Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday, September 1, 2001

Positive side to divorce figures

By Hugh Mackay
Sydney Morning Herald

Because the upheaval in Australian marriage and divorce rates has been so dramatic, many people are still finding it hard to come to terms with the idea that at least one-third of contemporary marriages will fail.

"One-third of marriages will fail." That's one way of putting it, but "fail" is clearly a loaded word, heavy with judgment.

So let's start again. Unlike previous generations, today's Australians don't tolerate loveless, pointless or damaging marriages. They are prepared to admit mistakes and move on, ever hopeful, in search of more productive, fulfilling relationships.

Even when they decide to act "for the sake of the children", it's not always clear which course of action is best. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Dr George Pell, recently asserted that "family failure" is directly responsible for increases in crime, drug addiction, mental illness and sexual promiscuity in young people. (How sad it would be if such bold claims encouraged people to persist with miserable marriages that distress their children.)

The sources of waywardness in children are many and varied, and there are plenty of bewildered parents who have provided loving and stable homes, only to see their offspring go off the rails. In any case, divorcing parents are often convinced it would be better for their children to divide their time between two reasonably happy homes than spend all of it in a single unhappy one.

Perhaps it's significant that in his recent address, Pell referred approvingly to the 1950s, when tax arrangements favoured families with a dependent spouse. It's true that marriage was more stable then, but some of the worst features of the '50s arose from the dependence of women and their inability to escape from disastrous, abusive marriages.

Just how wonderful were the '50s, anyway? The six-o'clock swill wasn't pretty; neither was the bitter sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants, the subjugation of women in a male-dominated society, high levels of industrial strife and relatively low levels of education.

Luckily, the world moves on; the culture evolves. (Does one really need to keep saying this?) In the process, some of our most cherished beliefs inevitably yield to new and different realities. Contemporary attitudes to marriage and divorce are among the symptoms of a seismic culture shift in Australia that many people find disturbing. But others simply accept it as part of a new world they take for granted.

In this new world, it looks as if the adult population will soon be divided almost equally between those who marry once and stay married, those who marry two or more times, and those who never marry. Rather than wringing our hands over such a trend, why not ask what lies behind it? When a pluralistic society is adapting to an increasingly complex set of mores - in marriage and elsewhere - any useful analysis of what's happening will need a dispassionate approach.

Profound changes in attitude and behaviour don't simply mean that people are being more careless, more irresponsible, or less inclined to take marriage seriously. On the contrary, they look to me like a reflection of greater emphasis on the quality of marriage, as part of our growing emphasis on the quality of relationships in general.

Although older people who have stuck to their marriages would like to be acknowledged for their commitment and perseverance (and so they should be), the fact is that many young people approach marriage quite differently from previous generations. In some ways, they demand more of it.

Is that better or worse? Pell thinks it's worse; others think it's better; some think it's too early to say, and that we shouldn't jump to any conclusions about the new shape of marriage because the shape is not yet clear.

What is clear is that, in record numbers, young Australians are choosing to postpone marriage or avoid it altogether. There are many reasons for that - including the "keep-your-options-open" mindset of a generation which has never known anything but uncertainty, and which has decided it's wise to hang loose. But another reason, undoubtedly, is that the rising generation of young Australians have seen divorce up close and they don't like what they see.

They've worked out that one way to avoid divorce is to bypass the institution of marriage altogether.

Pell's recent suggestion that we reintroduce the notion of "fault" into divorce proceedings, and impose a punitive tax on divorcing parents, will do nothing to halt this trend. Indeed, if either measure were to be adopted, I'd confidently predict a marked increase in the number of young Australians choosing to opt out of legalised marriage.

Their parents mightn't like it but, as usual, they'll cope.

Many families have already adopted a lighthearted dichotomy - "inlaws and outlaws" - to reflect the new reality.

Copyright © 2001. The Sydney Morning Herald