Social notebook

January 20, 1996

The collapse of marriage and the family." I saw the phrase in the Daily Telegraph but it could have been almost anywhere. It has become a common-place. Right and left-Telegraph and Guardian-join hands to tell us that the family is on the way out. To the right, and to some of the New Labour intelligentsia, the collapse of the family signals the end of civilisation as we know it. It is one of those moral panics which afflicts the professional worriers like a recurrent malaria.

To the old left, the collapse of the family was a liberation. The family was a prison house, even a torture chamber, which stopped individuals fulfilling their potential. The intellectual source of this is RD Laing's "anti-psychiatry," which blamed the family for all our ills. This was first promulgated by Laing in The Divided Self in 1960, and then embodied in a Ken Loach film, Family Life (excessively miserable, even by Loach's rather high standards of misery).

When all agree that the apocalypse is imminent, beware. The family has existed for thousands of years. It has withstood pressures from both church and state. Under authoritarian regimes, it has been a refuge from such pressures. It seems unlikely that it is about to vanish. Nor is it. The family in Britain is astonishingly alive and well. Perhaps, in its way, it resembles the nation state, another institution whose imminent death has been repeatedly predicted.

As always, it depends on how you read the figures. But according to the 1991 census, 80 per cent of children in the UK live in a family headed by two adults who are married to each other. This is hardly a crisis of family life.

Admittedly, our high divorce rate means that one of those parents may be a step-parent, and some of the children half-brothers and half-sisters. But it is still a family of a recognisable, traditional kind. Step-parents, as the Brothers Grimm confirm, are nothing new. In the past, second marriages were occasioned by death more than by divorce. (Usually the mother's death, from puerperal fever.) Divorce has never been so popular. But the same is true of marriage. A higher proportion of the British population is married today than a hundred years ago. Once upon a time, lack of money caused many people to postpone marriage. This is no longer the case.

Nor is single parenthood quite as it is presented by pressure groups of right and left. There is an undeniable rise in the numbers of children living with lone parents. But single parenthood is not a steady state. The turnover is enormous. Statistics capture how many mothers are single parents at any one moment, but fail to capture how many are moving out of that state, as well as in. New research shows that the average length of time a child spends with a lone parent is three and half years. That is long enough, to a child, but it is not a life sentence. Things settle down again. A new spouse or steady partner is found. A traditional family is re-created. (Most single parents are mothers who are separated or divorced from their husbands. Very few are women who have never married.)

I say "long enough" for a child because all studies show that, on average, single-parent families are poorer, often much poorer, than two-parent families. (Averages, of course, conceal many exceptions, especially if the mother has a good job.) The children do worse at school, have worse health and worse job prospects.

Intelligent reform springs from working out what is really going on. What I have reported here leaves many ethical questions unanswered. If the experience is so transient, couldn't the state be more generous? Or will that make the tide into single parenthood flow more strongly? Let's get the story straight first.

The family bends; it does not break. It is not fragile like glass, but flexible like a tree. For example, the idea of a transition zone before marriage is becoming (despite what the Archbishop of Canterbury says about cohabitation) more respectable. By this I mean a couple living together until the woman becomes pregnant. This is not as new as it is cracked up to be. It takes us back to the style of betrothal common among the non-property-owning classes before the church and state bureaucracy decided to tighten up on what marriage meant. The regulators were backed up, from the 18th century, by new middle class values-especially in England, the world's first bourgeois society.

But today's re-jigged code is not yet fully accepted-witness the failure (so far) of everyday language to fix on a satisfactory term for the new relationships. Uncertainty about words betrays other, inner uncertainties. "Partner," which the middle classes prefer, is pompous and ambiguous. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are all right for a year or so among people under 30, but after that? "Lover" and "mistress" are too poetic at best, too Barbara Cartland-style at worst. "Fianc?(e)"-the term preferred by glitterati who give interviews to Hello! magazine-raises the question of how long you can keep the pre-marital flag flying.

As we enter a new year of apocalyptic predictions, the inventor of the word which achieves popular acceptance will deserve a small prize. A CD of collected wedding marches, perhaps. n

Paul Barker