Breda O’Brien: State must start nurturing marriages

Government embraces divorce when it should help low-conflict wedded couples

Divorce is painful and costly on an emotional level but it also costs the exchequer a huge amount of money. People’s mental and physical health deteriorates.

Divorce is painful and costly on an emotional level but it also costs the exchequer a huge amount of money. People’s mental and physical health deteriorates.

 

Although no results are available at the time of writing, it is safe to presume that the referendum on removing time limits on divorce from the Constitution has passed with a sizeable majority. It is as good a time as any to call the Government on its hypocrisy, and demand that it take some real steps to “guard with special care the institution of marriage”.

Divorce is painful and costly on an emotional level but it also costs the exchequer a huge amount of money. People’s mental and physical health deteriorates. Two households are needed with resultant strains on an already failing housing system. Children are more likely to exhibit problems at school. The list goes on and on.

The only reason marriage is still in a relatively healthy state in this country is because of the efforts of families, couples and voluntary organisations. The State has failed miserably to support marriage. This is most notable among unskilled workers, who are only half as likely as professionals to be married and who are more than three times more likely to be divorced or separated.

The only reason marriage is still in a relatively healthy state is because of the efforts of families, couples and voluntary organisations

The litany of State failures includes that, in May 2015, Tusla withdrew funding for Accord’s marriage preparation courses with retrospective effect from January 2015. Tusla stated that given limited resources, its budget would be directed towards services which were best aligned to the outcomes prioritised in the Agency’s corporate plan.

One of Tusla’s key priorities is the safety and wellbeing of children. This week, a review of Tusla child-protection services in the Carlow, Kilkenny and South Tipperary area found that allegations of suspected abuse are still not all being notified to An Garda Síochána by Tusla social workers. In another case, foster children were left in a household with an alleged rapist.

One of the safest places for a child to be is in a low-conflict marriage. Tusla is failing to help children already being neglected and abused. Surely prevention, in the sense of trying to create circumstances where children are less likely to need intervention should be a top priority?

Dangerous marriage

The State should immediately reinstate mandatory robust marriage preparation as a civil initiative, not just one associated with churches.

This is not to say that only children born and reared within marriage do well, much less to advocate staying in a dangerous marriage. The vast majority of lone parents succeed in caring well for their children in a very demanding situation. In the case of violent or abusive marriages, the only alternative is to leave as swiftly as possible.

The vast majority of lone parents succeed in caring well for their children in a very demanding situation

But so many marriages could be saved if people were more aware of red flags before entering marriage and more aware of what causes marital breakdown. Conflict resolution and explicit preparation for marriage should be part of every school’s relationship and sexuality education programme but, to the best of my knowledge, marriage is scarcely mentioned.

We can speculate why Irish marriages fail, based on research from the US and the UK, but we also need Irish research to look at the issue from both a sociological and psychological perspective.

To blithely assert that no amount of research will prevent marital breakdown, as Josepha Madigan has said on numerous occasions, is simply wrong. US research shows that more than half of American marriages that fail are low-conflict and parents’ separation comes as a complete shock to the children.

This knowledge gained from research spurred the design of successful marriage intervention programmes specifically to help people in low-conflict marriages to stay together.  

Handling conflict

Conflict in itself is not harmful. In fact, research shows couples who stay together are happy have exactly the same number of “irreconcilable differences” as those who break up. The difference lies in how they handle conflict.

But the sociological factors affecting the decline in marriage rates and causing strain on existing relationships almost certainly include the difficulty of finding a home to rent or buy, the fact that caring work is not supported by State policies in relation to either children or dependent adults, and the State’s failure to realise that marriage is not just a private contract but a vital building block of society. Perhaps that is why the State is not keen on research.

In relation to psychological factors, the US relationship expert John Gottman discovered four markers of relationship failure which predict divorce with 93 per cent accuracy. These are: criticism that targets the person rather than the other’s behaviour; defensiveness that refuses to acknowledge difficulties and projects them on to the other person all the time; contempt for the partner; and a refusal to engage but instead putting up a stone wall. These are the four indicators that predict divorce is on the horizon.

There are antidotes to them all. The only people who are happy about easier divorce are lawyers.

No doubt the Government will be celebrating its great victory in making divorce easier. But given that it cannot even provide decent housing or affordable childcare for young couples and families, it is no wonder that it also lacks the imagination and will to help people have healthy marriages too.

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