THE institution of marriage is in trouble. To see that, one only has to read about how Katie Price, fresh from her divorce to cage-fighter Alex Reid, is about to marry for a third time, or observe the inexorable slide in marriage rates.
Or ponder the long-running marital soap opera of the British Royal Family.
Marriage, it seems, is in need of a crusader, to rescue it from the jaws of Hollywood-style sentimentalism, secular rejection and popular cynicism.
Step forward Sir Paul Coleridge, the High Court judge who has just launched the Marriage Foundation, a charity designed to "champion" the advantages of marriage in the United Kingdom, and which holds that the current melting pot of cohabitation, lone parenting and easy divorce is failing our children.
But Coleridge's foundation is doomed to failure. It is bound to follow the well-trodden path of countless other campaigns in the UK and in the United States, which have assumed that the revolution in how we construct families is stoppable, and that just by jumping up and down and yelling louder they will bring couples rushing back to marriage in droves.
Writing seven years ago of the endless wave of American pro-marriage groups, historian Stephanie Coontz, pointed out: "What these campaigns have in common is the idea that people are wilfully refusing to recognise the value of traditional families and that their behaviour will just change if we can just enlighten them."
The truth is, the voices shouting for marriage to be saved are being heard, but they are not having an impact. In the US, a noisy pro-marriage movement has been agitating for decades, yet little has been achieved.
Few in America can have missed the message of the likes of the National Marriage Project or Marriage Works campaign. And yet, the steady decline in marriage and the accompanying rise in cohabiting partners and single parents has continued. Almost, it seems, the stronger the official and religious advocacy of marriage is, the more it flounders: the Bible Belt has the highest divorce rate in the US.
Part of the problem for these groups is they are failing to acknowledge the scale of the cultural shift away from marriage – or the real reasons for it. Some even consider that the blame lies with past governments who by providing welfare for lone mothers have encouraged the rise of the broken or fatherless family. That is a supposition entirely contradicted by the real figures. One of the stated aims of America's 1996 welfare reform bill was to "encourage marriage" by pushing lone mothers into work, yet ultimately it has not done so. According to most of the research, including the 2003 study, Staying Single: The Effects Of Welfare Reform Policies On Marriage And Cohabitation, the steady rise of single motherhood has continued unabated.
One could conclude therefore that cushy benefits do not support lone parenting; rather, the rejection of marriage is a feature of some other aspect of our society. Given this, the idea of stigmatising and stopping benefits seems merely punitive, rather than remedial, and at the same time risks further failing a generation of children.
Sir Paul Coleridge says he was driven to set up the foundation by the "never-ending carnival of human misery" he has witnessed in the family courts. The case he makes for an enduring marriage being the surest, most stable environment for raising children has been made many times before and, backed up with statistics, it is compelling. He cites the fact that "a baby born to cohabiting parents is more than 10 times more likely to see its parents separate than one born to married parents". He points out that if we "examine the background of almost every child in care or the youth-justice system you will discover a broken home. Children from such backgrounds are, on every measure of success, less likely to achieve their proper potential".
The problem with these statistics is that while they do tell us correlations, they don't reveal causes. What we actually know is much more limited than is often suggested by those who interpret the reports. It's not as simple as "get married and stick at it, you'll stay together longer and your kids will fare better".
One question we might ask is this: if cohabiting couples chose to marry, would the rate of family breakdown fall? It is possible, after all, that people who cohabit rather than marry are aware of the fragility of their relationships. Perhaps even if they were to follow Coleridge's advice and attempt the gold standard of marriage, they would simply add their numbers to the divorce statistics.
ANOTHER factor that might skew the statistics is that a married couple has far more obvious sources of support during a breakdown. Christina McGhee, author of Parenting Apart, is an international divorce coach who has advised the Scottish Parliament as well as mediation organisations in Scotland. She argues: "Never-married parents are more likely to fall through the cracks because we don't really have a system in place for extending support, and because they don't look at themselves as divorcing. We need to look at where we can create natural and predictable gateways for families to access support. Is it in the schools, for instance?"
Meanwhile, the actual effects on children of divorce, or being raised by lone parents, are also over-interpreted. Problem behaviours and poor life outcomes have been shown to be more prevalent among the children of lone parents and broken families, but are these things actually caused by the parents' unmarried status? A report by the Organisation For Economic Cooperation And Development found that: "Overall, the impacts of being raised in a single-parent family are smaller than hitherto believed, or even zero."
There is, the report added, "currently no unambiguous proof that growing up in a lone-parent family has adverse effects for later-life outcomes". The sociologist, Judith Harris, has gone further, emphasising the ways in which our life outcomes, including our relationships, are defined by heredity. "Maybe the reason some parents are prone to divorce is genetic," she has said.
Telling us we are hurting our children, of course, hits a tender spot. Most parents continue to attempt to do their best for their offspring, and tend to resist the prospect of divorce on this basis. Laura, a divorcee and mother of two, recalls the end of her marriage, five years ago. "My major worry was about the children," she says. "It was the main thing that stopped us doing it sooner and the thing that we were worried about most. You bring your kids up making this protective bubble for them and you don't want to be the one that pops it all and makes all the horrible things happen. And [separation] is selfish. You are saying, 'I'm miserable and I don't want to be miserable any more', and maybe there are other ways you could stop yourself getting to that point."
However, having witnessed the misery of their own parents' marriages, she and her husband both thought: "What's the point? Why have a lifetime of not being happy?" All the same, she was "shocked" that her marriage didn't last.
Yet Laura and her ex-husband are among those couples who appear to be doing divorce well, attempting as far as possible to mitigate the damage to their children. They are, she says, "goody two shoes" in their behaviour. Living just a few streets apart, they share childcare, never bad-mouth each other and continue to celebrate birthdays and Christmases as a family.
A significant number of children experience parental divorce without appearing to be hugely disadvantaged. "Look around," says a friend whose parents separated and who is now a successful, high-achieving father . "Clearly there are many people who survive a divorce without too much damage."
American researcher Constance Ahrons spent 20 years studying the impact of divorce on children. Her results showed that while a small minority were negatively impacted, most were not. "Most of these young adults emerged stronger and wiser in spite of – or perhaps because of – their parents' divorces and remarriages," she says. "And the majority were very clear that their parents' divorce had positive outcomes, not only for their parents but for themselves as well."
Given this, Christina McGhee believes it is crucial that we teach people how to divorce or separate well. "I think it is possible to successfully parent children out of two homes," she says. "It's not easy. It takes a lot of work. Do children emerge unscathed? Well, the truth is that divorce leaves scars, kids are going to be impacted, but happiness, or a successful life, is not about warding off challenges and not having any hardship, it's about learning how to deal with them."
Why are we rejecting marriage? Feminism is often accused of playing a role in the institution's decline, and that decline does parallel the entry of women into the workforce and the rise in female education. It's easy to forget the sufferings of generations of women who stuck it out through stultifying, oppressive or torturous marriages – many of which endured principally because there was no other option.
Now people are being told to endure them for the sake of the children. We are being told this by people, such as Coleridge, whose marriages have worked, who have weathered difficult patches and endured boredom. But their views are subjective. Coleridge discounts many of the divorcing couples he has witnessed in the courts as having had "no solid reason" to separate. "Some people," he adds, "seem to give up on their marriages simply because their partner has not been attentive towards them or variants on that – their spouse devotes too much time to work, playing golf or is simply said not to be investing enough time in the marriage."
I am not a High Court judge, but I have witnessed many breakdowns and separations, and none of them has been so whimsical.
MARRIAGE no longer defines our lives. It is not the arena in which most of us first have sex, it isn't the structure that defines our gender roles, and it does not have a monopoly on long-term relationships. The lives of many cohabitees is similar to those of married people. In fact, it's often impossible to tell which couples are married and which are not. According to author Stephanie Coontz, the reign of marriage over our personal lives is over – and nothing short of a "Taliban-like counter-revolution" will bring it back. "We cannot afford," she writes, "to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been cancelled."
The sad thing about Paul Coleridge's foundation is that all its energy and money could be devoted to something with a wider vision. He could have created an organisation about protecting and supporting the family in all its different guises, not about elevating this single institution. His basic principle that we should try harder to work through the bad times, or seek support at times of breakdown, should be relevant to all couples.
As Christina McGhee puts it: "When we talk about channelling money towards institutions like the Marriage Foundation, my question is, why aren't we channelling money and support towards creating pathways for never-marrieds and other types of families? Instead of taking a narrow view that this is the segment of family life we're going to hold up as the gold standard, let's broaden this, to include wider core values of healthy families."
Trying to drag us back to the golden days of marriage is like trying to haul us back to before the industrial revolution. Too much has changed. What we need is new gold standards.
The makers of a three-part BBC documentary on the history of love and marriage in Britain are gathering experiences from the 1950s to the 1970s, and are particularly keen to hear from people who chose cohabitation over marriage during this era (whether they went on to marry or stayed unmarried). Testimony Films can be contacted through Pete Vance or Emily Sivyer on 0117 925 8589, or by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.