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. http://www.marriagefoundation.org.uk/uk-families-among-unstable-developed-world/
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.