In 1956 The Royal Commission in England identified that the “single most important factor in marital breakdown is the idealization of the individual pursuit of self-gratification and personal pleasure at the expense of reciprocal obligations and duties towards spouses, children and society as a whole.” Little has changed. Last week senior high court judge Sir Paul Coleridge announced that he was setting up a marriage foundation to protect the institution of marriage and put an end to the trend of people wanting “to change horses mid-stream” which he describes as “the disease of the modern age.”
Sir Paul believes that “obtaining a divorce is easier than getting a driving licence”. As someone who has actually experienced it first hand, I can say with conviction that for most people this is not the case at all. Getting divorced, particularly when you have kids, is an enormously stressful, difficult and expensive process and for most women in particular, it is an absolute last resort. Women and children fare worse than men after divorce. A study by the Institute of Social and Economic research which tracked 10,000 people for ten years found that a man’s disposable income increases by 15% after a divorce, whereas a woman’s falls by 28%. It’s important because one in four children in the UK live with a single parent, 91% of single parents are female, and single parents have officially overtaken pensioners as the poorest group of people in England.
Sir Paul’s foundation aims to promote marriage and reverse the “appalling and costly impact of family breakdown” on children and society at large. The foundation will commission research, hold seminars and conferences, produce publications and, in due course, lobby for “family-friendly” policies. It is however, much easier to amass information about the problems that afflict broken families than it is to provide viable solutions which provide support BEFORE a relationship is in crisis. Typically, couples in the UK who are having relationship difficulties wait six or seven years to seek any form of counselling, and by then it often too late. Had a percentage of the 119,589 couples who got divorced in 2010 sought help sooner or been given access to support before their relationship deteriorated, they might have had a chance of surviving.
Though it is not something that Sir Paul has flagged up in his recent interviews, there is a case to be made for a serious review of legislation concerning what requirements couples should have to meet before they are actually allowed to get married. Given the weight of responsibility associated with marriage, some form of counselling or marriage guidance should surely be mandatory before people are allowed to tie the knot. Not only would this help weed out immigration scammers, it would ensure that people really understood the nature of the commitment they were about to undertake.
The obvious argument against making marriage more difficult is that more couples would then choose to cohabit. Married couples are already in a minority in Britain and almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, however much of this can be explained by welfare rules which effectively prevent couples marrying because if they do, one of them loses their benefits. Cohabitation is however, a less secure arrangement for children. Couples are four times more likely to break up before their child is five years old if they are not married and without a marriage certificate women have very little legal and financial protection.
Sir Paul’s marriage foundation has much to do to promote and protect the institution of marriage. Understanding the problems, tackling existing legislation, revising the allocation of welfare benefits, campaigning for compulsory pre-marriage guidance and the provision of emotional and indeed, sexual support is only just the beginning. Ultimately, we need to stop ignoring relationships until they are in crisis and start educating people about how to cope with the ups and downs of commitment so that they are equipped to deal with the inevitable conflict that occurs in any long term relationship.