Dumping romance for the sake of kids

This piece was first published in Online Opinion on 29/9/2011.

Child Protection week saw its noble focus placed heavily on preserving marriage for the sake of children. Numerous pundits, including Patrick Parkinson from the International Society of Family Law urged governments to support programs aimed at helping marriages stay committed ‘for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’. The intention is admirable and no-one doubts that.

The discussion has managed to place marriage and relationships firmly back on the public agenda. Yet child protection commentators, in pressing for greater commitment from adults within the marriage union are missing the crux of the problem entirely.  The problem for children isn’t their parent’s lagging commitment to marriage, but our very definition of an institution which is outdated, restrictive and increasingly unpopular.

The myth of romantic marriage and the nuclear family ideal that evolves from it has never been in deeper trouble than it is now. Today’s divorce statistics place marriage very much in the high risk basket. If the institution was a bank it would have very few investors. Only the mad would invest in a bank with a 46% failure rate.

Why is marriage, which seemingly worked well for hundreds of years in so much trouble?  Perhaps the simplest reason is that as our knowledge, wealth and life span have increased, we’ve realised that one person cannot possibly meet all our needs for the rest of our lives. Our average age of death since 1790 has moved from 45 to 80 years, and the ‘rest of our lives’ is a bloody long time! As medical science has increased our life expectancy, it has decreased our marital satisfaction. As we’ve become wealthier, we find we don’t ‘need’ our significant other for survival.

Mum and dad cannot possibly mean all things to each other because in our fast-paced, connected world, ‘all things’ means a hell of a lot.  In a small, isolated community it’s far easier to be all things to one’s partner. We possibly even need them to survive. When the world is at our fingertips, our choices are limitless and the ability of one person to address them all has its bounds.

Yet another reason is perhaps the most important. As education levels have increased, the penny has finally dropped that nuclear families do not provide the safest and healthiest way of bringing up children. Far from providing a protective umbrella of care as in extended family or community systems, the nuclear family through the institution of marriage creates a narrow funnel of care; a funnel firmly fixed on mum and dad; a funnel of responsibility too great for any couple to realistically bear.

This toxic nuclear family ideal, and the myth of romantic marriage that gives birth to it, must accept some responsibility for the extent of child abuse in this country.

In an attempt to forge a way out of the divorce mire, the idea of the limited marriage contract is once again on the table. The language used in this discussion is decidedly removed from any ideal of ‘forever love’ and firmly placed in the practical world of 21st century relationships. Yes, any talk of a marriage contract instantly pours cold water on romance just as finding the mortgage payment pours cold water on the ideal of home ownership. Time to grow up.

These contracts talk about finance and housing; about land entitlement and health; about family responsibilities should the couple separate before a child’s 18th birthday. If as research states, the chance of children reaching the age of 15 without two parents at home has doubled over a generation, what extended family or community links exist to ensure children’s safety?

21st century contracts will realistically appraise marriage as an investment with a 46% failure rate. If couples absolutely need to invest in the marriage ‘bank’, they must understand what it means to be a part of that 46%.

The modern marriage contract will have an expiry date with an option to renew. This expiry date could be shorter should the couple remain childless or longer should children arrive.  The relationship under the contract may change over the years and the individuals may not always live under the same roof. The couple however, maintain a core understanding for the well-being of the children. Mothers will always have important maternal contact. Fathers will always remain involved in their children’s lives.

Interestingly, American researcher Kyle Pruett found that fathers who are significantly involved in the daily physical care of their children are far less likely to be involved in the abuse of their own or anyone else’s children.  In the light of this, perhaps those pressing for more ‘commitment’ within marriage could also press for less industry time demands on dads.

An intelligent society questions the institutions that generate concern. Savvy investors question companies that fail to deliver. Rather than blindly invest in an institution with a 46% failure rate, it’s time to reappraise marriage and the family unit it generates. Perhaps then will children be the focus of a less romantic, yet highly possible relationship platform.

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