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Slow to tie the knot; slow to get divorced

THAT’S MEN: Marriage age is at its highest since the 1940s

IN THE 1960s and 1970s, a fellow who courted a girl for 10 years or more was a figure of fun.

Frankie Byrne, Ireland’s favourite agony aunt at the time, chastised such reluctant grooms over the airwaves in her no-nonsense style. Some, I am sure, were inspired to “haste to the wedding” as a result.

Today, it is Frankie who would be out of step with the times. Something odd has happened to us.

On average, men and women in Ireland are over 30 years of age when they get married, according to the 2006 census. I could not find an average age of marriage in the first instalment of 2011 census figures issued in March but other figures on marriage, divorce and so on had not changed significantly – so I assume our grooms and brides to-be are as reluctant as they were five years ago to tie the knot.

All of which means that the marriage age is now at its highest since the 1940s.

I suppose it is hardly surprising, then, that the percentage of people who never marry has been rising steadily since the early 1990s.

We have an image in our heads of the rural bachelor who never gets married and who lives alone in his wee cottage.

Guess what? The proportion of men who never marry is higher in towns and cities than in the countryside, according to the 2011 census.

In all, 25 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women aged 40-49 in urban areas are single. For rural areas the figures were 21 per cent and 13 per cent respectively

However, if the Irish are slow to get married, it seems we are also slow to get divorced. Our marriage breakdown rate is one of the lowest in Europe.

When you are looking at marriage breakdown in Ireland, you have to count separation as well as divorce because the Irish seem more reluctant than many other nations to move on to divorce from separation. Perhaps this has something to do with the four-year wait after the marriage breaks down before a divorce can be obtained.

Perhaps it has something to do with the cost of a divorce. Or couples may not be in a position to sell the family home (which may have a Celtic Tiger mortgage on it) and buy two new homes. Or perhaps it is an overhang from the days when divorce was a taboo. After all, we have had divorce in this State only since 1997.

By the way, the introduction of divorce didn’t lead to any great surge in marriage breakdown as feared by its opponents.

But why the low rate of breakdown?

Is it possible that people who postpone marriage until their early 30s have developed more maturity and are better able to withstand the stresses that are part and parcel of marriage? That seems to make sense.

Whatever the reason, that low breakdown rate is a good thing. Marriage boosts the health and wellbeing of both partners, with men gaining the most. Separation damages the health and wellbeing of both, with the men losing the most.

Marriage breakdown seems to affect the wellbeing of younger people more than it does of older people.

Again, this could be due to the greater maturity of older people: they have been knocked around by life and have learned to cope with painful change.

Some psychologists believe separation may even bring a sense of relief to some older people who have stayed with their partners out of a sense of duty and who finally get to split up with them.

How they get on as singles is another story on which I would love to see some research.

In summary, if Frankie Byrne was around today she would have her work cut out for her.

The Irish trends mentioned in this article are from Families in Ireland by Tom Fahey and Catherine Anne Field. Go to read the report.

Padraig O’Morain ( is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas.

By Padraig O’Morain – Irish Times | Tue, Apr 10, 2012 | Link to Irish Times Article