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The crisis of the mediocre marriage

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Wives were expected, and taught, to run the home

Divorce is an unhappy fact of life for many families in Britain, but it became so in response to an even greater crisis in family life - the mediocre marriage, says Kirsty Young.

I'm a mum of two daughters. I'm also a step-mum and the daughter of a divorce that happened in the period covered by the first programme in my new series about the British family. The programme traces how marriage changed from the end of the World War II to the end of the 60s.

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Kirsty Young
The British Family series, presented by Kirsty Young, begins on Monday at 2100 GMT on BBC Two
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So when I started out making The British Family, I was acutely aware that this wasn't the kind of TV series you could simply consign to the compartment labelled "work".

Doing a series about family meant thinking about your own most intimate and meaningful relationships, the lives of the people who are bound most closely to you in life.

Divorce has profoundly affected my life and the lives of millions of others. But does that mean our commitment to family has fallen apart?

If there is one thing that unites the experiences of everyone we met making these programmes, it is the simple message: family matters.

Marriage crisis

The experience of World War II sent great ripples of change though Britain, and family and marriage were not immune from this volatility.

The idea that marriage was a stabilising force in society was shaken and our sense of what family is really about was radically changed.

Bride in 1950
Marriages in the 1950s were under strain

In the aftermath of war, many British marriages were - frankly - in a bit of a state.

The enforced separations of war had torn families apart and there had been a quite startling outbreak of unhappiness, adultery and collapsing marriages.

Indeed, the BBC had even felt moved to give airtime to the Reverend David Mace, a Scottish pioneer of marriage counselling. He broadcast a series of lectures on marital life and marital strife.

"Don't let things drift on from bad to worse, and then come for help about your marriage after it has crashed in ruins at your feet," he said on the BBC Home Service.

"There isn't a minute to waste."

At the heart of his little tales of troubled matrimony was a message - the fabric of the British family was in danger and we should all try our best to keep calm and carry on.

Revolutionary message

But there was also recognition among some that good-hearted encouragement might not be enough.

The National Marriage Guidance Council was established and began counselling couples in the late 40s.

These enthusiastic amateurs released bulletins which promoted the idea of "a relationship", a partnership based on companionship, rather than just an institution.

Marriage guidance from the 1940s

This might not sound very special today but then it was rather revolutionary.

Joy Ross was one of the first counsellors to provide marriage guidance to couples. "They felt they were absolutely failures, and that was the first task, to help them just [understand] that even Marriage Guidance counsellors have marriage problems."

This desire to help save rocky marriages was matched by an equally strong desire to make divorce as difficult as possible.

In the 1950s, a Royal Commission investigated matrimony, divorce and the law.

The committee was hopelessly divided, with some pressing for a relaxation of the legal framework which demanded that divorce could only be granted on the grounds of matrimonial fault, adultery, cruelty or desertion for three or more years.

Nobody knew that we weren't married, we were Mr and Mrs
Anna Bloomfield pretended she was married for 20 years, even to her daughter

Others stuck to the traditional line that divorce should be discouraged. The result was no change, which might have made the divorce figures look good but locked many people in miserable situations.

Anna Bloomfield fell in love with her partner Bill in the 1950s but his first wife refused to give him a divorce.

"I knew that we couldn't get married, but I thought it would be nice for us to live together, and Bill wanted to, so that's what we did, we moved in together. I'd changed my name… we'd also moved to somewhere else, so nobody knew that we weren't married, we were Mr and Mrs."

For 20 years they lived a lie. Their daughter was 18 when she finally found out - when they were finally able to marry in 1972.

Mr and Mrs Smith

Hotels, oddly, feature prominently in the seedy side of the story of marriage.

It really is quite staggering to learn, as we did, that it was pretty difficult to get away for a weekend in a British hotel with your other half if you were not married.

Sure, you could do the "Mr and Mrs Smith" act but our hotel reception desks were staffed by guardians of the nation's morals, always ready to turn away those they considered a risk to their reputation.

Sewing class
Schoolgirls were taught domestic duties

Other hotels were less stringent and indeed became the venue for a particularly sordid little charade.

If you wanted to break a marriage you could organise to be caught in an adulterous clinch in a hotel room.

Private detectives, such as Zena Scott-Archer, made a living from "catching" people at it and then testifying in divorce court cases.

When I talked to her, she said that "people were driven to getting evidence which wasn't really true.

"They would go to a hotel, the husband would go with another woman who wasn't his wife to the hotel, and arrange for the chambermaid to come in and see them in bed together.

"They weren't committing adultery but they looked as if they were. And then somebody at a later stage would go along and interview the staff and take a statement from the maid that she saw them in bed together."

No-fault divorce

It wasn't a high point in British social or legal affairs.

By the mid-1960s - even though marriage itself remained popular - it was obvious that divorce was not going to go away.

There were too many suffering wives who, like my mother, were part of the first wave of women who thought: "This isn't what I want from a marriage and I'm not putting up with it."

In place of dutiful suffering, responsibility and sacrifice, they were hungry for a measure of individual self-fulfilment.

Unhappy couple in 1955
Some couples struggled on dutifully

When even the Church of England found fault in a law that forced couples into pointing the finger of blame at each other, it was clearly time for change.

The 1969 Divorce Reform Act has had as deep a social impact as any of the big liberal reform acts of the 1960s.

Fault was removed from divorce and many people were able to get out of marriages that just were not working.

Since that time Britain has regularly topped the European league tables for divorce rates.

The National Marriage Guidance Council is gone. Renamed Relate it is now one of several relationship advice services.

"Our real enemy, in the battle for good family life, is not, as is often supposed, divorce. The real enemy is the mediocre marriage - these dull, dreary unions, in which all vitality has died."


Below is a selection of your comments.

The way to resolve the divorce rate problem is not to make getting a divorce more difficult, but rather to make it as easy as possible and to make getting married much harder. If you have to jump through lots of hoops and wait five years before getting married, you're more likely to mean your vows when you get to the end of the process. Making divorce really easy in this instance means you've probably thought it out before taking that step. Incidentally this might resolve the bogus marriage problem too.
L, London

The "no fault" divorce was only half a step forward, as whilst courts could grant a divorce on the grounds that the marriage had broken down irretrievably, the evidence offered to show that had actually happened, was the same set of causes as had previously existed for a divorce to be granted, ie adultery, cruelty, etc.
However, having abandoned the "blame" element; the new divorce laws were invariably seen as quite unfair, by an "innocent" partner who had to pay an erring spouse continued personal maintenance, and who had lost the matrimonial home. It would have been a far more equitable situation if a divorce could have been granted on application by either party, without any allegation of blame and, therefore, no penalisation.
Alex G, Ipswich, GB

I can't agree with that. The enemy is not the dull, difficult times, but a social attitude that says immediate individual fulfilment is what matters. The words of the traditional marriage vows were written because when you get married you need to mean them, or you don't have enough commitment to get through the ups and downs of life together, and shouldn't get married at all. I would never condemn individuals whose marriages fail, but I do think that divorce has been regarded far too casually as a solution to some difficulties, instead of what it should be: a very sad event which means that something is horribly and painfully wrong, and is beyond mending.
Jennifer Foster, Salisbury, UK

As the child (many years ago) of a divorce, I could not disagree more. looking across the water, from a largely traditional country that has recently undergone significant cultural modernisation, the problem you have, as compared to us, stems not so much from underlying differences in the quality of marriages in the UK, but from expectations of a far more successful life in general that arise from myths purveyed by various media. In short - you (and increasingly we) expect too much from your partners and your family life - you have been led to believe that you can have it all. You can't. Think yourself lucky if you can find someone you can love. Console yourself that your condition is at worst average, if you find yourself settling ultimately for affection and comfort. It would be nice to think that walking away from a "mediocre" marriage is a positive, but the sad reality is that it destroys lives and wreaks havoc, with little hope of subsequent success. The problem is the mindset that sees the need to do this. It will never be satisfied. To suggest that divorce, a solution to the problem of irrevocably failed marriages, should be invoked to end marriages that are merely dull is irresponsible and self-centred.
Ersty, Ireland

The preoccupation with much of the moralising political Right with marriage as the cure to all society's ills (which, unfortunately includes Cameron's project) misses a key point: it is stable, happy relationships (frequently financially stable ones too) that promote this, not "any" marriage.
Mike, London

I believe that couples should attend marriage workshops before being allowed to get married. Couples should be educated into understanding the long term relationship - the effect of having children on each other, money issues /lifestyle, sickness etc. Although not yet legally binding, drafting a prenuptial agreement really gets couples talking about what they expect from their other half and raises all sorts of questions about working, child care etc.
Michelle Breeze, Maidstone, Kent

What is a mediocre marriage? I wonder sometimes if our society's ideal that love should just work causes problems in marriages that would be overcome if people worked at them the same way they do raising their children, in their career, etc. Love does not solve all and concentration, hard work and communication is needed to make a marriage work. Divorce is sometime necessary - my parents divorced and my husband separated from his first wife. I understand the reasons for these separations, but not all are right.
Joy Bryson, Stirling, Scotland

The "real enemy" of family life is not a dull marriage. For every one of these there must be many more dull co-habitations. The enemy is the same as it's always been; selfishness, which is encouraged by the "me first" materialistic culture we have in the UK.
A healthy family has to be built on trust, unconditional acceptance and putting at least one other person's needs above your own. These many sound dull and are certainly not easy, but they are the recipe for a happy marriage and family life - take it from me.
Malcolm Reay, Winchester, UK

No fault divorce enabled my ex-wife to go off without reason 10 years ago with our three-year old daughter, and then claim nearly all my money and income - "the needs of the child are paramount" - even though I hardly ever got to see my daughter as she was growing up, because she was many hundreds of miles away and because my ex-wife made things difficult.
I am not giving my name because I don't want my ex-wife to see it. As in the case of many fathers, the child is a hostage, and my getting to see her at all is dependent on not rocking the boat in any way.
Anon, UK

Anon, please lets leave the sex of the person breaking up the marriage out of it. Men and women are equally hurtful when ending a relationship - my ex cheated on me for 13 years behind my back with at least 15 other women. He ceased contact with his daughter from a previous relationship & has now ceased contact with his step-daughter after being involved in her life for 13 years. There are people who behave decently and those who don't - however, I do feel that there are many people of both sexes who believe marriage is for better, in health, for richer, till I find someone better...
Carol Turnham, Swindon, Wiltshire

I am a relationship counsellor and agree that the greatest enemy is the mediocre marriage where people stay together but live separate lives and children grow up seeing their parents as individuals who have little in common and for whom family life is almost non-existent. Parents don't act as couples, lack of interest in each other is carried over to the children. In such families each member does their own thing, with TVs in bedrooms, meals taken separately, children left to their own devices. It worries me that the Conservatives are focusing on the family as the flagship for the future of this country and blame single families for all ills. Many single parents are more responsible and prepared to give care and love to their children than those in mediocre marriages where there is no longer love for or interest in each other. It is incorrect to believe that because marriage has taken place, the family is fine. I have seen too many wives and husband for whom that mediocre existence has become a millstone round their neck and with sometimes dire consequences for themselves, their partners and children.
Carla, Rugeley Staffordshire

I can see where Carla is coming from but I can also see that parents are under enormous pressure. Work intrudes more and more into home life. There are many other distractions both for children and adults which tend to lead to more independent activities. So it takes a real, positive action to ensure that family time and family life isn't corroded - which can lead to this mediocrity.
Sarah, Essex

I have only been married for eight months, but I know that if my feelings for my husband ever change, I will get divorced. No one can predict how they will feel 10 or 20 years down the line. You can put in as much effort, concentration and focus as you like to make it work but at the end of the day, if you don't love someone any more it won't make any difference. When did marriage stop being about love and start being about pre-nups, social stigma and "marriage workshops"? My parents divorced after my father had an affair. Anyone who thinks this should be worked through just to preserve the marriage is crazy. We are human beings and we are entitled to live our lives as we see fit, not by what people believe is the "right" way to behave.
Kate, Edinburgh

What has hurt relationships the most is unrealistic expectations provided by Hollywood and TV. The woman we chose or the man we chose is the same person, but they are not "Hollywood". Life has problems, and real life takes time, some things most aren't willing to give.
James, Chicago, Ill, US

I left my husband after 20 years and though I have never been so guilt-ridden I am glad to be gone. I will always wish he could have stopped me, that he cared enough, loved me enough to win me back. But he didn't. He had lost all interest in me so many years ago he barely even noticed I wasn't there. The tragic thing is to every outsider, it will always look like someone who was self-obsessed and fat on a diet of media encouragement to have it all when in reality (and every divorce is different, but my reality) it was as if I had vanished and was beyond being found. It was the most lonely, desperate place to be in for many years. I walked, I talked, I cooked, I cleaned, I even laughed. But I was a shell.
Now I feel finally I have something to offer. I still cry and feel sad, life is not perfect, and I am poor, but the sense of being alive and worth something is very precious. I still fantasise my husband will one day ask me back with an understanding that he, too, failed in our marriage. I still very much regret it ended, and that I ended it so catastrophically. Anyone who calls this self-obsession should imagine their own son or daughter living that sort of life. Is marriage - is anything - right at any price? Sarah Rees, Portsmouth, UK

Marriage used to be a promise of faithfulness carried out between two people which, when made, gave the couple more rights and privileges in the eyes of the state. Today the state has removed all those rights and privileges (in fact financially you're better of not being married) and marriage has become simply a status symbol required if one is to gain the full approval of other married people. The problem is that if it breaks down, it can come with a very heavy price. For the young person today there is very little incentive to get married and start a family. The young free and single doctrine is by far the more popular. And when it comes to wealthy people, marriage is in some case far too risky to contemplate. If you want to see more young working couples starting families you need to bring back decent tax breaks for married people and you want a complete re-writing and simplification of the rule surrounding division of assets in case of a divorce. Of course the first won't happen because of the cost, and second won't happen because divorce law is such a money spinner for the legal profession. So expect ever increasing divorce rates, fewer 20 something marriages and increasing numbers of 40+ mothers.
Ben, Hertfordshire

As a child whose parents have persisted with the charade of their lifeless marriage, I wish my mother had summoned up the courage to walk away years ago. My father has had several affairs and my mother's self esteem has dwindled away to the point where she is now too powerless to make a move. I think this has affected the way that I see men and relationships to the point where I have been single for 10 years (I am in my mid 30s). I would rather be single for the rest of my days rather than repeat my Mum's mistake.
Anon, Northumberland

My parents never married, and they split up when I was young. Yet they both loved me with all their heart, both played a major role in my upbringing and never used me as a pawn in any disagreements. I tend to think of my childhood as idyllic, which goes to show that it's love that matters to children, not whether or not their parents are married. I can only imagine it would have been a nightmare if my parents had stayed together "for my sake", and I had gradually come to realise as I grew up that this unhappy situation for all concerned was because of me.
Shaun Chamberlin, London, England



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