We don't need wishful thinking on divorce facts
The growing proliferation of family forms is not something to be celebrated, writes Professor Patricia Casey
Published 17/02/2008 | 00:00
In her article in last week's Sunday Independent analysing changing attitudes to family life ('Hello Divorce, and hello to all the different kinds of modern family'), Carol Hunt addresses a very important issue. That issue is the decline of marriage relative to other forms of family and the consequences of this.
In her piece, Hunt quotes from a recent paper published by The Iona Institute of which I am a patron. Unfortunately, she misquotes it. The paper is called Marriage breakdown and family structure in Ireland and it was released to widespread publicity last September.
According to Hunt, our paper revealed that divorce in Ireland has risen by 500 per cent in the last 20 years.
She points out that this is really not so surprising because divorce was illegal 20 years ago and this is a valid point. However, her comment concerning our paper is incorrect since it did not purport to show that divorce has risen fivefold since 1986. What it revealed instead, drawing on census data, is that marriage breakdown (divorce, separation, remarriage) has increased fivefold.
In 1986, there were just over 40,000 separated people living in Ireland. By Census 2006, this figure had soared to just under 200,000 and includes those divorced and remarried, as well as those who have separated. That is a huge increase in both percentage and absolute terms, and it cannot simply be ignored as though this trend is unimportant.
Marital breakdown is now widespread in Ireland, and the number of divorced, separated and remarried people is being added to at the rate of 5,000 couples each year, findings that again are contained in the census data.
Elsewhere in her article, Hunt tries to paint as alarmist the idea that marital breakdown is common. She says that for every separated person in Ireland, there are 15 marriages and that for every divorced person, there are 26 marriages. As Census 2006 shows, the true figure is one in eight, that is, for every person who has suffered a broken marriage, eight are still in their first marriage.
In addition, this figure varies hugely by age and by region. For example, in Limerick city the figure is closer to one in five. The same is true of people aged between 45 and 54. Within cities, there is also huge variation. There are parts of Ballymun where the ratio is one in two.
Hunt also addresses the issue of lone parenthood. She correctly points out that one in three births is now outside marriage, but says that we do not know how many of these children are born to couples in stable cohabiting relationships as distinct to lone mothers.
Again the figures are available from the census data showing that 21 per cent of children are being brought up by lone parents and 5 per cent by non-marital couples. Overall, just over one in four children is now being raised in a non-marital family unit and this has doubled since 1986, according to the data.
This brings us to a very important question; does any of this matter? I believe it does, and hugely. First of all, a rising rate of marriage breakdown is not in the interests of children, adults or society at large. In the case of violent or deeply dysfunctional marriages, it is almost certainly better for a couple to go their separate ways, not least for the sake of the children.
But leaving these cases aside, what we can safely say is that no person marries looking forward to the day when they will divorce or separate. A broken marriage represents a broken dream and carries a huge psychological burden for the adults involved, quite apart from the effect on children. A high rate of marital breakdown signifies a growing inability on the part of people to get along, to compromise, to stay with a commitment. We cannot simply shrug our shoulders as the number of broken marriages escalate.
It is also mistaken to regard the growing proliferation of family forms as something to be celebrated. The increasing number of non-marital family units means that more and more children are not being raised by their two married parents. This, too, is something we have to care about because, in general, children need their mothers and fathers, and parents are much more likely to stay together if married than if cohabiting. The numerous studies demonstrating both of these facts cannot be ignored.
Hunt makes a final point which is essentially that it does not really matter what kind of family children are raised in so long as they are loved. But this is overly simplistic. If love is all you need, then it would not matter, for example, if children are raised in poverty or not. Love matters a great deal, but studies show that it is better, on average, if children have the love of their own mother and father in a stable committed relationship, and that marriage is the best vehicle to ensure this.
The fact is that marriage is the most pro-child of all social institutions and this is why we have a strong vested interest in giving it special support. No amount of wishful thinking will make it otherwise.