How to Save Marriage From Hitting the Rocks

Couples don’t take their wedding vows seriously when they can get out of matrimony more easily than their mortgage

Marriage has had a good press lately. More people are marrying and more people are staying married. This is welcome news. I have recently met a number of community groups that promote marriage in schools, colleges and generally in society, an encouraging and hopeful experience for me. But of course while I welcome this greater interest in marriage, both in promoting it and defending it, it is impossible to do so unless we understand what marriage and the family are.

The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure carried out a long-term, cross-cultural study of the family in many different countries some years ago. It discovered that the father, the mother and the children are at the heart of family structure, even in cultures that have traditions of extended families. This is the proper use of the term “nuclear”. A nucleus is the centre, the heart, the core of a cell or an atom. It is not what it is taken to mean these days: isolated from everything else.

This research was backed up later by Martin Richards’s work at the Cambridge Centre for Family Research, which showed how important it is for children to have both parents for their upbringing, and the consequences for them of divorce. Even in situations of conflict (provided they are not too extreme) children prefer their parents to stay together. These centres were building on the discipline known as the sociology of the family, which began in the 1940s and considered the family in the sense I have just described as “natural” or “normative”. This family, expressed as it is in different contexts, is ubiquitous, found in many different cultures and over the course of history.

The Christian church does not claim to have invented the idea of the family. What it has done, at its best, is to identify those things in cultures and places that were there already and which needed to be affirmed and strengthened, sometimes corrected and, on occasion, refuted. So the church built on the Hebraic tradition of the family, as taught in the Old Testament and practised in Judaism, but it also acknowledged some features of the Roman idea of marriage and the family, and built on that. The Greeks were more difficult to learn from because on the one hand you have the statism of Plato, where governors and guardians give up their children to public nurseries — there is nothing new under the sun — so that they can take part in public life. Aristotle on the other hand was overly biological in his understanding of marriage and the family. 

The Christian church based its approach to marriage and the family, as it found it to be in different places, on the one-flesh union of man and woman. They were not only given a common mission (known as the cultural mandate in the world) and created and ordered towards one another for the birth and nurture of children, but also for their own fulfilment and security. It is very important to understand this. 

Throughout the course of Christian history there have been many expressions of this view of marriage and the family, but I want to examine just one. His is a name difficult to avoid on the topic: St Augustine, the great Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine saw marriage first of all as the coming together of man and woman for the sake of children, but also for the sake of the security of the partners. This is what you might call the contractual view of marriage. It needed to be understood in a lifelong sense because, apart from anything else, the human child takes a long time to grow up.

But Augustine didn’t stop there. He went on to speak of the commitment that is necessary — contract is not enough — so that we do not use one another simply as a means to our own selfish ends, but commit ourselves to the other as a person. Augustine also spoke of the sacramental bond, which means that you are now not talking about two but one — the unity that is created by the complementarity of man and woman. It is a unity that arises out of similarity and difference. There has to be another in the marriage so that we can come together in this particular way for the common good, for children, and for one’s own fulfilment.

Augustine has remained salient in nearly all the thinking about marriage, certainly in the Christian church but indeed well beyond that — for example, in the Enlightenment. 

Let’s take three typical thinkers of the Enlightenment. John Locke emphasised the importance of the contractual side of marriage and particularly the contract that is undertaken for the birth and nurture of children. But the implication is that the contract might not last beyond the growing up of the children. That’s the weakness in Locke’s position, whereas we would have to say, relying on Augustine, that the contract is not just for the sake of the children but also for the security of the partners. What happens when you have brought up the children and then you are abandoned? This is not an unfamiliar story these days.

Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, developed St Augustine’s emphasis on commitment into what he called the unbreakable promise — when you undertake a vow it is then your duty to keep that vow. For him there is no duty higher than the keeping of a promise. 

Contract and commitment in this sense of duty, of unbreakable promise, are important elements of marriage, but it was Hegel, another great Enlightenment figure, who talked about the mystical union. Here we are coming very close to the Augustinian idea of the sacramental bond. For Hegel the differences that exist between the two persons are overcome so that there is a real unity of thought, direction and destiny in the marriage. Although in the Christian tradition, marriage between the baptised is thought of as sacramental because it is a sign of unity between Christ and his church, Hegel extends this to marriage in the natural sense. This is reflected to some extent in the Anglican emphasis on marriage as a creation ordinance.

Augustine laid the groundwork and Enlightenment philosophers developed it, but the sad fact is that today there are threats to all of their ways of understanding marriage. Even if you think of it as mere contract, what has happened to that? Since the arrival of no-fault divorce without consent, is marriage even a contract any longer? What kind of contract is marriage now if you can get out of it more easily than your mortgage? The so-called reform of divorce laws has had a destructive impact on marriage.

What about commitment? If long-standing spouses leave one another for whatever reason, there is no social disapproval for their breaking this unbreakable promise. Clergy perhaps have more experience of this than most other people. Tragically, again and again the pastor in his study is confronted with the breaking of what is supposed to be unbreakable — and often unilaterally. 

What about the mystical union, the sacramental bond? We are living in an age when some commend what they call “free relationships”, which last only as long as the partners want them to. So all those aspects of marriage that have been regarded from Augustine’s time as important, indeed essential, are now threatened.

We must urgently fight to restore a public doctrine of marriage in this country. Divorce reform and other legislation have not just damaged but almost destroyed any public understanding of marriage. For many years, centuries indeed, the public doctrine of marriage was that of the Book of Common Prayer as it is set out in the preamble to the marriage service. One by one, all of the aspects of marriage in the preamble have been placed under severe threat at the very least, if not more than that. 

Why do we need a public doctrine of marriage? In their recent pastoral letter, “The True Meaning of Marriage”, the Roman Catholic bishops have set out some of the answers. First, marriage is good for society and is one of its basic building blocks. As far as I know, there has never been a society which has not had marriage and the family as its basic unit. Second, it is good for children. The best outcomes for children are to be found within marriage, whether in how they perform at school or their social behaviour. Third, marriage is good for the partners themselves: most studies show that people who are married live longer, are healthier, and perhaps even happier. So marriage is good for society, good for children and good for the partners themselves.

Human beings have many different kinds of relationship. We are social animals and have relationships with parents, siblings, relatives and friends. It is important for us to recognise the importance and the richness of relationships. Regrettably, many of them, because of the patterns of modern life, are nipped in the bud. It may be right for us as a society and indeed for the government to recognise and support some of these relationships. It may be right for people in a particular kind of relationship to take legal steps to ensure that it is just and fair to both parties. I am certainly not against that. During the passage of the Civil Partnership Bill in the House of Lords some of us sought to widen its remit to include people who were sharing domestic arrangements on a long-term basis for a number of reasons. The amendment was passed in the Lords and was only set aside in the Commons. I’ll leave you to judge the wisdom of that. 

While we want to recognise and support a number of different relationships that people have, these must not be confused with marriage, which is a particular kind of relationship ordered to a particular end for certain purposes. It is a category confusion, if you like, to say: “We want to improve relationships between people whatever they might be, so therefore we should get them married.” This would be absurd in many circumstances. The integrity of each relationship has to be recognised on its own terms and not in terms of something else. This is not the place to comment on the place of gay relationships; the church’s teaching is clear about this. But if those in such relationships feel that they need legal protection, they should be able to have it without confusing such an arrangement with marriage. 

If there is to be a public doctrine of marriage, what would its practical implications be? The importance of preparation for marriage is often mentioned. Again, clergy have some experience of this. Most clergy engage in marriage preparation for couples whom they are going to marry. I cannot, hand on heart, say that it is always done very well but at least they have a shot at it, and we need to help them to have a better shot at it. There are now many resources available for this. 

What about civil marriage? The press delights in telling us that more and more people are now not getting married, or if they are getting married they are not doing so in church, but in register offices or one of those wonderful “New Age” locations. What preparation is there for such people? I was at such a marriage recently. An hour or so before the ceremony, the groom, who had already had a number of drinks to keep up his nerve, was having another. I said to him: “Do you really need to have this drink?” He said: “Oh yes I do, because in a few minutes I’m having my preparation with the officiant at the ceremony.” What would be the effect of such preparation on a person who had already had more than his fair share of alcohol? This is simply unacceptable. We are heading for disaster and if Parliament can do nothing else it should encourage comprehensive marriage preparation for couples, whether it’s in church, or in the ceremony of another faith, such as a nikah, the Muslim wedding contract, or on civil premises. 

What should be the content of this preparation? People will present it in different ways. There will be DVDs, manuals and all sorts of things like that. That’s fine, but at the very least the preparation should enable the integration of the various kinds of motivation that lead people to marriage, particularly for men. It is important that the sexual instinct in men is integrated with their capacity for affection — men do have a capacity for affection, appearances notwithstanding — and also with the commitment to nurture. If these three elemental aspects of human nature get out of kilter then the marriage will be at risk from the very beginning. Augustine understood this. I look forward to hearing what women have to say on the subject. 

Second, the preparation must take people through what we call “stages of intimacy” or perhaps better “aspects of intimacy”. You have courtship and then you have the honeymoon period. That is all very well but then you have conflict brought about by competition. Married people are just like other human beings: as they occupy the same space, they each want to get their share of the space and their share of the resources. Newly-weds should know that this will happen, that after courtship and perhaps even during the honeymoon, there will be competition for scarce resources even within the marriage (after all, it is the basic unit of society). As there will sometimes be conflict, and they should learn how to deal with these issues, rather than allow the marriage to hit the rocks. And they should know too that this process can lead to co-operation, to that unity of mind and being that Augustine called the sacramental bond and Hegel the mystical union. I do hope that with the help of psychologists, and of those, such as the clergy, who have so much experience in these matters, that sound preparation can be made available not only for people who get married in church but most importantly for those entering into civil marriage. 

Third, parenting. There is an increased consciousness of the importance of parenting, but the word is to some extent a misnomer. There is really no such thing as parenting: there is mothering and fathering, because mothers look after their children differently from fathers. Fathers even play with their children differently. The difference is obvious to anyone who has brought up children and is confirmed by research. It is vital from a developmental point of view that both parents are able to relate to their children adequately. The campaigns (extremism notwithstanding) to make sure that fathers are present for their children are very important as they have to do with a child’s sense of identity, with developing good all-round relationships and with proper nurture. I salute single parents who bring up their children alone and do so as well as they can. Nevertheless, I think they would be the first to say that it takes two to bring up a child. They know best of all, in fact. Support should not be withdrawn from the charity Home-Start and other agencies that are involved in showing people how to be mothers and fathers. 

What about prenuptial agreements? In the press, prenuptials are taken to mean agreements about money in the event of divorce. In the US, there are experiments to allow couples to undertake what they call “covenant marriage”. At the beginning of a marriage, the couple agree about what will happen if it runs into difficulties so there may be a requirement to undertake counselling, for example, but also to specify the conditions under which there may be divorce. If we adopted such covenants we would move from a situation where there is in effect no-fault divorce without consent to couples agreeing between themselves what would be sufficient reason for a divorce — desertion, adultery, cruelty and so on. We ought to think about how we can encourage people to take  marriage as a step that is solemn and serious, and more difficult to bring to an end than it currently is in our culture. 

The direction of divorce reform in this country, from 1969 onwards, has all been in one direction — continuous liberalisation. I can understand some of the reasons for it but there is now an issue of justice. For judges not to be able to take into account an injustice or a wrong that has been done, doesn’t speak well for our commitment to justice. Nor does the fact that subsequent arrangements do not depend on how responsible each partner has been in the marriage. We’ve got to do something about this. (People involved in marriage support have frequently said that they are amazed at the lack of support in the divorce courts.) 

Finally, there is the question of preference for marriage. If there is a public doctrine of marriage, there will be some preference for marriage and for the family. I was very glad when the Conservative Party election manifesto pledged to recognise marriage through the tax system, and I am sad that the party has not honoured its pledge, or at least not yet. It is very important that people mean what they say. If the Conservative Party or the Prime Minister says that marriage is important for society and the family, that has to be recognised somehow. 

The tax system is one obvious way to do it. How that is done can be discussed, whether through restoration of the married couple’s allowance, or the transfer of tax allowances between one partner and the other, or the support of marriage and families where there are children, the last being the pattern found in France and Italy. However it is done, it must be done for the sake of marriage, the family and demography. We are in a serious situation insofar as the replacement of the population is concerned. The reasons we don’t see it more clearly are, first, immigration, and second, people living longer. But the whole of Western Europe is facing the critical issue of falling fertility rates and there should be no shame in encouraging people to have children and in supporting them through the tax system, so that we can also look after the elderly when they can no longer work.

Our task, then, is not to redefine marriage but to understand its nature and the threats to it. It is also to promote marriage and defend it. Would that we were having a proper consultation about these essentials, rather than the marginal and somewhat exotic one in which we are at present engaged.

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