We mustn’t be too quick to run from marriage
There has been a significant retreat from marriage over the past few decades. Marriages rates are down, divorce rates are up, one-third of children are born out-of-wedlock, and a significant number of children lose all contact with one parent.
These trends have had many negative consequences for children. Hundreds of social science studies report problematic outcomes for the health, education and well-being of the young people affected by the changes. Where children experience more than one family transition, the risks compound.
This is not to say that all the effects apply to each child whose parents divorce, or who is raised by a single parent. There is no way to predict how any particular child will be affected, nor to what extent. But it is clear that there are widespread ramifications for this cohort of children as a whole.
Nor is it to suggest that many single parents are not doing a good job, often in very difficult circumstances.
Despite this, discussion about the topic is often met with a series of common objections. Over the years, I have collected these responses. Some are well-meaning; others designed to dismiss the arguments and stifle discussion. They include:
“We have to move with the times.”
This suggestion holds that all social change is progress that improves the welfare and happiness of individuals. This is patently false, as even a cursory reflection of social history reveals.
“It is a return to the ‘bad old days’ of fault divorce and prying detectives.”
Discussing the issue does not mean banning divorce. Nor is it an argument that people should enter or remain in destructive relationships. But it does recognise that many people regret divorce and relatively little information is available about the negative consequences for the individuals involved and society generally.
“Marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’.”
Most people enter marriage believing it to be a life-long commitment. As thousands of studies illustrate, this commitment has profound consequences, especially for children.
“We shouldn’t stigmatise single parents and their children.”
Many children are doing well, so it is wrong to publicise the social science research that indicates otherwise, according to this response. We need to be sensitive, but avoiding the issue compounds the problems. Most parents care deeply about their children’s wellbeing. Knowing the impact of changes can help to empower them in their quest to continue to provide for their children’s welfare.
“It is none of the government’s business and we don’t need the government playing ‘Big Brother’.”
This is misplaced. It becomes the government’s business when children require state care, former partners need welfare to survive and social agencies expend much time, effort and finances on the consequences of marital dysfunction.
“It is a male conspiracy to subordinate women.”
According to some, to question the causes of family breakdown is tantamount to misogamy. The fact that women can participate in the paid workforce and take-up many other opportunities is welcome. But there are also unintended consequences of the many changes of the past few decades, not the least of which is increased female poverty.
“This is a right wing, conservative and/or religious argument.”
To the contrary, hundreds of social scientists of different faiths (and of none) have researched and identified the consequences of the retreat from marriage; and a growing number of liberals and conservatives alike worry about them.
“We are unmarried with children and they are fine.”
Some children will survive separation and divorce or unmarried parenthood without any harm. Some will not. The research indicates that the risk of adverse outcomes for health, well-being, education and employment is clearly higher for these children.
“What about ‘old fashioned love’?”
The notion of educating people about marriage and family life strikes a dissonant chord with some people. In a letter to a major newspaper some years ago, a sceptic of education asked “Whatever happened to old fashioned love, the kind that would last through the years?” Surely if couples were only more committed to each other, relationships would last. Regrettably, the evidence is otherwise.
“The research is out-of-date, or from elsewhere.”
Few areas of social science research have been so consistent in their conclusions over such a long time, across many western nations, as is the data on marriage and family.
“It is just one study.”
There are now hundreds of studies that highlight the problematic outcomes.
“This is a return to the common family structures of the past, with higher levels of de facto relationships and non-marital childbearing.”
In fact, the incidence of divorce, unwed childbearing and single parenting has reached significantly higher levels over the past few decades.
“It is telling people how to live their lives.”
To discuss the subject does not suggest that everyone should marry, before they are ready, in the face of serious doubts, under duress, or at all. But it does recognise that many people aspire to marriage, but have little knowledge of what works and what undermines success.
There is a need to move beyond these characterisations to discuss an issue of profound significance to many individuals and societies. Few individuals and families in the modern western world have not experienced the emotional grief and trauma wrought by separation and divorce within their immediate or extended family, or amongst friends or work colleagues.
While most people confront their personal challenges with courage and resilience, there is an undeniable personal and communal cost. In a caring society, it should not be ignored.
Kevin Andrews is the author of the new book, Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness [Connor Court]
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