Comment & Analysis

Fluid families and fewer fathers
The decline of marriage is denying fathers to children, writes David Quinn

Discussing the latest census data released last week, RTÉ’s George Lee said with a smile on his face that they show “people are still interested in each other but maybe in a more fluid way than the traditional way”.

What did he mean? Simply this: the family based on marriage is not as strong as it once was. That is the ‘traditional way’ in which people showed they were ‘interested in each other’. They met, fell in love, got married, had children and stayed together for better or for worse.

The new Census 2016 data dealt with families and households. They show that certain trends in Ireland are getting stronger. There has been a small rise in the number of single parent families, for example. The number now stands at 218,817. However, the increase since 1986 has been huge. Then, the number stood at 104,713.

There has been a very big increase in the number of cohabiting couples. In 1986, it wasn’t even recorded. In 1996, the number stood at 31,296 and by last year it had climbed to 152,302. As with single parent families, the rate of increase has slowed down.


What has not slowed down, however, is the number of children living with cohabiting couples. This is up 25% compared with 2011 (the previous census).

This change is significant because prior to this a cohabiting couple usually got married before they had children. The fact that they are having children before they marry (if they marry) shows that marriage is now much less important to them. For a growing number of people, cohabitation is becoming a substitute for marriage, rather than a ‘dry run’ before marriage.

The number of people who have divorced or separated has also increased, although again the rate of increase has slowed down. Including those who have since remarried, 283,802 adults in Ireland have been through a divorce or separation. In 1986 (when couples could separate but not divorce), the figure was 40,347. That is a very big jump.

Finally, while the number of married people has increased, that’s really only because the overall size of the population has increased. The percentage of adults who are married has declined to 47.7%, under half in other words.

So we can see from these figures that fewer people are marrying as a percentage of the overall population, fewer people are staying married, and a lot more children are being raised outside of marriage either by a single parent or by a cohabiting couple.

George Lee describes the present state of family life in Ireland as “fluid”. Is all this “fluidity” a good or a bad thing, objectively speaking? Instinctively, liberals will tend to say yes.

Liberals will say yes because they dislike traditionalism. They think tradition attacks freedom. Having to marry, and stay married, attacks personal liberty and liberalism’s most sacred value, choice.

Now that marriage is not the only option and people can divorce, cohabit, become a single parent, marry for a second and a third time people can make more choices about how they organise their family lives. Liberals see this as a good thing and don’t look much further than that.

Seeing as marriage was the ‘traditional’ way to organise your family life, traditionalists see the ‘fluidity’ as far more problematic than liberals do because it means far fewer people getting married and far fewer children being raised by their two married parents.

The word ‘tradition’ is severely misunderstood. Liberals believe traditionalists follow tradition only ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done things’. But a tradition is a way of doing things that has evolved over sometimes  great lengths of time in the white heat of human experience.

Marriage is a tradition par excellence. Every known society has developed marriage in some form. This would not happen if it did not somehow conform to something very deep in human nature.


At the heart of marriage has always been a man and a woman because only a man and a woman can have a child together via their sexual union. Every society in history has deemed it important that children are raised properly and that the mother and the father of the child are in some way involved in the raising of that child.

The attachment of the child to the mother has always been much more secure and reliable than the attachment of the father to the child. It is much easier for the father to walk away from his child than for the mother to walk away from her child. This is proven today by the fact that the vast majority of single parents are women.

No social institution – no tradition – has ever been devised that more reliably attaches fathers to their children than marriage. This is why it is so vital.

Cohabitation is no substitute. Cohabiting relationships break up far more often than marriage. A huge study called the British Millennium Cohort study found that whereas 27% of cohabiting parents have split up by the time their child is five, the equivalent figure among married parents is a third of that at just 9%.

So as marriage declines so does the number of fathers actively engaged in the lives of their children. The Growing Up in Ireland study has shown that a third of children living with a single mother have no contact at all with their father by the time their child is three.

This kind of figure raises no alarm bells whatsoever among the people who run this country because they see the growth of ‘fluidity’ as a good thing and do not see an increasing disengagement by fathers in their lives of their children as a bad thing in general.

But this is what the decline of marriage signifies. This is why we should be alarmed by it.

Dr Martin McAleese some years ago spoke about “the dangerous blind spot” of ignoring the important role of fathers in the lives of their children.

The new CSO data shows the problem is growing worse. Will our governing class ever awaken from their slumber and try to do something about it? Will it even be highlighted at next year’s World Meeting of Families for that matter?