We all seem to be agreed that we need to have something to say about marriage to the press. We had a wide-ranging and inconclusive debate on what we might say. Which got me to thinking about the purpose behind such statements. Why are we saying whatever it is we say? If we are clear about this then we should find it easier to decide what to say. For example, if we want to increase the numbers marrying and reduce those cohabitating, then we could publicly support the statistics demonstrating the benefits of marriage by comparison with cohabitation. Providing this evidence is conclusive, such statements of support would lead to a positive change in behaviour, the ‘on average’ outcome would be applicable to the specific cohabitees who are the target, and there would be limited negative side effects.
The philosophic base for statements on marriage
Comparative statements – this is better than that – imply a normative morality i.e. there is one right and proper way, albeit other lesser ways are tolerated. Our society is, I think, becoming less normative and more plural, less certain and more searching, less ignorant and more unknowledgeable. This may be why some are uncomfortable with ‘but marriage is best’ even though this may be right!
‘Right’, in terms of the human condition, is a multi-faceted concept. Family form is but one of its many determinants.
Great artists are often the products of unhappy childhoods. Is it more ‘right’ that these driven talents existed or that more functional parenting would have led them to quieter lives? Which outcome would have been better for them and better for society? Once childhood is over, an emotional education and a philosophy to make sense of life are not part of our social infrastructure. This seems a rather important omission.
Education in its broadest sense enables moral behaviour. Sex education and relationship education are the most obvious examples in our field. Do we believe families are best served in the long run by normative rules or by enabling education?
By comparison with the other ways in which family contentment could be improved, how effective is making statements about marriage? For example, would consistent quality relationship education in schools in the long term do more to increase the average lifespan of marriage? Or universal parenting education, or destigmatising relationship counselling, or a one town project, or improving the child-friendliness of society. In other words, against our objectives, how much energy does the marriage debate merit – a strong answer or a placebo?
Priorities can be considered from the perspective of ‘input’ factors. The argument runs that the legal and ceremonial act of marriage has a positive impact on child development. How does the impact of the marriage act compare with the impact of other ‘input’ factors, for example parental ‘presence’ (proportion of time the natural parents spend with the child), extent and degree of continuing parental conflict, positive or negative parenting styles, amount of extended family involvement?
If marriage is high in the league table of input factors in terms of its impact, then it would merit high emphasis, and vice versa.
The marriage debate is characterised by the use of normative and comparative language: success and failure; right and wrong; good and bad; best and worst. This is hardly family or child friendly: a 20-year marriage, now ended, has presumably not been a ‘failure’ throughout its entirety. Such language implies the children of this marriage to be the products of failure – but these are human beings whose very existence came from this ‘failed’ relationship. The use of normative language may have more to do with reassuring permanently married couples.
We may want to say something about marriage to enhance our reputation as an authoritative voice. In this case, we may want to review the marriage statements by other authorities. One Plus One, Marriage Care (the Roman Catholic Marriage counsellors) and Relate are less certain in conclusion than some have suggested we should be.
How valid is the research? In human behaviour is it really possible to standardise for all other variables so the conclusion can be reliably drawn that the marriage act makes the claimed difference? Recent research from Harvard indicates brain size and shape and with this the ability to relate are affected by abusive upbringing. Parenting styles producing secure and insecure children have similar consequences. Have these physiological and psychological variables been taken account of in the marriage conclusions. If not, is there a possibility that these variables may be playing a bigger part in family stability and success than the marriage act?