The number of Irish adults who have been through a broken marriage has increased by a massive 500% in the last 25 years.
Last week The Iona Institute (which I head) issued a report called Marriage Breakdown and Family Structure in Ireland. The figures in it are drawn from Census 2011 and compare today with 1986.
In 1986, just over 40,000 Irish adults had suffered a broken marriage. By 2011 this had soared to just under 250,000 and that doesn’t include all the affected children.
Marital breakdown in Ireland is still low by British and American standards, but in a small country a quarter of a million people is still an awful lot of people.
The new report also shows that there has been a very big increase in the number of children being raised outside marriage. As a percentage of all children under 18, it has more than doubled from 12% to 27%. In absolute numbers, it is over 300,000 children. Again, that is a very large number.
Children end up being raised outside marriage in one of two ways. One is that the parents split up. The other is that the child is born outside of marriage and the two parents never marry and in many cases never even live under the same roof as partners, or at least not for any length of time.
Two broad interpretations can be put on these figures. One is that marriage in Ireland is breaking down and we need to work out ways to strengthen and promote marriage again.
Another is that the family is merely ‘changing’ and that public policy needs to adapt to recognise this new reality. The law etc., needs to change to recognise the changed and changing family.
Liberals believe the change is simply the result of growing freedom. Previously people were ‘trapped’ in unhappy marriages and now they are free to walk out on those and have a second chance.
The second result of growing freedom is that they don’t even have to marry to start a family. They can simply live with someone, or else decide to have a baby on their own.
Therefore, those Census figures showing rising marriage breakdown and growing numbers of children being raised outside marriage might even be a cause for celebration because they show we are much freer than we were in the past.
The response to this is to try and demonstrate what the figures mean in practice, both from the point of view of adults and children, especially children.
When liberals feel inclined to address growing marriage breakdown at all, the common approach is to contrast today not with what might be, but with the 1950s when all those people were trapped in all those ‘desperately unhappy’ marriages.
They suggest that if you are concerned about the fact that so many marriages have broken down today, then you must want to ‘drag us back to the past’.
It never seems to occur to them that you simply want to live in a society where the possibility of your marriage failing is reduced to the lowest level possible, while accepting the fact that a certain number of marriages will break up come what may.
The liberal analysis also overlooks a very important fact, namely that some of those desperately unhappy couples might not have been so desperately unhappy after all. It’s just that they weren’t happy enough, or one of the spouses wasn’t happy enough. In other words, their expectations weren’t met, and expectations are a very subjective thing. Perhaps their expectations were unrealistic?
We have no Irish data on this, but in America something like 60% of marriages that break up are low conflict, meaning they are not abusive and/or the spouses are not shouting at each other constantly.
This is especially important from the point of view of children. Studies indicate that children are only damaged by an unhappy marriage when it is high conflict. This would seem to indicate that when it is low conflict the parents have a relatively straight-forward choice; which comes first, their own happiness or that of their children?
In a way this gets us to the nub of the issue. In liberal societies we’re told the name of the game is personal freedom and personal happiness. But suppose your happiness is bought at the price of your children’s happiness? Or suppose it is bought at the expense of your spouse’s happiness?
We seem to have deluded ourselves into thinking that all this chasing after freedom and happiness is a win/win situation. If I’m happy, then everyone around me will be as well. But that’s nonsense. For example, a man might simply grow bored with his wife (or vice versa) and decide to leave her for another woman causing both her and their children great unhappiness.
In other words, divorce can be the cause of unhappiness rather than the cure for it.
Quite apart from rising marriage breakdown, what the report also shows is a very large number of children who are growing up in houses with one parent only, usually the mother.
We don’t have Irish figures for this, but in Britain when a mother is un-partnered at the time of her child’s birth in 40% of cases she will have no contact with her child’s father. In other words, that child will grow up without a father.
Furthermore, the number will keep increasing as the relationships of partnered mothers breakdown over time.
So the figures show something even more alarming than simply marriage breakdown. They show a huge spike in the number of children growing up with either semi-involved or uninvolved fathers. We should be extremely concerned about this because children need their fathers (assuming a given father is a fit parent).
Marriage has always been society’s best way of connecting fathers to their children and the mothers of their children. As marriage declines, so does the role of fathers.
No matter how you slice it, this is a very bad thing and we are completely mistaken when we pretend it does not really matter.
The report ‘Marriage Breakdown and Family Structure in Ireland’ can be found at www.ionainstitute.ie