"Shared Interests" Are Not What Marriage Is About
‘Marriage is the agreement to let a family happen,’ wrote the Canadian playwright Betty Jane Wylie.
If a new survey of top divorce lawyers in the UK is any indication, marriage is becoming less about family and more about romance and shared interests. For the first time ever, ‘growing apart/falling out of love’ has overtaken infidelity as the major reason for divorce.
The study, undertaken by Grant Thornton, the business and financial advisors, showed that 25 percent of respondents cite extra-marital affairs as their reason for divorce, while 27 percent cite ‘falling out of love’.
It is easy to imagine that many marriages today will suffer from diverging personal interests. Our is an age where the growing cost of living demands that both partners in a marriage work outside the home and where people’s busy social and professional lives are filled with all manner of demands and enticements. People will sometimes grow apart.
However, looking to divorce as a way of dealing with this challenge is wrong-headed. It is also potentially a cause for great pain within the immediate family and significant loss for the community as a whole.
Marriage stands like a rock at the core of our social order. It has done for centuries and for good reason.
It has proven to be the best institution for fulfilling relationships and the best arena for raising healthy children. Historically, societies have thrived whenever the family – both nuclear and extended – has been supported by social will if not by political policy. This has been true wherever other factors have allowed for it – the relative absence of wars, for instance.
One of the biggest factors in high divorce rates today is a basic misunderstanding of what marriage is for, or at least, what makes a marriage work.
I suppose that no one will go into a marriage expecting it to break down. With the small exception of those who marry in immigration scams, everyone enters into marriage with the best of intentions. Most do so hoping for a long, happy and lasting partnership.
However, the real disciplines involved in making a marriage work are often overshadowed at first by the romance of putting together a wedding. A great wedding is a worthy investment. For many people it represents a key rite of passage; it a key steppingstone from one stage of life and one form of living to another.
But whilst weddings are built on romance, a successful marriage is established on commitment and, yes, hard work – with romance thrown in as a bonus.
Two things have perhaps done more than anything else to influence our approaches to marriage in the contemporary social landscape – and not necessarily for the better. The first is rampant celebrity culture, especially the postmodern variety in which the personal sagas of celebrities often overshadow any interest in their work.
Indeed, some notable celebs have built an entire career on being famous merely for their ability to stay in the news, no matter what the cost to their personal integrity or sanity.
Recently it was reported that during his tenure in government even the dour Gordon Brown spent his weekends trying to devise ways of getting his name into the Sunday press or media. Perhaps for some people politics too has become a form of virtual reality project, infected with the idea that one must be in the media mix if one is to be somebody.
Granted, the world has always had celebrities, particularly in the performing, and many have very publicly flaunted their status with freewheeling lifestyles and moral codes. But ever since Hollywood replaced Paris as the world’s movie capital at the end of the First World War, the star system has become a global and much more ubiquitous industry.
Wittingly or not, some people find their role models for family life in the pages of glossy celebrity magazines, perhaps especially if they’ve had no stable family to act as a model. Yet much of the time the experience of celebrities has little to teach us about building marriages that last.
Today’s version of celebrity is built not on the celebration of achievement but on the power of a carefully crafted image. This is perhaps why people were so genuinely and pleasantly surprised to read last week about a movie star rescuing an old woman from a burning house.
That someone of the celebrity stature of Kate Winslet should be up to saving somebody’s life seems somehow incongruous at first, so used are we to reading stories about inane celebrity doings.
The power of image, as all too many celebrities have discovered with sorrow, provides a very poor foundation for lasting marriages.
Constantly tweaking, honing and bolstering an image prevents people from expressing vulnerability in an honest and caring way. Yet this is fundamental to any long-term relationship. Friendship, parenting and perhaps especially marriage require a willingness to remove masks; to discover, celebrate and, yes, improve one’s essential character.
Another factor impacting our approach to marriage is a willingness to focus more on individual rights than responsibilities – particularly when it comes to the next generation.
During the recent riots in London and other UK cities, much was said and written about the right of every citizen to live and work in a safe environment.
Much was also said about the horrendous behaviour, the wanton, bloody-minded criminality of so many of the young instigators. Yet a society in which people want only an arms distance relationship to their neighbours, there is no sense of responsibility for the community as a whole, beyond our own individual actions within it.
Those who took to the streets post-riots, armed with brooms to clean up the mess, reminded us by their example that rights come with responsibilities. Claiming our rights without being willing to invest in our responsibilities, eventually leads to a myopic and less than satisfying life.
This is most evident in the home.
Global studies continue to show that children who’re raised by their biological parents in a harmonious relationship are less likely to suffer developmental problems in later life.
In the USA, where perhaps more studies have looked into this, teenagers who have lived apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school. They’re also twice as likely to have a child before the age of 20 and are 1.5 times as likely to be out of school or work before late adolescence.
Near the beginning of his time in office, President Obama called upon absent parents, especially fathers, to do more to engage with their children.
“Our children don't need us to be superheroes," he said. "They don't need us to be perfect. They do need us to be present. They need us to show up and give it our best shot, no matter what else is going on in our lives. They need us to show them — not just with words, but with deeds — that they, those kids, are always our first priority."
“Too many fathers,” he said, “are AWOL. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
He was pre-empting 2009 U.S. Census figures which showed that 30 percent of American children – more than 24 million children – lived apart from their biological fathers in 2009, up from just 11 percent in 1960.
There are obvious cultural differences between the USA and Europe yet in 2008, according to an OECD report, about 12 per cent of the European population lived in one-person households, and over 4 percent were lone parents (mainly single mothers).
Meanwhile, Britain has witnessed what even the OECD calls ‘an explosion of non-marital childbearing’, rising from nine percent of all births in 1975 to 43 percent in 2004. Here, divorce remains the main cause of the rise in lone parent families.
Some 15 percent of British children grow up with no resident father and a third of these children have no contact with their fathers at all.
I once attended an event run by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, at which Bob Geldof was a speaker. Typically, his speech was passionate but rambling – until, that is, he hit on the subject of the evening, which was fatherlessness.
Geldof was quick to point out that more than a few of these families are without fathers because the courts have ruled against fair visitation rights for the children.
Having experienced for a time the pain of separation from his own children, the rock-star-cum-activist was vehement in his insistence that courts must look more kindly on the plight of fathers. Many of them are denied a basic human right – the right to spend decent quantities of time with their children.
He was right. This is an injustice that needs to be addressed. But there will be no progress unless we also invest in the even more important issue: keeping families together in the first place. This is where both together where children and parents have the best possible opportunity to grow together.
This is not to suggest that single parents cannot raise great children – a great many do, at significant personal cost. They are to be commended and honoured for succeeding against the odds.
Neither is this to suggest that blended families cannot work. Again, many do, to the benefit of the family and the wider community. Having their biological parents remain together may be an ideal, but it is an ideal worth celebrating, promoting and supporting more than we do.
Marriage is more than a romantic liaison, or a partnership based on mutual interests, like some kind of business alliance that lasts only as long as pragmatic goals overlap.
It is more even than a long-term commitment between two adults. Seeking divorce simply because the partners’ interests have diverged seems scarcely to even consider the needs of their offspring.
Love is costly. It demands giving of oneself willingly in the best interests of another. How our children to understand this if the core relationship in their young lives, that of their parents, is based more on shared personal interests than on affectionate and selfless commitment? How are they to build lasting relationships and successful families of their own if they have not seen the process modelled for them?
What one generation tolerates, the next will often treat as the norm, sometimes taking it even further. We can only hope that this pitiful trend will die - and quickly.
At a time when the possibility of a new recession threatens to undermine young people’s economic hopes and future security even further, marriage needs to be about family again.