Revealed: marriage mistakes that lead to the divorce court

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The Independent Online
IF ROMEO and Juliet had lived, the chances of the famous lovers staying together would have been slight, according to new research. But it would not be Montague and Capulet rivalry that caused their split - rather the young age at which they first met.

However romantic young love seems, a new study has found that those seeking a long-lasting partnership with Mr or Ms Right should not meet them before their mid to late twenties. Getting married when you are too young is more likely to precipitate divorce than lack of education or financial hardship.

The report also reveals that couples in their first relationship who live together before marriage are no more likely to divorce than those who marry without cohabiting.

In the first major study into the divorced and who divorces in Britain for 20 years, researchers from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion looked at more than 60,000 people and concluded that divorce is bad for your health. Those who are divorced are more likely to be unemployed, to rely on state benefits and be disabled than the married population. Men and women with emotional problems were also more likely to divorce.

At present 41 per cent of those who marry will divorce. The latest figures available - 1996 - saw 154,300 marriages dissolved.

Starting partnerships at a later age was seen as one of the best ways to prevent divorce. Those who formed relationships in their teens were more than four times more likely to split up than those who met their partner at 27 or older.

While lower educational performance at 16 and lack of qualifications were associated with unsuccessful relationships, the researchers found this was only because the less educated tended to form partnerships at an earlier age. When they controlled the results for age they found the chances of splitting up was broadly similar whatever the standard of education.

"If people don't form partnerships at an early age, education and income do not matter as much," said Dr Kathleen Kiernan, reader in social policy and demography at the London School of Economics and author of the report. "If you don't form relationships at an early age there is no difference in the risk of divorce."

And living together does not necessarily increase your risk of splitting up. Previous studies have assumed that couples who live together before marriage have a higher rate of break-up. But, says Dr Kiernan, this is not the case if you only live with one partner before marriage. Both groups in their first partnership had a one in four chance of splitting up before the age of 33.

"In the past, people have not distinguished between those in first partnerships who co-habited and then married and those who had more than one co-habiting partnership," said Dr Kiernan.

Those currently divorced faced far more problems than their married peers. Divorced men and women were worse off than married couples even when they did not have to support children. Divorced men were more likely to receive income support than their married peers and divorcees of both sexes were less likely to be home owners.

Splitting up was particularly bad for men's health, with divorced men more likely to report poor health and to be receiving disability benefits. The researchers concluded that both marriage and living with someone has a protective effect.

Traditional family-orientated values and attitudes were related to marital stability. Those with liberal views - seeing divorce as preferable to an unhappy marriage - were unsurprisingly more likely to experience divorce in the next three years than those who did not. Those married women, who rejected traditional gender roles or who did not believe that adult children should care for their parents were also more likely to divorce.

The change in marriage over the past 20 years, however, has led to the decline of one institution - the shot-gun marriage. Researchers found it has nearly vanished since the 1970s as the stigma of illegitimacy has gone. "It has virtually disappeared," says Dr Kiernan. "It is quite dramatic how it has faded away." Predicting those who will divorce, she said: "It's still the most vulnerable groups who are most likely to experience divorce - the unemployed, the disabled, those in financial difficulties, or those with emotional problems. Those whose parents divorce are also nearly 1.7 times as likely to divorce themselves."

Julia Cole, spokeswoman for Relate said that people should be given more preparation for marriage, to help prevent bitter marriage break-ups: "We need a relationship education programme," she said. "And it needs to begin before young people start relationships so that they can understand ways of sharing their feelings without resorting to arguments. We would also encourage couples to get pre-marriage preparation, teaching people how to communicate."

'He wanted me to stay at home'

IN A CLASSIC case of starry-eyed first love, Terri MacDermott got married at 18. "You fall in love, you think it is going to last for ever." In fact, her marriage lasted six years, and she only lived with her husband for two of them.

She met her husband when she was 14 and moved in with him when she was 17, getting married the following year. Going straight from her parents' home to married life was a shock. "You know nothing at that age - about independent living, running a household or even what adult relationships are like. What you don't realise is that at that age you change so much up to your mid to late twenties."

Her parents had liked her husband until the relationship got serious, then there was a real problem. Parents and daughter did not speak for several years after Terri decided to get married. Most of her friends were more supportive. "It's more of a peer thing, what we saw as our route in life - to get married and have children."

The couple could afford only a room in a shared house. Terri supported her husband, who was a student accountant, by working in a shop while she yearned to go back to education, something she discovered her husband was opposed to: "He had a traditional view of what a wife should do - stay at home, bring up the children - whereas I wanted to get an education and work. I ended up feeling trapped and stifled."

Terri worked night shifts in a burger bar while studying during the day to get her A-levels. The crunch came when she was accepted to do a degree at university. "I felt it was something that I had to do. There were lots of arguments, there was lots of verbal conflict. The relationship degenerated and by the time I went away, it broke down beyond repair."

Looking back she would not recommend anyone to get married as young as she did. "And if you do think you want to marry someone whether you're 17 or 27, I'd live with them first. There's a great difference between seeing someone two nights a week and marrying them."

'It's good to settle down early'

WHEN PAUL JONES, 23, proposed to his girlfriend, Steph Tann, 22, about a month ago, he did it in a very traditional manner. He first asked her father's permissiont.

"I was going to propose to her on stage at a wedding and although I wanted it to be a surprise for her, I didn't want it to be a surprise for her parents, especially if her father said no."

"I was shocked being dragged up on the stage in front of 100 people because I didn't twig what he was going to do," said Steph. "Of course I said yes straight away."

The couple met at Cardiff University when they were 18 and knew each other for a couple of years before they started a relationship. They have already lived with each other for some time.

"We'd been together for two years and we'd bought a house together and it seemed everyone was very matter-of-fact that we would get married," Paul said.

"I never thought I was the person who would settle down early," said Steph. "I always thought I'd get married about 30, have a career first, but it just happened. It's not the sort of thing you can plan. But you just know when it's right."

Paul says his friends' reactions have been mixed: "A lot of them are really happy, but some of them are slightly less so. There's one in particular who hasn't mentioned it. Some of them are still living at home and are not as independent-minded as us."

"But getting married was a logical conclusion," said Steph. "We'd made a commitment in buying the house, but we wanted to make a traditional romantic commitment to each other, which I think marriage is."

"I don't agree with 19-year-olds getting married when they're unemployed, living at home, pregnant and getting engaged for the sake of it," Paul said. "But I think it is good to settle down early if you've had a chance to see a bit of life because then you can share experiences from an early stage ... And we won't have all that, 'oh we can't go to Paris because you went with someone else'. We've got all these things to share."