For the past year I have been conducting research into the male experience of marriage and family; events which are more usually considered from a female perspective. On Monday the 3rd of August, BBC radio 4 Woman's Hour began broadcasting my interviews with men which will continue through the month. The first week focussed on young men, role models and the way in which parental behaviour influences attitudes towards relationships. The second week examined men's experiences of pregnancy, birth and fatherhood. In week three men talked about marriage and divorce.
1. Most studies of marital satisfaction describe the relationship between duration and happiness as being U shaped (VanLaningham, Johnson & Amato, 2001). Happiness is highest in the early years of marriage. There is a steep a decline in satisfaction when children come along and a subsequent rise in happiness in later years when children grow up and leave home.
2. It is a bit of a lopsided U however. The risk of divorce is highest between year four and year eight of marriage, but in recent years the sharpest increase in the divorce rate has occurred in couples who have been together for an average of 27.4 years (ONS, 2012). This rise is partly driven by the increase in the number of older people in the population, but it also relates to longer life expectancy, a decrease in the stigma traditionally associated with divorce, greater financial independence among older women and, of course, the invention of Viagra.
3. Although no one would ever blame the arrival of children for the departure of marital satisfaction, the transition to parenthood does change the marital relationship. The majority of studies find that increased conflict over decision-making, finance, and the division of domestic labour have a detrimental effect on marital satisfaction levels (Belsky & Kelly, 1994, LaRossa & LaRossa, 1981).
4. Marital satisfaction is influenced by a multitude of factors, from individual characteristics such as self-esteem and capability, to broader issues such as financial pressure, division of labour, gender roles, parental legacies, social support and socio-demographic variables. In fact, the experiences of marriage and parenthood are so multi-factorial that individual stressors, which are known contributors to marital breakdown, are often examined as separate entities, however the 'family' is a system of interdependent relationships so it makes little sense to research them independently (Belsky, 1981).
5. Timing is also an issue. Couples who marry younger may deal less well with the conflicts that arise as a result of creating a family, whereas couples who marry when they are older are less likely to divorce. The average age at which men and women marry is now thirty years of age; a statistic which might be encouraging if marriage rates were not in such a severe state of decline.
6. In England and Wales in 2010, only 21.8 men in every 1000 of the eligible population got married, compared to 60.4 men in 1980. For women, the proportion reduced from 48.1 women in every 1000 in 1980, to 19.8 women in every 1000 in 2010. (ONS, 2012).
7. In contrast, the rate of divorce has been increasing over time. In 1970, 22% of marriages ended by the 15th wedding anniversary, compared to 33% of marriages in 1995. By 2012, 42% of marriages ended in divorce and almost half of those divorces involved children under the age of 16.
8. Family breakdown is not just a social problem. It cost the taxpayer almost £46billion in 2013 through effects on health, extra housing support, lost work hours, legal aid and other related factors (Relationship Foundation, 2013).
9. In the UK, two-thirds of people (66%) believe that there is 'little difference between being married and living together', and almost half (48%) think that 'living with a partner shows just as much commitment as getting married' (B.S.A. 07/08). However, married relationships are more enduring than cohabiting relationships (Doherty et al., 2007), and couples who are cohabiting at the time of their child's birth are less likely to live together when their child is aged three (I.F.S., 2010). This is problematic because longitudinal studies have demonstrated that children raised by co-resident parents have, on aggregate, fewer problems in later life (Popenoe, 2007).
10. Marriage is in a state of transition and the men I have spoken to for this research project hold contradictory views on its importance as a relational construct. However, they do consider the institution of marriage to be a necessary safeguard for the family unit. This cognitive separation between marriage as a romantic 'union' between two adults, and marriage as a protective 'institution' that ensures optimum outcomes for children is a subject that I will be exploring further.