Messy marriage

Last week was Marriage Week. This is an international celebration promoted by the Marriage Foundation. They refer to recent studies which give a picture of how we stand in this country. The news is not good. The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family breakdown in the developed world. Nearly two thirds of British children who are born to unmarried parents experience breakdown before the age of 12. Other countries, such as the US and Belgium, have substantially lower rates. Spain’s figure is 6 percent.

Children born to cohabiting parents have a 94 per cent greater likelihood of such breakdown than children born to married parents. But even for children born into marriage our rate of early breakdown is about one in three. Check the figures at the Marriage Foundation.

I do not think that anyone with imagination will deny the multitude of personal tragedies which are the outcome of this. I don’t focus here on the parents, or whether or not they are at fault, but on the children. Consider for a moment what would have happened to your life if your parent’s marriage had broken down while you were a child. I know of cases where the scars have lasted a lifetime. And tragically there is evidence that such children have a higher rate of marital breakdown when it comes to their turn.

I am not optimistic. I am in close touch with a number of people in their twenties. They are all good people (many baptised as Catholics) highly educated and building promising careers. They have long term partners of similar quality. From time to time I raise questions about marriage with them, and I try to explain the difference between the totally committed relationship and the ‘for the time being’ relationships which they have. They listen politely But they think that, although I mean well, I am very old fashioned. They take the view that there is plenty of time to get married – perhaps when they want children. Meanwhile they see intercourse as a value in its own right, and a proper expression of their long term, but uncommitted, relationship.

And perhaps I am old fashioned. We did not quiz our children about their intimate lives, although there was plenty of round table conversation, but we had house rules. They could entertain the opposite sex in their bedrooms but doors had to be left open. Now I see that fewer parents are concerned about this and that couple sleepovers, with parental permission, are common. I assume they use contraception, they’re not idiots. Could we maintain our position nowadays? Fortunately we do not have to try.

Is the Church, via the schools, getting the message across? I recall a conversation with a fifteen year old convent girl. She knew and understood the Church’s teaching but this teaching was kept in a closed compartment. Real life was different. We might think that higher levels of education would relate to more stable marriages. But the Marriage Foundation figures tell us the opposite: it was the married couples with lower education whose children were less likely to experience parental breakdown before they were 12 years old.

Behind all this lies an increasing psychological separation between marriage and reproduction in our culture. We have seen this recently in the formal acceptance of homosexual marriage. It is no coincidence that it has grown alongside the availability of artificial contraception. Some will argue that this forcefully supports the Church’s prohibition; others will argue that the existence of the prohibition has reduced the credibility of the Church’s overall teaching on marriage. But the change in our secular culture would have come about with or without the Church.

Leaving aside our witness through personal example, how can we change attitudes within our society? If we cannot persuade our political masters that the misery caused by broken relationships warrants direct attention, perhaps we need to fight Mammon with Mammon. The cost of the breakdown of long term relationships now approaches £50 billion a year – an increase of 30 percent since 2009. We know that marriage is significantly more stable than cohabitation. Strong governmental support of marriage as an explicit policy might well reduce this considerably.

And we should revisit the tax benefits of marriage so that every potential couple will wish to have the financial advantages of the wedding ring. I have heard it said that the huge cost of a splendid wedding often requires postponement. We were married in a parish church, the reception was in a nearby family house and we could only afford a two day honeymoon. That was 60 years ago. It reminds me that a rich wedding followed by a poor marriage cannot hold a candle to a simple wedding and a rich marriage.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Messy marriage

  1. Iona says:

    I suppose the more highly educated couples may prize their careers above marriage and family life, whereas the less well educated find fulfilment not in their jobs but in their families. Hence the (relatively) negative relationship between education and marriage stability.

  2. John Candido says:

    The research affirming or disaffirming the proposition that couples who cohabit before marriage, are more likely to separate later, depends very much on whose research you are reading.

    Associate professor Arielle Kuperberg believes there is no correlation between cohabitation and an increased risk of divorce after marriage. What she has probably uncovered is that the younger that you marry, the more likely that you will divorce. She thinks older studies have not taken this variable into account.

    “For decades research has shown that cohabitation leads to divorce, and for the first time we can definitively say that cohabitation doesn’t lead to divorce and never did — that those earlier findings were a result of an incorrect measurement,” she said.

    • Quentin says:

      Yes, this is a valuable point. But I am sure you will have read the whole Kuperberg paper rather than the Huffington Post short article, and you will have noticed that she excludes cohabitees who never made it to marriage; she doesn’t measure marital quality or indeed discuss the research that links prior cohabitation to poorer marital quality on average.

      The age of marriage and the commencement of cohabitation is certainly important. The latter tends to be earlier, and we have known for a long time that early age is a factor in relationship breakdown — for various fairly obvious reasons. This earlier age is an important factor where cohabitation is concerned. What appears to happen is that in many cases the couple sort of eventually slide into marriage by degrees rather than being able to stand back and make a positive choice.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I am surprised that there has been no mention of ‘faith and a Sacramental Marriage’.
        Do you not think that is the glue that help a marriage to be stronger and more resilient to breakdowns than a couple who marry in a civil arrangement.
        Do you have any statistics?

  3. John Candido says:

    ‘Behind all this lies an increasing psychological separation between marriage and reproduction in our culture.’ (Quentin)

    I do not see the point of this sentence. What harm is there in masturbation or homosexuality, when it is invariably done privately?

    ‘We have seen this recently in the formal acceptance of homosexual marriage.’ (Quentin)

    What is wrong with homosexuality when conducted in the privacy of your own home? If it is done in the privacy of your own home between two consenting adults.

    • Horace says:

      JC says “What harm is there in masturbation or homosexuality, when it is invariably done privately?” [Note that when JC mentions ‘homosexuality’ he implies ‘mutual masturbation’ – often tactfully called “homosexual activity”.]

      The harm is due to the divorcing of ‘sexual pleasure’ from its natural concomitants of ‘intercourse’ and the possibility of ‘conceiving children’.
      The argument for this activity being wrong is much the same as in the case of contraception.

      • John Candido says:

        Horace, I just don’t find this a credible argument.

        As a medical practitioner, you would know that there is no psychological harm, no physiological harm, or any threat to non-participants, i.e. that innocent parties such as women, children or men for that matter, will have an increased risk of rape, due to homosexual activities done by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home.

        The very same consideration for masturbation.

        No harm, whatsoever! To oneself, or other people.

  4. tim says:

    Quentin’s point is that the traditional view of marriage is that it is concerned with reproduction. Homosexual couples, if they want children to bring up, are obliged to delegate this function. The sinfulness, or nor, of homosexuality, is a different point entirely.

    • Horace says:

      J C It is true that I can find no scientific study of the effects of practising masturbation, however I would question the assumption that actions “conducted in the privacy of your own home” necessarily have no external consequences.

  5. Hock says:

    Statistics can prove anything you want them to prove. Despite the gloom I have found simply by talking to cohabiting couples that , as a generalization, women want marriage and men don’t.
    The advantages for cohabiting men to get married are sadly , few, and getting even less.especially with the way court cases are now decided in matters of finance. Conversely this is more attractive to women who still see a status, and financial security, in the married state.
    I am sure that many can come up with evidence to the contrary and that is why I concede that I have generalized.
    However a simple watching of all the many dating shows on TV still overwhelming points to women wanting and valuing marriage.
    We now have the perverse situation that where a couple used to celebrate an engagement we now have ( again mainly women,) celebrate an invitation to live together, in the hope that this will be a step towards marriage.

  6. galerimo says:

    Quentin you have worked this theme in great detail and with great passion over years. This contribution and the related material are instructive as well as challenging in many ways. The link too makes for interesting reading.

    I get a sense of real sadness with you around the poor state of marriage in our world. Obviously a deeply held value around a great marriage is something you want for others too. So how do you deal with something that is broken and cant be fixed?

    Its not that important is it? We dont bring these marriages with us do we? They are purely arrangements that can suit our condition and continue our species while we are on earth.

    The sin is in the structures not so much in the individuals.

    Like the situation in American Government at present – eight Obama years of promise and hope produce a very foreboding and bleak prospect. The system (with which everyone is personally involved) not only has failed but has been so manipulated that it can produce this regrettable state of affairs.

    Marriage too has been robbed of its essential sub structures over years now – housing affordability, security of dignified employment, a broad and inclusive eduction process (as Iona says earlier), health systems that provide affordable care and wellbeing , spiritual help that really supports finding meaning. Legislation that only ever seems to weaken the core values of what is essential.

    Your title says it all for me. It is indeed a mess. How can you cope with this mess that is not going to go away. Legislate some more for it?

    Its not a mess that we can clean up – all we can do is try and contain it. And I wouldnt understate the role of example in this regard. In the end it will not continue into our reality with us. What a mess we are in with marriage. God help us.

    • Martha says:

      “It’s not that important is it? We don’t bring these marriages with us do we? They are purely arrangements that can suit our condition and continue our species while we are on earth.”

      “In the end it will not continue into our reality with us.”

      Probably side tracking from the main issue, but I would like to think that we will “bring them with us.” I know Our Lord said that there would be no giving of marriage in heaven, but surely there will be some continuity for those who are sacramentally joined as St. Joseph reminds us, whom we have loved through all the ups and downs of life together, and tried to help along our journey to God.

  7. John Thomas says:

    “If we cannot persuade our political masters that the misery caused by broken relationships …” Maybe I’m just cynical and jaundiced, but, clearly, a very large proportion of the people that have influence in our society are those who are firmly committed to bringing in the post-moral “liberated” society, where all the old-fashioned rules, etc., are set aside – and particularly Christianity – that actually they are prepared to accept the “misery” as the price that has to be paid for achieving (what they consider to be) a greater good; that these children and adults who suffer are ultimately expendable cannon-fodder in the Culture Wars. To many people, changing society is the greater good, for which many (not themselves, of course) need to suffer. Can’t make an omelette – as they are fond of saying – without breaking eggs, don’t-you-know …

  8. Iona says:

    But then, what is this wonderful omelette, for which it is worth bringing about the long-term suffering of many children and not a few adults? What ultimate societal goal is envisaged by the post-modern liberatrors?

  9. Hock says:

    I guess that many of us still hold to the ‘picture perfect’ ideal of marriage. The female bride in a white dress looking radiant, the handsome male groom alongside her and both together at last and looking forward to a lifetime commitment of bringing up a lovely contented and loved family.
    The reality is of course very different in many ( most ?) cases. For a a start we now have gender equality with the terms ‘husband and wife’ interchangeable or banned altogether.
    Many marriages are doomed from the start. Do we picture a couple whose lives are a litany of drink, drugs, multiple relationships inside and outside the marriage. Abject poverty, permanent unemployment and addictions of many types?
    I would hazard a guess we do not picture those kinds of marriage but for many couples it is almost the ‘norm.’
    However divorce is actually on the decrease, although with less marriages there will be less divorce.
    What we now have of course that was not around a few years ago is the status of a ‘partner.’ It is used endlessly to suggest some kind of permanent relationship that we all must respect even though it is a meaningless title legally and practically. Nevertheless we are not only stuck with it but the words , husband, wife and spouse, have been eradicated from nearly all official documents and leave only the ‘option’ of being classed as single or having a ‘partner.’

  10. Iona says:

    Is this correct? If a man and woman marry in a Register office, will they not be described as husband and wife?
    Eldest Son is getting married this year. He and the lady have been living together for years, and have bought a house together. He was the one wanting to formalise the relationship; she was the one dragging her heels, and I’m not sure why she’s finally changed her mind but I’m glad she has. No, I don’t think she’s pregnant; I think they’d have told the rest of the family by now if she were.
    Youngegst Son and his girlfriend have also got engaged, planning a wedding next year. He is clearly very happy. It isn’t always the women that want to marry and the men that don’t. (Yes, Galerimo, I know you said it was a generalisation).

  11. Hock says:

    Whether the documentation of the removal of ‘husband and wife’ has reached the register offices yet I do not know but it is in the agenda to do so. Somewhat perversely perhaps it is the incidence of same sex marriage that may yet keep the terms ‘husband and wife’ but it was this move to gender neutrality that is behind the move to remove terms from our language that refer to particular genders.
    I was reading of a school ( cannot recall the name of it,) that has banned all references to ‘he and she.’
    As for my generalisation (it was me , not Galerimo, who wrote it,) let me point to another piece of evidence.
    There is an appalling TV programme that is serialised and has gone out twice now with a third one in the planning stage. It is called ‘Marriage at first Sight’ and involves volunteer singles who are prepared to only meet their husband and wife on the day of the wedding and not before.
    In the last series they had about 700 men volunteer for the process and 3500 women. Tells us something I think.

  12. Martha says:

    The normalisation and casual use of terms like “my ex” demonstrates and increases the sea change there has been in our society’s acceptance of what was not so long ago considered wrong and shameful. Alma Cogan’s song, “Love and Marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage, You can’t have one without the other, etc., for instance, would cause nothing but amusement in most circles now, at such quaint and naive ideas, and the basis of much previous popular literature requires explanation for our current generation of younger people. Only those with a really strong faith and personal prayer life have much chance of withstanding our present culture when they move into the world of work, and especially if they are struggling against the stream of practice and ideas of much university life.

  13. Olive Duddy says:

    At last there is a photo of a wedding in a Catholic paper. The Catholic Herald has 2 pages of pictures in every issue but no marriages.
    Have we all forgotten that Marriage was instituted by God in Genesis Chapter 1 and invoked in many Old Testament books and by the angel telling Joseph to marry Mary? This was for security for Mary and Jesus. Marriage was confirmed as a Sacrament by Jesus’ presence at he marriage in Cana.
    Do Couples not think of marriage as asking God’s blessing and continued support?
    Have people forgotten that it is God who creates each on of us at the time of conception when the sperm unites with the ovum and God gives life?
    Proper teaching for 2 or 3 generations has been neglected through human respect and a superior attitude of those who should be teaching. There is a word for that.
    If you look for the word marriage on Diocesan websites you will have to search diligently.
    A first cohabitation lasts on average 34 months. (Office of National Statistics)
    The rate of mental disturbance in young people living with a single parent is double that of youngster living with both birth parents( Swedish research of a Million young people published in the Lancet)
    Thank you Quentin for your article.

  14. Martha says:

    A heterosexual couple has just been refused the status of a civil partnership, but the request will probably result in a change in the law, and will soon be widely chosen in preference to marriage by people who are not truly Christian.

  15. Hock says:

    I am surprised at the Court’s decision as I believed that the couple would win their appeal. It was a majority decision (1 of the 3 judges dissenting,) so it will no doubt end up in the Supreme Court.
    It should have been obvious though that once Civil Partnerships came into law that a challenge such as this was bound to be made. It is called the, ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ and shows how tinkering around with the institution of marriage between a man and a woman that has been around for thousands of years in most cultures and planning to overturn it in a decade can go badly wrong and yet the law makers don’t really care what the consequences might be.

  16. Vincent says:

    i daresay we’ll have to wait a while now. But I think that allowing heterosexual partnerships would be a positive outcome. It should make cohabitation more secure for those who choose it. I wouldn’t be unhappy if the Anglicans at least had a blessing service. I don’t think Cardinal Burke would approve however!

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