For better, for worse, till children do us part: Parenthood may increase the divorce risk. Angela Lambert reports on who can help

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT IS nearly 30 years since my young husband left me, emptying his side of the wardrobe and packing his suitcase while I raged and wept on our bed. I remember with piercing clarity how I felt once the front door had slammed behind him. It was as though the four years of our marriage had taken place under a protective glass dome. Here we had lived, in a hermetically sealed world, with our babies, our routine and our proud new possessions. Now the dome had been lifted, exposing me to the chill winds outside. However unhappy I had been before, it seemed as nothing compared to the pain I experienced then and long afterwards; and young as they were, our children suffered, too.

Nobody enters upon marriage expecting to get divorced. Divorce cannot be painless, guiltless, easy, or without great and lasting consequences. Yet remarkably few organisations exist to support the institution of marriage, compared with the very many influences that conspire to undermine and fracture this most central unit in society.

A one-day conference takes place today at the Royal College of Physicians in Regent's Park, London, run by an organisation set up to research and bolster marriage and partnership, called One Plus One. The subject for the conference, entitled The Partner- Parent Trap, is the conflict between the needs of children and the relationship between husband and wife. Is it possible to remain a close and happy couple once children arrive; to be ardent lovers and devoted parents? Does the one exclude, or at least threaten, the other? Must the children always come first? These are serious daily questions.

Today's complex attitudes towards sex and fidelity, combined with unclear or ambiguous moral guidelines, new expectations by women of their role inside and outside the home, the absence of daily support from other generations within the family, and the frequent need for both parents to go out and earn money, have produced a society in which marriage is a balancing act. Far from being the romantic journey couples thought they had embarked upon, it can become a nightmarish tangle of conflicting pressures in which neither partner feels capable of meeting the demands upon his or her time and attention, love and patience. Must this mean the marriage has failed?

One Plus One was launched in 1971 by its director, Jack Dominian, a counsellor and psychotherapist, to build up a picture of the modern marriage, based not on sentimental ideas or religious proscriptions but on the reality of couples' experience, believing that these findings could help to prevent marital breakdown. In 1990 it received its first grant from the Home Office . . . a measly pounds 15,000. In 1993 that grant has gone up to pounds 60,000 a year: striking proof of the importance of its research.

Sixty-five couples, all married for the first time, are being followed from their wedding day onwards. They are regularly interviewed in depth to discover their experience of everyday life. Many of those couples now have, or are about to have, children. The nature of their partnership will change. How well do they cope? What are their 'strategies for life', and can their future be predicted from these?

Penny Mansfield, a sociologist, is closely involved in this research, which began in 1979. 'People really do want to make successful relationships,' she says. 'They are greatly afraid that their marriages will break down. We have found that satisfaction with marriage plummets in the first five years.' This study may be about private life, but it has huge public implications. Society can not only save itself enormous sums of money - the expense of broken marriages was pounds 2bn a year in the mid-Eighties - but also avoid much personal anguish if marriages can be upheld and helped through their periodic crises.

'Because of family breakdown - many couples come from divorced homes and may have lost touch with a parent or grandparent - as well as greater job mobility, the web of relationships that used to sustain young couples has often become very thin,' says Penny Mansfield. Today's conference examines, among others, such practical issues as who advises couples about the changing nature of their relationship; who teaches young parents about child care? Who can help them to understand themselves and learn to tolerate, explain, and forgive?

The answer One Plus One offers is simple and practical: the health professionals, whom the couple will routinely encounter in child clinics, surgery or personnel office. These people, Penny Mansfield believes, must be trained to spot the unspoken question, the potential problem, and to give swift on-the-spot counselling before the molehill becomes a mountain.

'Children place enormous strains upon a relationship: but they raise issues rather than creating them. They expose the weaknesses that were already present in the marriage,' says Penny Mansfield. One partner may come from a family that makes a fuss over birthdays and presents; the other may regard this as pointlessly extravagant. One parent may believe in firm discipline; the other may bitterly disagree. Perhaps religious differences do not surface until the birth of a child forces decisions - to circumcise, or not? Christening, or Sunday school, or Bible reading - or not?

The conference will look at various styles of partnership and how they adapt, or fail to adapt, to parenthood. Does a man expect to go to football matches or play cricket every weekend, and does he go on doing this even when his wife deserves a rest from motherhood? Does she telephone her mother daily, for advice, support or to grumble, and would her husband prefer to be more involved in these child- rearing problems? Do they regard weekends away as a necessary break or an expensive waste of time, and will a baby force them to sacrifice those times alone? Divorce occurs when the balance gets completely out of kilter: but One Plus One is built on the idea that people need divorce only in the last resort.

My ex-husband has had three more wives; I have not re-married. We both seem happy. There is life after divorce.