad hoc policy reactions under the umbrella of individual freedom.

A problem for policy makers is that marriage is a controversial issue, indeed it is a political wedge issue. In neoliberal democracies, marriage is pinpointed as part of a proper moral order which is critical for family life where individuals should be able to pursue their self-interest and take responsibility for their actions without much government interference. Neoliberal governments resist intervening in these areas because they support values of individual freedom, believing that each person should be responsible for their own actions and well-being. Proponents of marriage contend that it is about a sacred, lifelong union and fundamental as the ‘foundation of society’, therefore governments should cherish it as a productive public institution which is the most appropriate for raising children.

Family values surrounding marriage draw on heteronormative representations constructed from expectations about the biological compatibility of men and women, whose relationships are assumed to be monogamous, enduring and reproductive. Supporters praise marriage for upholding traditional family values of duty, commitment, responsibility and stability. As marriage has undergone many adjustments, however, others perceive it as a private matter involving love between two individuals, celebrating values of personal happiness, equality, choice and autonomy as important elements of core ‘relationship’ values. Because of these conflicting perspectives, marriage remains a politically charged symbol of what is desirable for individual citizens as well as for society.

An exploration of social policies demonstrates how relationship values in the political and policy arena inevitably come into play for neoliberal governments attempting to manage marriage. This includes providing answers to two related puzzles: how do policymakers and groups think about and interpret marriage? What accounts for how conflicting values are translated into policies? The clash of values exacerbates the problem of family diversity for governments, raising dilemmas of whether and how to defend marriage. This contradictory emphasis reinforces the divergence of policy solutions and programs in Australia, the UK and the US where similar values exist.

Not only the governments’ values, but those of other relevant political actors and reflects on their demands and influence over marriage policies. Marriage is a locus of conflict and there is no political consensus. The tensions between marriage as an institution and individualism; the law; the different roles of women and men; socio-economic status; ethnicity; marriage-strengthening policy developments and marriage equality explain how values frame debates about marriage policies which are grounded in multiple sites.

Australia has not legalised same-sex marriage (although Prime Minister Turnbull personally supports it) and after the rejection of a possible plebiscite, the issue remains contentious.  The recent video for Coopers beer, for example, attempted to encourage debate but was attacked and the company apologised for its involvement (http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/03/14/coopers-offers-apology-amid-mounting-backlash-over-same-sex-marriage-faux-pas). This video was sponsored by the Bible Society showing two politicians drinking beer while they discussed their opposing views of same-sex marriage. In the UK, the traditionalist wing of the Conservative Party strongly opposed same-sex marriage arguing that it threatened conventional marriage and the time-honoured values that underpin relationships. Some Liberal Democrats (in partnership with the government) also opposed the bill, but same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales through the Parliament in 2013 (http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/05/23/lib-dem-mp-john-pugh-criticised-for-voting-against-equal-marriage-bill-simon-hughes-and-tim-fallon-abstained/) In the US battles have raged in the courts for decades with the 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court leading to legal recognition in all states (Solomon, 2014). In Australia although same-sex marriage remains illegal, same-sex couples have similar rights to cohabiting couples. There are sufficient protections for cohabiting couples, helping to reduce and obscure the difference between marriage and cohabitation. In contrast, unmarried couples in the UK have received less legal protection around issues such as inheritance and property rights. Despite various concessions, heterosexual, two-parent married families are perceived as the optimum family form by many politicians and other political actors.

The point is that there is no political consensus about which values are important to marriage or whether marriage itself is important; indeed there is strong support for strengthening marriage from some quarters and strong opposition from others. I contend that there are cross-cutting currents in values, so persisting disagreements are not simply about divisions between the public and the private, the left and the right or liberal or progressive or conservative values. Therefore the clash of values surrounding marriage, families and relationships continues.


Solomon, M. 2014. Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of how Same-Sex Couples took on the Politicians and Pundits — and Won. Lebanon, New Hampshire: ForeEdge (University Press of New England).

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