GOOD news! Australia’s divorce rate last year was its lowest since 1992 and the number of marriages is on the rise. But before we become too complacent and begin to believe that we live in the land of matrimonial harmony, we must note that even this record low constituted no less than 47,000 divorces, compared to only 118,000 nuptials. Four in 10 marriages are still estimated to end in divorce.
So although the short-term trend is encouraging, the longer-term changes over decades show a significant decline in the number of marriages both commencing and enduring.
Every divorce is a personal tragedy. Often no-one is to blame, although many have to suffer. But as parents and educators, we must ask if we are preparing our children well for what will be the most important and consequential task of their adult lives — creating a loving and lasting marriage, for their own sake and that of their own children.
In some crucial respects, we are not succeeding. We are failing to teach our children to compromise or to persevere.
In striving to give our children self-esteem — a vital and difficult challenge in the world of competitive and sometimes cruel teenagers — we too often confuse self-worth with self-importance.
We put our children on a pedestal and tell each of them they are the most important person in their world. Bar and bat mitzvah parties turn into coronations of princes and princesses, with no indication that the youngster has any more to achieve in order to reach perfection.
Yet marriage requires precisely the opposite approach. Suddenly each partner in a couple has to realise that they are, at best, the second most important person in the world. They have to learn to share, to compromise and to yield. When in our children’s childhood and youth do we teach them these skills?
If a marriage hits a bumpy moment, as it often does, are future partners prepared? To the delight of advertisers and manufacturers, we live in a culture of “ending is better than mending”.
As soon as the iPod or iPhone looks tarnished, it’s time to get a new one (and that’s if we haven’t already upgraded simply because a new, slightly improved, model has been released). If a child has problems at school, the solution is to try a new one.
Clothes that suited us well 12 months ago are now “so last year”.
The same applies to challenges. In an era of instant gratification, if a problem cannot be solved quickly, it cannot be solved at all.
But marriage requires a mindset that is diametrically opposed to this cult of the new. We have to find opportunities to teach our children that often it is the old things that are worth preserving and that persevering with a problem may, in time, bring a solution.
Our children are not helped by the messages about relationships they receive from the media. The most popular movie genre, the romantic comedy, follows the same formula as the fairytale that was its cultural antecedent: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again — and they live happily ever after.
Dramas, on the other hand, usually start with a couple in a relationship and chronicle its dissolution. So the real (and best) story, of a couple working on their marriage and making it last, is rarely told.
One message that young people learn from their peers -— that may or may not be endorsed by their parents -— is the devaluing of sexual intimacy.
In the past, society understood that sex was reserved for marriage and, even though this convention was often ignored, the expectation itself showed how physical relations can serve as a unique bond between couples permanently committed to each other for the long term.
Now such a view seems quaint or even so antediluvian as to be laughable. But if sex is used today to say “I like you” or even to say “hello”, what is left to say “I love you”?
The decline of marriage matters. It is not only human beings — parents and children -— who suffer when a family is shattered, but society as a whole. Nature (whether the designer is God or Richard Dawkins) has arranged for the children of human beings to live with their parents for longer than the young of any other species, so that they can learn values and skills with which to prosper and build the next generation. The family is the building block of society itself.
A stable family does not guarantee stable children and many single or separated parents raise happy and confident young people. But to help our own children with the challenge of building their home and hence creating their own world, we must show them that the greatest happiness may take much time to achieve, but can last forever.
Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne.