Sunday 20 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'When it comes to voting on divorce, grandparents often taken the longer view - and see the children's well-being'


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

How will you vote in the divorce referendum on May 24, (proposing to reduce the waiting time to finalise a divorce)? People will bring their own values and experiences to the ballot box, possibly with mixed feelings.

In an era when we want everything instantly, it may seem almost cruel to demand an unhappy couple endure a statutory four years' separation before divorce, as they must do currently. Yet, it was a young woman who said to me, thoughtfully: "Doesn't easier divorce just chip away all the time at the whole idea of marriage?"

I suppose I look on divorce, nowadays, with more of a grandmother's eye. First things first: what about the children? Childless couples can do as they please, says the grannie's ancestral voice in my head, but for couples with children - shouldn't their well-being, and even their right to a family home, be the first priority? After all, the couple chose to be parents.

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Grandparent case number one: a widowed man, whose wife died in tragic circumstances, struggled to raise his children alone, with not much money. Kids turned out well, and the guy was deliriously happy when his son married and had a daughter, whom the grandpa came to adore. Alas - the marriage broke down and, as is usual, the child's mother got custody, and moved away to a different location.

Efforts are made to maintain contact, but it is a fact of life that paternal grandparents tend to lose touch with grandchildren when there is a marriage or partnership split. (In Britain, Esther Rantzen runs a campaign to uphold grandparents' rights to access to their grandchildren.)

Grandparent case number two: older woman, concerned that her daughter's marriage is in trouble. "He's a spendthrift and drinks too much, and I don't blame her for wanting out, but what about the child? He adores his dad. Even shared custody, with kids sleeping in a different bedroom each weekend? It's so unsettling."

Grandparent case number three: Irish grandmother who strongly campaigned for divorce in the 1995 referendum: "I sometimes think younger couples don't try hard enough to keep their relationship together. It's a commitment. Maybe we're in danger of making divorce too easy."

Older woman who was herself a single mother: "The one thing I've come to believe, in later life, is that a boy needs a father."

The senior years often bring regrets, as we look back on our own lives and see the reckless mistakes, and sometimes disastrous choices, we've made. We also see that time passes quickly, and things change, and go on changing, constantly. Marriages can go through bad periods - especially in midlife - and then heal again.

Couples divorce, and then find they are the best of mates (when the heat - and perhaps the sex - has been taken out of the equation). Dear friends of mine, a married couple - now dead - fought viciously, exchanging ghastly insults. They separated, but then acquired adjoining apartments and were subsequently on great terms.

Couples even divorce and remarry. A school pal of mine did so, and it's worked out just fine. They've both matured.

Plenty of grandparents would support divorce, since they have known situations where it was for the best, and where a second marriage was happier. I can think of a case where a woman was married to an absolute bounder, who was horrible to their children as well as to her: the quicker she could get a divorce, the better. To add to her travails, she had to divide her hard-earned assets with her ex - on grounds of gender equality, if you please.

In Britain, there are plans to introduce "no-fault" divorce. Advocates say it will take the acrimony out of splitting up. Really? In some cases, one spouse really is more at fault. Some even admit it, retrospectively.

Behind the personal stories, there is a wider question: is marriage just a private relationship or is it a social contract? Is it just about the "happiness" of two people, or is there a connection with a family network, and with civil society (and, for religious people, a vow before God)?

That is the big change that has been occurring in all European societies over the past 25 years or so - just about since the 1995 divorce referendum, which removed the constitutional ban (by a slender 50.28pc against 49.72pc). In the past, all societies tended to see marriage as a public contract. Campaigners for gay marriage made that point - they wanted their relationship to be recognised as a social and public commitment.

And there is wider social fallout from marriage breakdown: it is a major factor in homelessness. Ask Alice Leahy, the most experienced carer for Dublin rough sleepers, and she will tell you how much family break-up (and mental health problems) play a part in homelessness. Society does have a stake in stable family life.

I would put two supplementary questions on any ballot paper about divorce: (1) should married parents be in a different category from childless couples? And (2) is marriage a social contract, or just a private relationship?

Tick whatever box your conscience - and experience - leads you to.

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