(The Nationalist, 6 October 2006)
The breakdown of marriage and family life is the greatest issue facing Ireland today. Marriage is being damaged by the idea that it is just another lifestyle choice, which may readily be discarded – along with those who rely on it. By destabilizing marriage, and accepting casual sex, serial relationships, single parenthood, and divorce as norms, we are undermining the structures on which the family and society depends.
Throughout the Western world there is a rising tide of distress and disorder among the young. A collapse of community bonds, with family breakdown at its heart, is a more likely explanation than inadequate social services.
In general, children do worse in life, if they come from fragmented or reconstituted families. Still worse, they tend to repeat that pattern as adults, and become unable to form permanent relationships.
Marital breakdown means the weakening of trust, responsibility, and commitment that hold family and society together. A child whose parents are split asunder – by adultery, for example – has its assumptions about trust, fidelity, and commitment greatly damaged.
Stable family life is the bedrock of secure individuals and a healthy social order.
It is sometimes said that cohabitation is just as good as marriage, and that parents who cohabit may be just as committed to caring for their children. But most cohabitation either changes into marriage, or breaks down.
The British Office for National Statistics found that couples who marry have an 81% chance of being together after ten years, while cohabiting couples had only a 15% chance.
In the United States, a study of almost 1,500 marriages found that couples who cohabited before marriage were twice as likely to get divorced as those who married first. And couples who cohabited before marriage experienced more instability.
Cohabiting couples sometimes say that their relationship is their private business. But no relationship, particularly one with children, is ever simply private; it has an impact on others. Love may be private but children are not. Cohabitation is a continuing process of drift. It may seem to be an exercise of freedom, but the price is a loss of a sense of belonging, of permanence, and of security.
The safest structure for children to grow up in is marriage, because marriage is something which must be deliberately and publicly entered into. It represents a meeting point between public and private morality. Married people have looked at their future, and taken a joint decision before God and the community to build something permanent together. They have made a commitment, restricting their freedom so as to nurture their children in a stable environment, and strengthen the bonds that unite society.
The number of marriages in Ireland has been increasing steadily since 1995. Marriage is good for the couple, their children, and society.
(With thanks to Melanie Phillips, “Keep using the M-word”, The Tablet, 14 February 1998, pp.197-198)
For those in a hurry: ‘Marriage is not so much about finding the right person as about being, or becoming, the right person’. (Dermod McCarthy)