The matter with marriage

Forty-five years ago, only one marriage in 500 ended in divorce in this country. In 1954, 6.7 per cent.—nearly one in 15—went that way. The figure has risen inexorably, and the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which has just published its report, was set up in 1951 to enquire into the situation “having in mine the need to promote and maintain healthy and happy married life.”

The trend is, in fact, world-wide. Britain’s divorce rate is lower than those of France. Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. Highest of all is the U.S.A.. and the lowest figures, as would be expected, are for countries with large Catholic populations to whom divorce is forbidden: Canada. Belgium and Scotland. In addition, there is a steady smaller number of decrees of nullity and judicial separation. Most divorce petitions are granted: of 28,347, which were filed in Britain in 1954. only 1,094 failed to obtain decrees nisi.

Divorce had no legal existence a century ago. Before and after the Reformation, ecclesiastical courts dealt with matrimonial affairs and granted separations in exceptional cases, but there was no means of dissolving a marriage. In the 18th and early 19th centuries it could be done by Private Act of Parliament; a procedure referred to by the Royal Commission of 1850 as “ open . . . to anyone who was rich enough to pay for it.” The first legislation allowing for the dissolution of marriage was the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. It permitted a husband to apply for divorce because of his wife’s adultery; women were given no such facilities until 1923. And—despite another Royal Commission’s recommendations—adultery remained virtually the sole ground for divorce until 1937, when desertion, insanity and cruelty were added.

The principle on which the current divorce law is founded is termed by the Commission “the doctrine of the matrimonial offence”; that is, the viewing of certain acts as being wholly incompatible with the accepted basis of a marriage. The alternative principle, urged by a number of people, is that of “breakdown of marriage,” and any substantial alteration to the divorce law would mean introducing this. The Commission was not in favour of it, and its report is therefore disappointing to would-be reformers; apart from some minor recommendations, it provides simply a survey.

The Commission’s explanations of the spread of divorce are familiar ones. They include housing difficulties, the emancipation of women, the loss of moral standards, the complexity of modern life and, most strongly emphasized of all, failure to take the responsibilities of marriage seriously. The remedies, in their view, are educating and encouraging the individual “to do his duty by the community” and increasing the facilities for “marriage guidance.” In the entire Report, which is longer than most books, there is not a word concerning the real place of the family as an economic unit of society, and the real reasons why its disintegration has become a social problem.

The Commission says:

“The Western world has recognized that it is in the best interests of all concerned —the community, the parties to a marriage and their children—that marriage should be monogamous and that it should last for life. That may be so (though the fact that nearly half a million people in the Western world are obtaining divorces every year suggests that some of the Western world does not recognize it); in any case, it is not saying much. Society never recognized that marriage should be monogamous and life-lasting until it was monogamous. The fundamental, important point is that monogamy is one form of marriage; there have been others, each in accord with a different stage of human development, each with its own moral code showing clearly that it, too, has been “ in the best interests of all concerned.”

The monogamous family as it is ideally conceived belongs really to the Middle Ages, bound by tenure and tradition to its land or occupation. It was economically indissoluble—the reason why, on the surface, it was legally so. As an institution, it was carried op into industrialism. The status of the worker here was different, however: instead of being bound to his land, his village or his craft, he was now a “free” labourer. Thus, the family had remained but without its former economic ties: it had become dissoluble.

In fact, relatively few divorces were obtained by working people in the 19th century. For one thing, they were expensive! for another, the severely localized character of 19th-century industry made masses of workers dependent upon one town and one factory almost as feudal serfs had been on their land. Even until quite recent times, entire families worked in particular mills—“their own”—in the cotton and woollen towns. Men grew up, met their wives and later sent their children to work in the same mill, and when that mill closed down they were unemployed until it was opened again.

The family has disintegrated simply because its economic function has changed; so, consequently, has traditional sexual morality. Morality is the code of behaviour which a society produces to safeguard its institutions, and when the institutions decline, so does the morality. Sexual morality has always aimed at keeping the family intact, and its lack of observance today is effect, not cause. The people to whom it remains vital are those whose status requires the careful maintenance of family life.

It is easy to quote figures and overlook that each one represents a person. Thirty thousand divorces (a year’s yield in England) means 30,000 histories of unhappiness, and that is a horrifying thought. The Royal Commission speaks of “the complexity of modern life” which “multiplies the potential causes of disagreement and the possibilities of friction between husband and wife.” It is not a Commission’s, nor this article’s function to give “human stories”; nevertheless, it is worth reflecting a moment on the things which society can do (that is what “the complexity of modern life” means) to two people who started full of fondness and desperately good intentions.

The individual failings and misfortunes which, in the Commission’s view, cause unsuccessful marriages, are in reality facets of larger problems. The lack of adequate housing, the search for financial security at all costs, the refusal to have children—all are aspects of poverty. Harmony has a hard time in two rooms; equally, it lacks scope in a house with a high rent, instalments to pay, and a host of demands made by a society which “recognizes that marriage should be monogamous and that it should last for life.” The Commission considers that much of the increase in divorce is because “many people can now get a divorce who could not get one before.” That does not really improve the picture: it suggests, in fact, that there are many more unhappy marriages among people who, because of pride, respectability or religious belief (among many more reasons) still can’t get one.

One other aspect of present-day marriage needs to be mentioned: the commercialism which pervades it as everything else in our world. The Royal Commission would have been nearer the point if they had mentioned the sale of canned illusions about marriage instead of complaining that people are too light-hearted about it. The modern young woman has been taught she hasn’t a hope without the right perfume and the right foundation; the modern young man knows he must express himself in endearments from the film card-indexes; they both know that they need a contemporary bedroom suite, and they may not have the lolly of Miss Kelly and the Prince but they love each other just as much.

The problems involved are not ones which can be solved by amendments to existing legislation; the important thing is the social condition which leads to 30,000 divorces a year. Once, the monogamous family was a secure, unquestioned institution; changing economic conditions have taken its stability away and commercialized what is left, and the result is a lot of unhappiness for ordinary people who mostly never know what went wrong. The answer to this, as to all the other problems of the present day, is to establish a social basis on. which neither the misery of poverty-stricken or ill-suited marriages nor the purposeless muck-raking of divorce suits can be founded.

The Royal Commission’s function has been to consider what may be done to keep marriage going as an institution of property. Their assumptions about it were, as they say, “implicit in our terms of reference” that is, they did the work they were told to do, and thus are unable to suggest a solution to the problems raised. See marriage as one institution among the property relationships of present-day society, and it becomes a different matter. The obvious and rational solution then is to do away with all those relationships—that is, with the Capitalist system itself—so that human happiness and not gain will be the sole motive of social organization.

What can be said about relations between men and women in such a society is, as Engels says in “The Origin of the Family” (read it), “ limited for the most part to what will disappear.” Not much needs to be said, in any case: only that they will want each other as men and women, and not as housekeepers (which is only too true) or as dream-substitutes (which turns out disappointingly) or as highly-paid employees (which is what some of the better-to-do make of their wives and then are astonished when they behave as such).


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