(The Nationalist, 28 November 2003)
The breakdown of marriage is the greatest single issue facing Ireland today, and the most difficult. Marriage is being dismantled by the idea that it is just another lifestyle choice, which may be discarded at will. By destabilizing marriage, and accepting casual sex, serial relationships, single parenthood and divorce as norms, we are undermining the structures on which society depends.
Throughout the Western world there is a rising tide of distress and disorder among the young, which cannot be accounted for simply by poverty, bad housing, poor schools, lack of social services, or unemployment. It is more likely due to a collapse of social bonds, with family breakdown at its heart. In general most children do worse in life, if they come from fragmented or reconstituted families. And to make matters worse, they tend to repeat that pattern as adults, in an inability to form permanent relationships.
The breakdown of marriage and family life means the weakening of the trust and commitment that hold society together. Children whose parents are split asunder by adultery have their assumptions about trust, fidelity and commitment greatly damaged.
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 breaks down or changes into marriage. A study from the British Office for National Statistics found that couples who are married had 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 couples who married before coming to live together.
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, lacking a sense of belonging.
The safest structure for children to grow up in is marriage, because it is something that must be deliberately and publicly entered into. Married people have looked at their future, and taken a joint decision before God to build something permanent together. They have entered into a commitment, and that means undertaking to restrict their freedom in the service of a greater good, namely, the nurturing of their children in a stable environment, and the strengthening of the social bonds that unite society.
In Ireland, cohabitation increased from the Seventies onwards, but, between 1995 and 2002, there was an increase of 23% in the number of marriages. That’s welcome.
(With help from Melanie Phillips, “Keep using the M-word”, The Tablet, 14 February 1998, pp.197-198)