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November 1, 2007updated 01 Feb 2016 10:45am

Howdy Civil Pardner

By Spear's

Changes to the law are making marriage more irrelevant than ever ’ and relationships increasingly short-term, says Vanessa Neumann.

Changes to the law are making marriage more irrelevant than ever – and relationships increasingly short-term, says Vanessa Neumann

After I accepted William Cash’s invitation to write this column, I had to come up with a name for it. As a PhD in philosophy, and an admitted intellectual snob, I felt compelled to come up with something, well, clever and philosophical. So I’ve done what intellectual snobs do and stolen a smarter person’s idea: I’ve poached Thomas Nagel’s famous title The View from Nowhere.

The central claim of the book is that epistemologically, morally and politically, objectivity is impossible. To look upon any question or topic completely objectively – devoid of context, bias or history – would be The View from Nowhere.

So your view on the Law Commission’s new recommendations for cohabiting couples will depend on your finances and your relationships. If you’re a wealthy commitmentphobe, you’ll finally have good reason to run gleefully for the hills; if you’re a gold-digger, you’ll have reason to cheer; anyone in between, will have a slightly more complex time.

The Law Commission has proposed a major reform that will give unmarried couples legal rights approaching those of married ones, almost rendering marriage irrelevant. Any couple that has a child together or has lived together for at least two to five years will have to negotiate a settlement that grants a lump sum to the poorer partner when the relationship breaks up. There are only ongoing maintenance payments if there is a child.

This change in the law will give rise to a new social neurosis I’d like to name: koinoniphobia (literally meaning ‘fear of fellowship’. Though often used in a religious context in English, in the original Greek koinonia implies joint participation in something with someone, such as in a community, team, alliance or joint venture. Koinonos means ‘a sharer’ as in to share with one another in a possession held in common. Koinoniphobia could apply to the fear of sharing a home or simply a fear of the Other, the sharer. Either way, the isolating effect is the same.

There is a way around the new law’s consequent legal wrangling: to sign a Living Together Agreement, a kind of prenuptial for the non-nuptialed. The Law Commission promises that even after the reform, the Living Together agreement will be considered legally binding. So the choices for anyone considering moving in with someone of a different socio-economic status are: sign a legally-binding contract a priori or face a legal battle a posteriori. Whatever happened to burning passion and romance, I ask?

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Gone are the heady and sensual days of ‘shacking up’ with a lover who brought us joy with no (financial) strings attached. So many people (two million couples, in fact) are now signing up to live together that the government has decided it needs to encroach. It says that because so many people have opted out of traditional marriage, the people in these relationships need legal financial protection.

But it could well have an unintended polarising effect. Since neither side wants to pay off a poorer partner, the only feasible solution is to live with a socio-economic equal.

This is a setback for both class mobility and for modern homogeneity. Lest we pay a heavy penalty, we must live only with our peers and shun those less financially fortunate.

Will society at large lose by the elimination of the contact of different backgrounds under one roof? Probably. We are losing the private space where different values can be formulated and expressed before they enter the public forum of politics. Soon there will be no escaping the strictures of the state on one’s private life, and we will have reversed liberalism in ways that would make John Locke and John Stuart Mill roll over in their graves.

This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. One could easily move in with a toy boy or a fun bimbo, but a bit past a year: tick-tock.

The pressure will be on to make this delightful amusement as short-lived a one as possible – before we move on to the next. Like prenups, the new cohabitation law creates a strong incentive for the wealthier partner in the relationship to bail out early (before the two years are up), while it creates a strong incentive for the poorer one to want to stay, even if unhappy: if one’s unhappy, one might think it’s better to stick it out a few more months, get a lump sum and then leave and search for a new partner. This disparity is bound to cause more fights at home.

All of this complicates the one romantic option that was meant to be simple. It is not necessarily an advance for women, as it is widely perceived to be, but it is definitely an advance for lazy gold-diggers everywhere – whether women or men.

One thing is certain: the inevitable koinonoia will be the solicitors on either side. In a lifetime of serial monogamy, they may be our longest-lasting partners of all with a share in our wealth.

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