Marriage should be recognised as the gold standard of relationships, and treasured in order to protect children from the ravages of multi-partnerships.
On a cold drizzly, autumn day in Cambridge, I passed a small figure huddled up on the pavement outside a bank. A homeless person who sleeps on the street is not an uncommon sight in many towns and cities in England. Something compelled me to retrace my steps and engage with the bundle – a young girl of the same build and age as my own daughter. She was crying, softly but desperately, her grubby hands wiping away the tears. The flute she plays to coax a bit of change from sympathetic passersby lies at her feet. Her heart is too heavy to make her flute trill their happy notes.
Her story is heart-rending but I suppose also not an uncommon tale in this society. Her mother, the victim of an abusive husband, had taken another partner, had children with him, and was now co-habiting. As he was not her biological father, his behaviour to her was one of resentment, eventually becoming abusive. Cara, as that was her name, unable to withstand things any longer, left home with nowhere to go. It seemed that anything would be better than her situation at ‘home’. Over the months, I have seen her deteriorate, her skin becoming covered with little sores as she does not have anywhere to wash, her spirit weakening and empty bottles beginning to appear at her side.
“I don’t understand her!” she lamented of her mother, “Why does she have to live with him?”
Amid the din of the feminine chatter of one of Cambridge’s more glamorous hair salons, my stylist, Sarah unburdens her soul to me. She does not know who her father is, her mother, now in her 50’s, continues a life of bed-hopping, on one occasion even with one of her daughter’s young friends. Sarah received a drunken call in the night once from an unknown man who was at that time with her mother laughing in the background obviously in a compromising situation. A remarkably strong young woman, Sarah has to seek the help of counsellors, who, though expensive, help her to make sense of the terrors of her life.
Now with a child on the way, her ’partner’ has not committed to marrying her. Sarah wants to make a clean break away from the life given by her mother. Will she be able to do it or will she also have to one day break from her child’s father and then move on to the next? At least her child will know who its father is. She told me of her intention to have her baby christened and to be christened herself at the same time. She desperately wants a moral framework for her own life and for her baby. She has suffered immeasurably from the relationship patterns of her mother and has had the awareness to try to counteract it in her own life. Only time will tell whether the pattern that has been so etched into her subconscious will release her to allow her to re-invent her own life so it does not mirror the horrors of her own.
Another woman, Penny, now parted from a second husband, said she ‘squared’ her sex life with her two young sons. She told them that she did not intend to ‘live the life of a nun’. She seemed to be of the opinion that because she told the youngsters about what she was doing, then everything would be just fine. Now approaching the age of 60 she declares that she needs “a man in her bed”. As it was difficult to compete with the young, pretty girls for unmarried men, married ones were her only resort: she therefore targets them. She complains of behavioural problems in her sons.
Always hoping to move up the social ladder and now finding it difficult to make ends meet, she is more interested in married men with money and status. The bigger,better deal. She is seemingly insensitive or not intelligent enough to realise the hurt being inflicted on her own children or the ones belonging to the married men. The daughter of one of the married victims has said that she can no longer trust men and that she feels as though her very life has been negated.
The dark face of family breakdown
In a recent article in The Daily Telegraph newspaper entitled, “Family breakdown is now a national tragedy” a High Court judge in the family division, Sir Paul Coleridge said, “Our children are the losers in the game of ‘pass the partner’”. Sir Paul acknowledges that things are different nowadays.
Why can’t we simply learn to live with a new definition of family and a new way of life? Sir Paul says that despite the seductiveness of this argument he has had the sadness of witnessing the damage done to children by the endless game of “musical relationships”, or “pass the partners”, while children look on.
He recently invited a BBC researcher to spend a day with him in the High Court to watch a
typical case. This was with the view to making a documentary on family breakdown. The case was so harrowing that the researcher was ‘stunned into silence’. She was further rendered speechless to hear that at that time there were 20 judges in the Royal Court of Justice engaged in similar cases. Over 100 family courts in London were dealing with family breakdown that day. This was only one city – all across the country the same was being repeated.
The resulting documentary was moved to a very late slot as the contents were considered to be ‘too dark’ to be shown at nine p.m. Sir Paul says, ‘It is precisely the case that what broken families experience is ‘dark – very dark’. He said that it was therefore a pity that a debate was not opened up on a wider scale by airing it earlier to raise awareness of the human tragedy of the issue.
In ‘politically correct’, carefully non-judgmental Britain, Sir Paul says that there is a tendency to assume that we have attained a social utopia, happily liberated from taboos and other constraints on social behaviour. ‘Let us all do what we want, when we want and sort out any mess as we go along.’ Sir Paul believes that the test of such social change is whether it enhances people’s lives or not. If the new attitudes are successful, why are the courts overwhelmed by cases involving damaged, miserable or disturbed children? Even in less serious separations, Sir Paul asks whether children like the continual changes in partners or having to adjust to new stepparents and stepsiblings.
Sir Paul goes on to say that although some relationships are genuinely impossible to continue, the current state of the family represents the change for the worse. The most affected, the children, are not considered in the ‘maelstrom’ that surrounds them.
The consequences of infidelity
Marriage must be re-affirmed as the ‘gold standard of relationships.’ Despite the fact that marriage is never easy, the new social norm of co-habiting or traditional marriage without fidelity has not brought happiness. If one accepts the old adage that good trees bear good fruit, the number of dysfunctional children seen in courts and in schools would therefore point to the rottenness of the scenarios which reduce these children to their unfortunate state. The most sobering fact is that even as the children grow into adulthood, it is supremely difficult to rehabilitate them. If people behave with integrity and dignity putting their charges before self-gratification, children would have a better crack at life.
The tenuous scenario endured by children of common-law marriages is horrifying enough but is probably outdone in the terror stakes by those who think they are as secure as offspring of a traditional marriage but which then suffers the shock of affairs of one kind or the other.
In the current modern society where the commitment to marriage is disregarded, those who are actually married, indulge in affairs seemingly like never before. Traditionally, such indulgence was more often the man’s domain, but with more and more women working outside of the home, this has changed. Recent studies in the UK showed that 47 per cent of women in full-time employment had committed adultery at some time or other. Needless to say the effects on children of their mother, the ‘heart’ of the home and chief nurturer, is profoundly devastating.
Adults, in their quest to achieve their own personal gratification, indulge in affairs having no idea or choosing to ignore the fact that the hurt stemming from affairs lasts a long time. By that, says Jeff Murrah in Shame across the generations, affairs have a reach across not only the original protagonists but also across generations. “The reach of affairs goes both backwards and forwards. The scars and shame associated with affairs are often carried by the children and grandchildren. These generations wanted forbears who they could count on, they could believe in, and instead they are given someone who disappoints them.”
Murrah says that the hurt that goes across the generations is a dark, empty, hollow experience. No matter how the adulterer tries to sugar coat the episodes of their lives, the children and grandchildren continue carrying the shame.
It seems that the burden of shame carried by the generations ironically drives the children of each to follow suit, despite the memories of their own unhappiness. With their primary role model destroyed, it becomes easy for young adults to fall into dysfunctional relationship patterns. These can become entrenched- promiscuity, dishonesty, insensitivity, self-devaluation and an inability to trust. The young person can begin to anticipate being abandoned when in a love relationship.
A whole gamut of behavioural problems can emerge in adolescents: substance abuse, truancy, apathy, low achievement, or running away. In addition they can become emotionally unstable, anxious, rage–prone, reckless, depressed and extremely disrespectful. Low self-esteem is a hallmark of children who have had to endure intrusions by affairs into the principal relationships of wife and husband. At worst, they can self-harm or even become suicidal if the parent refuses to give up the affair. Children can suffer deeply even if there is just the allegation of an affair.
According to psychologist Catherine Ford Siori, older children are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy. Their parents are on a pedestal until they discover that previously stated values are not in line with their actions. When the adulterous parent falls off the pedestal, it changes the child’s whole conception of who their family is, and their own sense of who they are. Not only is their identity impacted negatively but so is their moral development.
Again, drawing from Patricia Morgan, parents through their choices and actions are teaching their children to say, “Yes”, to any number of unsavoury behavioural patterns. The emotionally destructive and unhappy life caused by the initial infidelity produces endless repeats of the same in a tragic cycle. Until one generation gets it right by respecting the institution of marriage as the “gold standard”, the outlook for an emotionally healthy society remains grim.
Although a government can reinforce and encourage behaviours in a society, the primary force for increasing the chances of well adjusted children who become principled individuals are the parents. Chances of success will further increase if raising the family comes from a traditional marriage which remains unsullied by divorce or infidelity or even the allegation thereof.
Society needs to go for gold.