Sarah Sands: Realism, not romance, keeps you in a marriage

Like Russia, marriage is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It can be the source of the greatest human happiness and the cause of its greatest woes. My position on the institution is one of the purest moral hypocrisy. I believe in the sanctity of marriage and its social virtue. I am also happily divorced and remarried.

It is quite common to hold these two opposing views. For, rather like abortion, we deplore divorce in principle and find it useful in practice.

The Matrimonial Causes Act, 150 years old this month, was a masterpiece of liberal legislation. The William Wilberforce of slavery within marriage was a woman called Caroline Norton, a beaten, humiliated wife who lobbied for the right to be free. Until she did so, women were the property of their husbands, with no legal standing.

Many Conservatives regard the Act as a textbook example of the unintended consequences of liberalism, the beneficiaries of this passionately moral piece of legislation being the frivolous and the cynical, as well as the deserving.

A forerunner of the Human Rights Act in this respect, the Matrimonial Causes Act and its amendments means that you can now divorce without stigma or blame. Yet when an option is made easier, people are inclined to take it – whether it be a university subject or a state benefit.

The English have acquired a hearty taste for divorce. Rates have increased over the years to an annual average of about 155,000. That means 310,000 more people parted every year, their tears and anger spilling into schools, streets and police cells. The breakdown of marriage has been the greatest single cause of the country's social disorder.

It is interesting that it is the Conservatives, the party of individualism, which has been prescriptive about this. Divorce is like vaccination. Should you risk your own personal wellbeing for the greater social good? Or think, sod it?

It is true that the young, among whom divorce rates are highest, are disproportionately casual about marriage. The main causes of disputes are irritation and frustration. As Kate Nash sang in "Foundations": "You've gone and got sick on my trainers/I only got these yesterday/Oh my gosh, I cannot be bothered with this..."

But I am still optimistic about the gravity of marriage vows. If marriage is so demeaned and so easy to get out of, why does it still exist? It remains the highest human aspiration. Agony aunts may warn the young against an over-romantic view of marriage, but I can think of nothing more hopeful than unblemished innocents pairing off like swans.

It is romance that gets you into marriage, but it is realism that keeps you there. The report that 59 per cent of women would leave their husbands if they could afford to did not alarm me.

It is sensible to consider the economic consequences of divorce. You spend, say, 10 years building a home, only to smash it all up like a sandcastle. Most say they stay for the sake of the children. Good. But it is a reassuring lie that children "just want their parents to be happy". A stable and comfortable home is a much higher priority.

In other words, there is no logic to divorce. It makes you poorer and your life far more stressful. It inflicts misery on the very children you are programmed to protect. The spirit of Caroline Norton's reforms holds true. But you are a bloody fool if you think you can leave a marriage lightly. The foundations of your future happiness are built on a fault line. Divorce itself, however quick and blame-free, is Hades. What sanctions can a government inflict that are worse than your conscience?