The 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act allowed for a much swifter parting of company between man and wife and it was the comparatively affluent who were the first to take advantage of this legal genuflection to the ‘me generation’; the notion that henceforth we should be able to do what the hell we liked, whenever we wanted, and that marriage was no longer for life but just for a bit. And that the consequences did not really matter: what mattered was our immediate happiness.
The poor followed in good time. I stood outside the Job Centre in Middlesbrough a few years back, interviewing everyone who came out, or at least all those who would speak to me. The proportion of people whose parents were separated or divorced was 100 per cent. The vast majority had gone on to suffer broken marriages themselves or had sired offspring with partners and then moved on. This stuff had not made them feel free and happy. It had effectively wrecked their lives, financially and emotionally. They were hamstrung by debt and the meagre payments they had to pay to estranged spouses. The women were unable to find work because they were required to look after their kids. The men couldn’t travel for work because they still wanted to see their children. The relationships they formed were all transient and ephemeral, devoid of commitment, devoid of real love, you might say. That’s what it was like for the adults.
For the children? Catastrophic. Perhaps the least of their problems is that they too are more likely to form temporary partnerships and thus perpetuate the problem, according to various studies. More to the point is the long and dismal list of outcomes for children who have suffered their parents being divorced. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, those brought up by single parents do worse at school, are more likely to suffer emotional and mental problems, more likely to be unemployed or end up in low-skilled work, more likely to be in trouble with the police, more likely to take drugs, more likely to be promiscuous. And this is true even when weighted to take account of economic differences. Neither is everything rosy with stepchildren. There is the profound emotional trauma that always accompanies divorce. And then, stepchildren are far more likely to struggle economically, socially and behaviourally, no matter how well off their family. They receive less parental attention than kids brought up with a biological mum and dad who are married.