24th April 2007
Bishop Willie Walsh Irish Times opinion article on marriage and family
A recent survey* commissioned by ACCORD and carried out by Amarach consulting presents an encouraging picture for those of us who are concerned about the wellbeing of marriage at this time. This study focussed on the first seven years of marriage and this presents a snapshot of couples and their approach to marriage in the Ireland of the new millennium.
I believe the survey provides a timely antidote to a creeping trend towards presenting the lifelong loving relationship which is marriage as being in something tending towards terminal decay. This trend has been gaining momentum over the past decade among some media analysts.
Commentary on the recent census figures, for example, focussed almost totally on the news that the divorce rates were up by 70% over the past four years. However, in reality divorce has only been available for the last ten years and if we compare the rates of the first five years to the second five years we have not seen the snowball effect that the figures indicate. In fact, Ireland continues to have one of the lowest divorce rates in the western world. The fact that the number of couples entering marriage in the past four years continued to increase – albeit with increasing population – received little attention.
ACCORD, as an agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, works to help couples initiate, sustain, and enrich their marriages. This duty of care is the catalyst in providing programmes of preparation and enrichment, while also providing a safe space where couples can go when their marriage encounters difficulties. ACCORD has been supporting marriage for over forty years. In the past three years alone we listened to, engaged with and helped 150,000 clients through our marriage preparation, counselling, and schools programmes.
Given that divorce is now on our statute books for just over ten years and that the Celtic Tiger has changed society greatly, ACCORD felt the need to engage with recently married couples and to look at how they met, why they married when society does not demand they do so and what they see as the benefits and challenges of the first seven years?
I believe it would be true to say that most young Irish people weigh things up well before committing to major life decisions. We live in a consumer society where people no longer make decisions on impulse alone. Yet vast numbers of our young people continue to make the radical choice to seek the sacrament of marriage. The couples who present themselves for marriage preparation do so because they have decided to get married in the Catholic Church. Their decision to get married is a consensual one. It is often overlooked that the first question asked of them by the priest at the altar is “Have you come here of your own free will and choice and without compulsion to marry each other?” As they make this significant promise to remain committed to each other for life it is imperative that society offers appropriate supports and structures to them.
Marriage is a common good that blends effectively the sometimes differing needs of the individual, the couple, family members and wider society.
The young couples in this new research are a practical demonstration of “living marriage” and real life experience. Although seldom offered the opportunity to “talk the talk”, they in a very real sense continue to “walk the walk”.
The survey shows that the marriage rate (which adjusts for a growing population) has actually increased in the last ten years. It indicates with absolute clarity that couples view their marriage as a lifelong commitment only to be broken in extreme circumstances, the wedding day being a clear sign to the couple and the community of this commitment.
Not surprisingly the survey shows evidence of an increasing trend towards co-habitation before marriage. There is no doubt that this trend is real. However the modern couple sees this as a form of deferred marriage, driven perhaps by economic circumstances, price of houses and cost of weddings as much as anything else.
It is often asked what is the secret of a happy marriage? This question can unintentionally imply the notion that marriage and happiness are not compatible. This perception is very gently put to the sword in that this research indicates that 70% of married couples are very happy with life in general while 77% are very happy with their marriage and 86% would recommend marriage to another couple. In an age when equality and diversity are conernstones of a civilised society we see that marriage is a form of being where there is a great sense of equal partnership, particularly in the recently married couples where 90% agree they have similar goals and 94% similar values.
In an era where it can be hard for the human to find solid ground to stop and be, it is refreshing to observe that two thirds of couples feel their relationship has strengthened since they married, with the main benefits for them as individuals being love, fulfilment, family security and companionship Just imagine the idea that marriage which can so often be presented as a dead pan institution of a bygone era, is actually a modern phenomenon which can create meaning and underpin the humanness and humanity of an oft times fast and automated society.
Like all thing worth having there are times in marriage where both people are challenged. Parenting undoubtedly presents the biggest challenge to married couples. While in the early years they find little problem in getting time for themselves, only three in ten couples of those married seven years manage to take time out together once a week or more. This is compounded by the modern quest to balance job and family life, ease and avoid financial pressures, ensure a fair division of household tasks and juggle relations with extended families. However, instead of thinking of capitulating or running away, 98% of couples interviewed would marry the same person again whilst only 7% have thought about separation and divorce.
While the survey was not confined to Catholic couples the sacredness of the marriage relationship is at the heart of Christian understanding of marriage. And while one in four couples described themselves as “not at all religious”, the majority claim to be “moderately religious” and attend religious service either regularly or occasionally.
These figures indicate that while religious practice has declined among young couples the scale of the decline is not as extreme as sometimes suggested. This is surely a source of encouragement to us as priests who are involved in the pastoral care of marriage as sacrament.
I believe that Ireland is unique in Europe in its commitment in our constitution to guard with special care the institution of marriage on which the family is founded. There can be no doubt that a core social and personal challenge of our time is how to make loving lifelong marriage work for ourselves and our children.
All of us will benefit from a society which truly cares for marriage and family. Loving families are not only good for the members of the family, they also contribute significantly to the wellbeing of our whole society.
Bishop Willie Walsh is Bishop of Killaloe and President of Accord
24 April 2007
*The report on the survey Married Life – the First 7 Years is available on www.accord.ie and on the Special Features Archive section of www.catholicbishops.ie