No man can stop the tide. Sir Paul Coleridge is to build a Marriage Foundation, to strengthen the institution of marriage and to counter the "scourge of society" family breakdown. "Brave Brave Brave Bra-ave Sir Canute!" *sung to the tune of Brave Sir Robin from Monty Python*.
We are indeed a society awash with family breakdown. Can we fix it by convincing our serially monogamous society that marriage for life is a great idea, better than cohabitation, and that we should stick to it come hell or high water? Can we 'eck as like. It's a romantic idea, but we don't live in Midsomer, where the order of things is palpable, fixed, and where consequence follows transgression as surely as night follows day.
Should we aspire to a re-emergence of marriage as the norm? Or should we aspire to something more intangible - more stable, durable relationships and better ways of dealing with the aftermath of breakdown when it happens?
Is it helpful to be publicly and sweepingly critical of those who walk away from unhappy or unsuccessful relationships? To chide them like wayward children. I would suggest not.
"People want to change horses mid-stream - it’s the disease of the modern age. Soon you find the new partner is as flawed as the last. It is like a hydra: you cut off one head and get rid of a boring partner but inherit 26 new problems, your new partner’s children, family and so on.”
Is it constructive to insinuate that those who have experienced relationship breakdown have trivially given up on that relationship, without thought or regret? I would suggest not.
“Marriage, as the best structure in which to raise children, needs to be affirmed, strengthened and supported. Recycle your rubbish by all means, but be very slow to recycle your partner.”
When politicians and public figures start pontificating about marriage as if it is some kind of solution to the much broader issue of family breakdown, the atheist in me gets a bit twitchy. I suspect a religious agenda in the background. Especially when the thinktank, institute or foundation is intended to "research" a question for which the founder has already identified the answer. The "Marriage is the answer, please go prove" approach is not new, and does not auger well. But in truth it's not the whiff of religious paternalism that has brought me out in a rash, it's the narrow world view.
Stop looking with dismay and distaste at "the modern world"! One man's perseverance is another's living hell. One man's disease is another's liberty. One man sees himself surrounded by writhing hydra, some of us see the wonderful diversity of evolution. Look at the world we are living in! The only people that think that marriage should be a template for how we all live our lives are the godbotherers. I know Coleridge says he doesn't want to sound as if he is on a moral crusade. But that is exactly what it sounds like. I say this as a married woman, for whom in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer have been tested a few times over the last decade. Marriage was my choice, but it may not be everyone's choice. Families come in all shapes and sizes. They work because you work at them, not because they've been sanctioned or formalised - although that process may help people to commit and to feel secure, that may not be so for others - for example the victims of abusive relationships, those who have been financially broken by an earlier divorce, those for whom remarriage would create difficulties in extended family relationships - or those who have lived through a childhood parented by a miserable mother and father who stayed together "for the kids". And for many people no doubt, marriage simply does not have the same resonance that it has for those of us who have been raised in an environment where marriage still exists as a functioning norm. Those of us whose mum and dad are still together are the lucky ones but we can't graft our "normal" on other people, with very different lives and different experiences.
I know where Coleridge is coming from. It is frustrating, heartbreaking, depressing to see these families pass before you every day. And there are couples who should have worked harder at their relationship before moving on. But do you remember that feeling at school where the teacher would put everyone in detention when nobody owned up? That burning disapproval from your authority figure for something entirely outside your control? It must never be forgotten that whilst each party to a relationship shares in the responsibility for maintaining a relationship and in its failure, neither is in control of their counterpart's behaviour. To generalise in the laying of blame is to alienate the sensible. They don't all look the same. Ex couples are more than ciphers for failure. They are comprised of broken individuals, some blameworthy, some not so much. Many of them who passionately believe in lifelong commitment, even if not in marriage as a means of cementing it. What should we do with the ones who have "failed"? Send them to the Civic Amenity Site? Coleridge wants them to embrace his ideas, but their school report card is with a red "Could do better".
So, by all means lets have a Foundation to look at how we can help make relationships more durable, whatever kind of relationship they may be. Lets have a Foundation to look at how we can help people rebuild their lives when things go wrong. Lets take a look at families and what works and what doesn't. But don't try and sell us an answer from the past. Marriage as a social cement is a nostalgic dream, from a time when exit options were limited, and when people's right and ability to define how they should live their own life was hobbled.
Don't tell me marriage is the answer. We have that now and from what I can tell it hasn't worked out that well. It doesn't seem to stop people being cheats, liars, or bastards. It doesn't cure selfishness or a failure to appreciate your partner's needs. It doesn't override an inability to form lasting adult relationships borne of psychological and emotional damage following a childhood of neglect, abuse or trauma. It doesn't make people better parents - being a rubbish mum or dad is not the exclusive preserve of the great unwed. Married couples don't talk more, share more, protect each other more than their unmarried counterparts. They aren't better people, or better at relationships. They do however, mark the start of their relationship with a "big do" which will probably put them in unmanageable debt for years to come and which may well set a pattern of unsustainable spending...and they do subsequently do quite a lot of getting divorced, from which they take more disentangling legally and financially, which makes for more bad endings and more unhappy children. And I say this as someone who believes in marriage - remember I am married.
Couples comprised of healthy adults who are committed, mutually supportive and equipped to deal with the stresses and strains upon relationship will succeed whether married or not. Many such couples may choose to marry or become civil partners, and they may well become a statistical success story. But credit for that goes to the couple, to their parents, not to the institution of marriage. People make relationships work. People (and circumstance) make relationships fail. Labels don't.
I feel I should return to my original metaphor, which I have left floating unanchored...The shape of our island is changing. The foundations of society are rock solid relationships. We must build on that, not cling on crumbling buildings that have been reclaimed by advancing tides that have changed the landscape for ever.