Leading Article: Read this leaflet, save your marriage

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The Independent Online
THE GALLUP poll on children and marriage, on which we report today, will not surprise many readers. Its key finding is that the arrival of children, far from helping to darn the holes in a threadbare marriage, is likely to make things worse. Yet it is worth asking why this should be, and whether couples who are about to embark on cohabitation, marriage or parenthood can learn anything from the poll's conclusions.

Among the factors responsible for the huge increase in Britain's divorce rate over the past generation, two stand out. The first is that duty to partners and future children is no longer the clinching emotion in marrriage. Since the Sixties, British adults - women in particular - have become less self- sacrificing. Rather than concentrating on their future obligations, they now look more for opportunities to develop themselves: they seek more rewarding work, better leisure opportunities, and the security that life as a single person sometimes lacks.

This change has saved many women from embarking on potentially loveless marriages and has given many others the courage to divorce - ending partnerships that would, in the past, have caused years of suffering. But it is a change that can also tempt either partner to fall at the first marital fence.

A second factor is the mismatch between women's expectations and men's behaviour. Before the age of rock 'n' roll, people took the fixed roles of breadwinning husband and homemaking wife for granted. Today, with more women working and more men expected to help at home, there are more possibilities. But when women want to discuss this with their partners before marriage, the answer is too often a grunt of token assent and a return to the TV. It is therefore no wonder that the arrival of a child is more likely to expose, rather than assuage, whatever tensions exist.

This being the case, the government-backed advice that may soon be given to couples when their marriage banns are posted looks prudent rather than threatening. Leaflets under discussion between the Ministry of Health and a leading marriage research charity will advise prospective couples to talk honestly about their expectations, to think why they want to marry, and to discuss how they propose to share the household responsibilities.

It is sad that such advice should be needed, and sadder still that the Government - with a patchy marital record of its own - has to provide it. But this is not a case of encroachment by the nanny state. If the proposed leaflets can save even a handful of marriages they will do more good than harm.