Starting afresh on divorce; ANOTHER VIEW

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, will reveal today in a White Paper proposals for divorce law reform which will essentially require that a couple attend an interview before proceeding with a divorce and wait for 12 months before the divorce is finalised.

During that time the spouses will have a chance to consider counselling or mediation, and arrangements for the care of any children and distribution of property will be settled.

The welfare of children is of paramount importance because research has confirmed that, although each child's experience is unique, as a rule divorce is traumatic for children and there may be both short- and long- term adverse effects for some of them. Thus consideration will be given before the divorce for their wellbeing and not, as at present, afterwards.

This law reform is a step in the right direction in a country where nearly four out of 10 marriages dissolve in divorce. Inevitably there will be discussion on the technical details, but this is a unique opportunity that is urgently needed and long overdue. The country seriously needs to consider the current nature of marriage.

The high divorce rate is due to many factors, but prominent among them is the changing nature of marriage from a contract of social roles, where the husband was the breadwinner and the wife mother and homemaker, to an egalitarian relationship of love. The latter requires social skills of communication, availability, affirmation and resolution of conflict which have to be learnt and this new type of marriage has to be supported.

For the past 50 years the response to marital difficulties has been marriage counselling which, while of value, has not really reduced the level of marital breakdown. Too few couples resort to it, and often too late.

We have to move from crisis intervention to prevention; that means education for personal relationships at school, preparation for marriage, the dissemination of information about relationships at the milestones of family life (such as the birth of the first child) and the training of professionals such as the primary health-care team (which is often turned to when a marriage is "in trouble") to offer appropriate support.

So my hope is that the new legislation will usher in a new era of appreciation for marriage. Money will not only have to be spent on putting new legal proposals into operation, but also to enable a new approach to marriage, with the emphasis on education, information and support. For this we need research and innovation.

Accepting the need to reform the divorce law should not amount to an acceptance of the inevitability of widespread marital breakdown; the present levels of breakdown are unnecessarily high - it is about time we took marriage seriously and worked positively for it.

The author is the founder and director of One Plus One, a research centre into marriage and partnership.