On relationships, this generation has learned from their parents’ mistakes

Couples now realise marriage is not a social, religious or family matter. It’s personal

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Like anyone who has been through the misery of a broken marriage, I suffer from divorce guilt. The ending of married life, however civilly it may be conducted, is a seismic personal failure, a whirlpool of negative things – bad judgement, bad faith, unhappiness, unkindness.

Recently, though, something worthwhile can be seen to have emerged from the mess that so many people of my generation have made of marriage. An unexpected legacy has been passed on: we have shown those coming after us how not to do it. They have watched, often painfully, and many of them learned how not to screw up their own lives and those of their children.

It turns out that they are getting better at being married, firmly refuting Philip Larkin’s famously baleful view of family evolution: “Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf”. What has in fact deepened is a sense of maturity and proportion when it comes to couples making a life together.

The trend towards better marriages, observable in daily life, has been borne out by the facts. This month, the Office for National Statistics reported that the divorce  rate in England and Wales is now a fifth lower than it was in 2002. A couple who married in 2005 is 24 per cent more likely to be together after seven years than they would have been in 1991. The number of marriages failing within their first decade is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s.

Of course, there are still unhappy marriages, with husbands and wives behaving badly in one way or another (although adultery as grounds for divorce is at an all-time low). But, on the whole, couples in their twenties and thirties have discovered that a successful marriage is not a social, religious or family matter, nor something which one should do out of duty at a certain stage in life. It is personal.

The whole process has become more flexible. Not only is it generally accepted as a sensible idea that a couple should live together for a while, but quite often they may decide to have children while unmarried. If that works out, then, with eyes wide open, they formalise matters.

A strange paradox is being enacted: the less seriously marriage is taken as an institution, the more sincere it becomes. At the very time when social conservatives are bewailing the erosion of traditional marriage, it is changing and growing stronger.

There is nothing new in this slow Darwinian process of marital improvement, generation by generation. Many people today in their fifties and sixties once looked back, appalled, at the previous generation’s model of marriage, with its inequality, boredom, frustration, its crushing sense of duty. Now it is the turn of their adult children to consider the late 20th-century version – rows, affairs, general selfishness – and vow to do better.

A modern marriage allows both partners to discover their inner potential

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A change in gender roles has helped. The great tide of feminism has smoothed the hard edges of masculinity, allowing – no, let’s be honest, requiring – men to be more involved in family life. What a liberation that has turned out to be, both for mothers and fathers. Another survey, this time for the BBC’s Work and Family Show, has revealed that more than a fifth of fathers would have preferred to stay at home to look after their children than return to work. Imagine that, two or three decades ago.

Other factors have loosened the bonds of traditional marriage. The effect of divorce and remarriage of parents, with the nuclear family being replaced by what the Supreme Court judge Lord Wilson has called “the blended family”, has helped children to grow up with different kinds of relationships. Gay marriage has played its part, reminding the world that a formal commitment can be, above all else, an expression of love.

There are more awkward figures in the latest divorce statistics from the ONS. A hefty 42 per cent of all marriages will end up on the rocks. Among people in their fifties and upwards, sometimes known as “silver splitters”, divorce is increasing year by year. It would be naive to think that the relatively young couple who are successfully married today will not one day become silver splitters. If we are truly to become grown-up in our attitudes to these things, we should accept that people change and that marriage is not always for life. Just as, in the new model of marriage, the beginnings can be hazy and slightly shambolic, so the same should be true of the end.

The institution has relaxed, with less romantic hysteria and false hopes around wedding day, and less gloominess and false despair around divorce. At some point, perhaps, marriage might be seen as an arrangement which should be renewed every few years, like a driving licence. Once more the defenders of traditional marriage will complain that a great and important institution is being fatally undermined by people doing things in their own way – that personal preference is being put before the needs of society. And, yet again, they will be proved wrong.

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