Last week was Marriage Week. This is an international celebration promoted by the Marriage Foundation. The organisation refers to recent studies which give a picture of how we stand in this country. The news is not good.
The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family breakdown in the developed world. Nearly two thirds of British children who are born to unmarried parents experience breakdown before the age of 12. Other countries, such as America and Belgium, have substantially lower rates. Spain’s figure is six per cent. Children born to cohabiting parents have a 94 per cent greater likelihood of such breakdown than children born to married parents. But even for children born into marriage, our rate of early breakdown is about one in three. (Check the figures at the Marriage Foundation’s website, marriagefoundation.org.uk.)
I do not think that anyone with imagination will deny the multitude of personal tragedies which are the outcome of this. I don’t focus here on the parents, or whether they are at fault, but on the children. If you were lucky enough to have a stable family, consider for a moment what would have happened to your life if your parents’ marriage had broken down while you were a child. I know of cases where the scars have lasted a lifetime. And there is evidence that such children have a higher rate of marital breakdown when it comes to their turn.
I am not optimistic. I am in close touch with a number of people in their twenties. They are all good people (many baptised as Catholics), highly educated and building promising careers. They have long-term partners of similar quality. From time to time I raise questions about marriage with them, and I try to explain the difference between the totally committed relationship and the “for the time being” relationships which they have. They listen politely, but they think that, although I mean well, I am very old fashioned. They take the view that there is plenty of time to get married – perhaps when they want children. Meanwhile, they see intercourse as a value in its own right, and a proper expression of their long term, but uncommitted, relationship.
And perhaps I am old fashioned. We did not quiz our children about their intimate lives, although there was plenty of round-table conversation, but we had house rules. They could entertain the opposite sex in their bedrooms but doors had to be left open. Now I see that fewer parents are concerned about this, and that couple sleepovers, with parental permission, are common.
Could we maintain our position nowadays? Fortunately we do not have to try.
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