On a recent shopping jaunt, I was struck with a tremendous sense of irony.
Having picked up some essentials, I ventured into the closest card shop to purchase the necessaries for upcoming occasions, when I found myself purchasing two Father’s Day cards, one for my father and one for my step-father,as well as a card to mark my Grandparents’ forty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Without trying to sound excessively metaphorical and employing cringe-worthy symbolism, there did seem to be a point much deeper and more meaningful represented by the contrast contained within this most everyday of acts than simply an amusing irony. One card was purchased for the purpose of celebrating and commemorating the longevity of one marriage, while the other two represented the breakdown of another.
It is misleading and careless to generalise and make assumptions about nationwide trends and propensities, simply from a few isolated examples taken from personal experience. However, it is undeniable that there exist significant differences in the attitudes towards marriage and divorce between generations throughout modern history. The difference in opinion towards the issue between, for example, our great-grandparents’ generation and our parents’ generation is fundamental. There has been a progressive shift in attitudes through recent generations that has transformed divorce from a sin to be condemned to something that, as an act in itself, seldom causes disapproval.
The change in the perception of divorce is reflected clearly in the numbers. After a dramatic rise in divorce rates from less than 2% in 1940 to 40% in 1980, the figure exceeded 50% during the first decade of this century.
While the figures play a useful role in illustrating the scale of the change, and verifying the empirical intuition that divorce has become tremendously more frequent, they, at best, complement a premise that can be established largely by experience and observation. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to affirm that the vast majority of Britons today know personally at least one person, if not several, who are divorced, or have parents who are now divorced. The change in attitudes towards marriage and the consequent change in actual instances of divorce becomes evident simply by examining people that we know and regularly come into contact with.
The conclusion that many people will naturally draw from these statistics is that marriage is eroding and becoming less sacred. People are choosing to marry too quickly with insufficient awareness of what the union really entails; they are not working hard enough to preserve the relationship when relations become strained. They are too quick to give up and separate, all of which is wearing away the sanctity of the institution. As a consequence of this, many people assume that figures such as the ones quoted above will continue to climb as divorce becomes yet more common and as marriage becomes increasingly devoid of its true essence.
But to hold such a belief – that the trend of the last half-century will simply continue as before – is, in my view, erroneous, and I believe that, our generation will divorce less than our parents’ generation, partly as a result of the high separation rate amongst our parents.This view does not spring from some form of utopian idealism that holds that our generation will necessarily work harder at marriage, will endeavour to overcome obstacles within relationships and will show greater resilience when problems arise. Neither is it the result of a belief that the individualism that is so eminent in modern society – and that must surely contribute to the changing attitude towards marriage – will give way to a spirit of selfless altruism.
In fact, I believe that the way that our generation will act if and when we marry will be largely indiscernible from the way that our parents’ generation acted and continue to act. The change in attitudes that will become evident, and that will cause the downward shift in the number of instances of divorce, will take place before people choose to get married, in that the decision to do so may not be so readily taken in future.
First and foremost, there will be less divorce simply because there will be fewer marriages. Despite a rising population in the UK in recent decades, the number of marriages has been steadily declining, falling from a peak of 470,000 in 1940 to 370,000 in 1980 and then to less than 250,000 in 2011.
There are, of course, numerous causes of this decline (further analysis of which I shall leave to the sociologists), but the continued reduction in the number of marriages which I believe will take place – in percentage if not in absolute terms – will partly be due to the fact that our generation has experienced so much divorce first hand. Seeing so many couples of our parents’ generation separate has, understandably, eroded confidence in the institution of marriage.
This issue, while significant, is secondary to the more important question of children and child-bearing, a change in which will be more pronounced as a result of our experience as children. Our generation will be more wary of getting married, due to an unavoidable cynicism that results from seeing so many of our predecessors fail to make the union endure, but, more significantly, our generation will be more cautious when it comes to whom they choose to have children with.When children are involved, a divorce takes on a distinct new level of severity, because, in spite of any good intentions, children always become caught up in the chaos of their parents’ split, and, more often than not, bear the brunt of the fallout.
Because so many of our generation have themselves been the children caught up in a separation and have experienced the tumultuous drama of a divorce, it is only natural that we should wish to avoid subjecting our own offspring to the same pain and suffering. Although there will, inevitably, still be many instances where people marry, have children and then divorce, even though the parents know what they are putting their children through, at least some members of our generation will be more careful to ensure that the person they are choosing to have their children with is indeed the ‘right’ person; somebody they can truly trust themselves to be with forever.
It is, of course, impossible to make accurate predictions about such a wide-ranging and complex issue as this, and it is even harder when the prediction goes against the grain of what has gone before. But it is hard to believe that the unique experience of our generation, who have had to deal with so much divorce, will not affect the way we approach the issue of marriage and parenthood when we ourselves reach the appropriate age.
For the sake of our children, I hope we are more careful to ensure that they do not suffer as so many of us had to suffer during our own formative years. More importantly, I have the confidence that we, as a generation, are capable of this, and that we will learn from what we have had to endure.