We live in a culture that no longer believes in the importance of marriage. Indeed, we have moved from being a culture of marriage to a culture of divorce. At a time when the institution of marriage is maligned and abused on all sides, the need for the institution has never been greater.
Three major changes are needed, it seems if we want to reverse the rise in divorce, and to reaffirm the importance of marriage.
The first change is cultural. What is needed is a major effort to tell modern culture that it, is wrong to emphasise the individual over the family or community. Popular culture is especially to be blamed for this stress on personal self-gratification at the expense of the social good.
What is needed is the re-establishment of the social stigma that has traditionally accompanied voluntary family dissolution. It is not politically correct to assign blame, guilt or shame to family breakdown today, but that is what is needed nonetheless.
In the past people tended to stay together in marriage for three reasons: 1) social shame and stigma acted as a deterrent; 2) the good of the children was paramount; 3) it was economically unviable to break up a marriage. Today we have undermined all three reasons for making marriage work.
The second change is legal. Reform of our marriage laws can also contribute, at least indirectly to a broader renewal of the marital relationship. The first priority is surely to reverse the legal trend toward easy no fault, little-responsibility divorce. A major overhaul of the Family Law Act is one obvious starting point. A more general goal should be to emphasise in law the importance of marriage.
Most discussion of divorce today settles on the aftermath of divorce – custody disputes, alimony payments, etc. A recent Parliamentary inquiry into family law was entirely devoted to these issues. Almost no thinking is directed to the prevention of divorce.
One of the few to examine family law in Australia from a preventative point of view is Centre of Independent Studies fellow Barry Maley. In his book Marriage, Divorce and Family Justice, Maley argues that contract and the sense of permanency that goes with it, is what distinguishes marriage from de facto relationships.
The two chief faults of the Family Law Act, says Maley, are the failure to set out the contractual obligations of marriage, and the lack of certainty in divorce settlements.
Can the Family Law Act be reversed in Australia? It remains to be seen. Most attempts at overturning liberalised divorce laws in other countries have seen only cosmetic changes, or at best, more consideration for the interests of children in divorce settlements proceedings.
The third change is economic. If Australian public policy is contributing to, or at least not effectively halting, the breakdown of the family unit, then we need to have a rethink of government social and economic policy.
The economic pressure for parents with young children to join the paid workforce needs to be alleviated by a mechanism such as the homemakers’ allowance.
It may be too early to tell, but as some overseas studies are beginning to indicate marriages are more likely to break up when the mother of young children is in the paid workforce. And we are not speaking here of the negative consequences of putting young children in extended periods of daycare. Suffice it to say that as long as governments insist of coercing mothers into the workplace, the divorce culture will continue to flourish, while the marriage culture will continue to subside.
When we as a nation became serious about environmental degradation, we took steps to correct the problem. We need to see the destruction of marriage and the family as being just as harmful to the nation. It is up to all of us, not just our politicians, to call attention to the problem, and to get active in reversing it.