Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Only Solution To High Divorce Rates and Broken Families

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
- William Somerset Maugham, writer (1874-1965)

While this sounds like the perfect explanation for why western countries have such high divorce rates, Maugham lived before that phenomenon began. What changed?

First, divorce ceased to be a social taboo such that divorced persons were no longer social outcasts from their married group associations. Divorce today is so common that it is almost expected. Tell someone that you have been married for 30 years today and they will react with surprise, "To the same person?"

No doubt there was a strong desire by people before the 1960s to leave each other, to separate by means of divorce so that one or the other (or both) could enjoy a happier life. But social pressure came to bear in keeping unhappy people together in marriage until they finally got old enough to be able to cohabit with a minimum of strife. Many of our grandparents and great grandparents were not the happy lovable people as we knew them, when they were younger.

Divorce became accepted as a necessity because so many people were separating and living common law with another person. It was easier to change the law to allow couples to divorce so that new couplings could form with new marriage arrangements. ''Til death us do part" gave way to "Until we can't figure out how to live together any more without someone getting beaten to death." (The remark was intended facetiously, but the amount of spousal abuse and murders of spouses today makes you wonder if that latter should not have been included in the marriage vows of some couples.)

A couple of generations ago when the average person didn't live to retirement age, staying together until the death of one partner was not such a stretch as it is today when a couple who marry at age 20 could conceivably live long enough to celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary.

As Maugham said, people go through many life changes over that length of time. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip will celebrate their 60th anniversary this year, for example, yet no one is ready to pack either of them off in a box.

Until the 20th century, the primary purpose of marriage was to give birth to and raise children to become the work force of the future and to provide for parents in their elder years. For many young people today, work is their main focus in life and family comes a poor second. They don't know how to succeed as couples because they have not been taught the skills necessary to secure this evolving relationship.

These skills are teachable, but we don't teach them on a broad scale.

We also don't teach young adults the skills of parenting. Most get babysitting courses and take Lamaze classes, but parenting courses are rare in most communities. So we find many conflicts within couples and within families.

We have the skills for successful marriage and successful raising of children within the professional groups of psychologists and therapists and some professional speakers. But the primary purpose of these professionals is to fix broken people, not to provide them with the skills that would prevent them from breaking in the first place.

Let's put this together. We have the skills, but we teach them to the wrong people or to the right people at the wrong time.

Why should we be amazed that a couple has lived together for many decades? These people learned--somehow, somewhere--the skills they required to have happy lives together.

Successful marriages and successful family raising can be done in today's world because it is happening around us. But a majority of couples are not receiving the necessary information they need, as the statistics show.
It's not a radical idea to suggest that the skills be taught to individuals who intend to be part of a couple and to individuals who plan to become parents in the future. What's radical is the idea that the education systems should alter their curriculum to accommodate this "new" social necessity.

As Maugham said, people grow and change naturally. If a couple is to remain together, they don't need to stare into each other's eyes every day. Rather they need to look outward toward the future in the same direction.

No doubt this will require better methods for sorting mates into those that are acceptable possibilities and those that are not. This, too, is teachable. There is little point in boasting about marrying the best looking girl or guy around if the marriage lasts only a few years (or months) and ends in tragedy.

(The best looking kids in school are so used to attention they can't get in a marriage and family situation that most of their pairings end in divorce, so physical attraction has only limited value in mating choice. Young people need to be taught other criteria.)

In today's world of megasocieties, we have returned to the days of our pre-human ancestors when it comes to teaching marriage and parenting skills. In later tribal societies and agricultural communities--parts of the past of all of today's modern societies--marriage and parenting advice was considered essential.

As a retired teacher myself, I can attest that there is room for this change in the curriculum. Moreover, the addition would add an important aspect to school that many kids find lacking today, which is teaching them about the real lives they will live as independent adults.

The alternative is the fragmenting of society that occurs today, with divorce rates over 50 percent and an increasing percentage of couples choosing to not get married at all.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to make the tough choices in life a little easier to understand.
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