Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 3, 2003
A sacrament in recovery
Local experts see society giving a higher value to marriage
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The future of marriage looks bright despite high divorce rates and the current trend toward common law relationships, according to Catholic marriage experts.
And they see divorce rates falling because "there is a new energy and a new understanding of marriage" that is starting to get a hold of couples today.
What's going on today is just a temporary reprieve from the traditional sacred bond, they argue.
"There is still a certain feeling in people's minds and hearts that marriage is really special and that brings something extra, something better than just living together," explained John MacDonald, director of the Marriage Enrichment Centre.
"I don't know that a lot of couples really understand what it is that marriage adds. That's our job. When they come to marriage preparation, our job is to tell them why marriage is better than living together, why marriage has a lot more to offer you because of the intangibles that it brings together."
According to Statistics Canada, more young Canadians are ignoring the marriage ideals of their parents in favour of common-law relationships.
Statistics released last July show close to 1.2 million couples were living in a common-law relationship in 2001, up 20 per cent from 1995. In contrast, the number of married couples increased just three per cent from 6.2 million to 6.4 million over the same period.
The figures come from Statistics Canada's General Social Survey.
In 2001, almost 90 per cent of Canadian men and women aged 50 to 69 had started their conjugal life through marriage. The survey shows younger Canadians are not following suit. More than 40 per cent of men and women aged 30 to 39 in 2001 are expected to choose a common-law relationship as their first union. For Canadian women aged 20 to 29, the percentage is estimated to reach 53.
The appeal of marriage has dropped most significantly in Quebec, where the study estimated that 70 per cent of Quebeckers will start their conjugal lives through common-law relationships, compared with 34 per cent elsewhere.
Despite their popularity, common-law relationships are less stable than marriages and most Canadians eventually choose to marry. However, divorce continues to haunt married life. According to the study, more than 30 per cent of men and women aged 40 to 59 who started their conjugal relationships through marriage are expected to separate. That proportion was more than twice as high among those who started their conjugal relationships through common-law.
The tangibles of any relationship, either common-law or marriage, are earning an income, companionship and sexuality. "But with marriage there is this intangible, the things that are of the heart and of the spirit," noted MacDonald. "Marriage has a special energy, marriage brings commitment of a different level. Living together says, 'Okay, we'll try this.' Marriage says, 'We are going to do this.'"
Father Don Stein, who celebrates 40 weddings a year at Sacred Heart Parish in Red Deer, says marriage is still strong. "Marriage still involves a commitment and a lot of young people find it hard to make that commitment and that's why they are living together."
But in his experience most couples still yearn for marriage. "There is still that sense of marriage as a covenant that should be sort of approved and blessed through the Church by God," he said. "I think there is that yearning to have that (relationship) officially recognized."
Stein said he has a priest friend in Australia who says people there do not bother to get married at all. "He can't get over the fact that in Canada we have so many weddings," he said. "I feel very positive about the future of marriage. Last August I had three weddings every weekend. I think Canadians still have a sense of the dignity of a committed marriage."
MacDonald speaks of the "incredible value" of engaging the divine, engaging God and engaging Christ in one's married relationship because this brings in a third party that provides incredible resources.
"God is a resource of unquestionable value when it comes to two people trying to work out a relationship," he said. He can become the referee, the resource person, the presence that can mediate difficulties when the couple draws on him.
MacDonald sees divorce rates falling and is optimistic about the future, in part because the Church teachings on marriage have started to spread in the secular world. "Marriage is now being challenged with some of these issues around human rights that are questioning who should be called 'married' but I think within that context marriage is a recovering, if you will, sacrament within the Church," he said.
"People are recognizing that marriage is something foundational to the human community. Even before we had our sacraments people got married. In the Jewish tradition of Christ's time, marriage was something common to all the cultures of that era and centuries before that."
In the past, married couples didn't question their roles too much and they just bumped up against tragedy and difficulty and they dealt with it.
"But now we are starting to recognize that we can make a difference in a marriage when we get into bumps and grinds," MacDonald noted. "People are now seeing marriage is on the rebound as as a good life choice. Even counsellors and therapists are starting to say the most successful road is to work on that relationship, not to divorce and start over because they realize people often carry their problems to the next relationship."
Evelyn Marcon, a marriage and family therapist with the Redemptorist Centre for Growth in Edmonton, is also optimistic about the future of marriage but her optimism is qualified.
"I think marriage has a very good chance," she said. "I also know there are demographic factors that influence its success. I also know that people's values impact its success. I also know that low income and poverty is a risk to its success. I also know that men are more likely to divorce than women.
"I also know that the level of religiosity impacts the success of marriage. So it is not a simple question (and) I know that. Its value in the future? I think it has a high value. Is it the only institution that we are going to see? No, because we are not seeing that now."
Marcon only knows that the small number of couples she sees "are sincere, they struggle with their marriage, they want it to work."
She is reluctant to talk about divorce rates, but hopes they will fall based on the fact people are more educated about divorce's consequences. "They know it causes poverty. They do know there is an increased risk of problems for children."
Pat Merrick, who leads marriage preparation courses for engaged couples at the Catholic Pastoral Centre, said despite high divorce rates and increased common-law unions, marriage is still healthy and its future looks bright.
"I say that because people are finding that there isn't a substitute as rewarding as being married and because they are learning that it takes 100 per cent commitment (to have a good marriage)," he said. Despite societal pressures, "people still yearn for that permanent commitment to a partner, a commitment to oneness, a commitment to permanence and a commitment to openness. To me that's the basic marriage model and that's what people still have in mind."
Another source of hope for Merrick comes from the fact that people in North America have come to the point where they find divorce statistics "repugnant" and "unacceptable."
"That to me is a sign that we have come to the point where we understand the problem. We haven't found its solution but we are committed to finding it. It's an evil that needs to be addressed."