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David Quinn: Rising divorce rate no help to any society

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IF you want a good example of the lasting scars divorce can leave on those who were children when their parents divorced, then look no further than the actor Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, the charismatic lead in 'Mad Men', the hit drama back on our TV screens this week.

Hamm has been living with his partner for the last 15 years. He was recently asked why they have never married.

He answered as follows: "I don't have a particularly defined example of marriage in my life ... My parents got divorced when I was two and never remarried. So it (marriage) doesn't mean anything to me."

He added: "It's just my experience. I don't have that paragon of married life to look at and think, 'Oh yeah, that's it! That's what I want!''

Results from last year's Census were released yesterday. What grabbed a lot of attention was the fact that since 2002 the number of Irish people who have been through a divorce has soared by 150pc to just under 88,000 people.

But that tells less than half the story because the number of people who have been through a broken marriage is actually much higher than this. It stands at just under a quarter-of-a-million people if we add together the figures for divorce, separation and remarriage after divorce.

That is an increase of a quarter since the last census in 2006 and a massive six-fold increase since 1986.

In fairness it should be pointed out that even after adding together these figures, our marital breakdown rate is still low by the standards of countries like Britain, America or Sweden.

But a quarter of a million remains a big figure in absolute terms and it doesn't take into account the additional tens of thousands of children affected by these break-ups.

When divorce first became a widespread phenomenon in Western societies in the 1970s, researchers initially managed to convince themselves that divorce didn't have long-term ill effects on children. In time, research poured in that said otherwise. Plenty of children do suffer damage and it lasts into adulthood.

For example, one common effect is what happens to a child's educational achievements. Many teachers will say that a telltale sign of a child's parents having broken up is when the child begins to play up or perform badly in school. The effects of educational under-achievement are obviously long-term in terms of a person's career prospects.

Jon Hamm, on the other hand, is a man who has been tremendously successful but he can't bring himself to marry because his parents divorced when he was so young. That is why he chooses to cohabit instead.

So widespread divorce leads to a mistrust of marriage, which is one reason why marriage rates have fallen in many Western countries. Children of divorce are often reluctant to marry because they don't want to have to go through the experience of divorce again, this time as adults.

This is also one reason why cohabitation has become so widespread in Western societies, including Ireland. But this is not something we can be sanguine about, especially when children are involved. Research such as the British Millennium Cohort Study shows that cohabiting parents are more than twice as likely to break up as married parents.

Sometimes we try to convince ourselves that the 'good' divorce can solve things both from the point of view of the children and the adults themselves.

And a 'good' divorce is obviously much better than a bitter and acrimonious one, but it is still not good in the real meaning of that term. The children have still experienced the break-up of their parents and suddenly find themselves having to shuttle between two separate houses, 'Between Two Worlds' as Elizabeth Marquardt says in her book of that name.

But surely a divorce of almost any kind is still better from the point of view of children than a high-conflict marriage? That's usually true, but most marriages that end in divorce or separation are low conflict, not high conflict.

At the end of the day, no society in its right mind can be comfortable with growing marriage breakdown. No society that professes to be 'child-centred', as we do, can be indifferent to it.

But there has been almost no debate and no discussion in Ireland about marriage breakdown even though it now directly affects almost 250,000 adults plus their children plus the wider families of those divorcing, including grandparents and cousins. It also affects the whole of society in that divorce breeds divorce.

The Census findings released yesterday should act as a wake-up call to us, and especially to our politicians. Why don't they debate it in the Dail next week?

Marriage breakdown in Ireland may still be low by Western standards but it's climbing, and if we don't begin to properly address it, it will continue to climb with all the tragic human consequences which flow from this.

Irish Independent