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Divorce Referendum: Enter the disposable relationship

On Friday, the Irish electorate will vote on whether to retain or remove part 2(i) of article 41.3 of the Constitution.

Removing it would mean there would be no mention of a timeframe whereby a separated couple must live apart in order to qualify for a divorce within the Constitution.

As a result, the Oireachtas would be responsible for legislating on this issue.

In a progressive world, if a married couple is unhappy in their relationship, and this unhappiness is bleeding into other areas of their lives, then it stands to reason that they should be able to get a divorce, right? Even a quick one? 

Platitudes such as “life is short” ring in my ear as I write this. So then, aside from any religious beliefs or doctrines, why would someone vote no on May 24? 

Because it seems to be obvious, doesn’t it? 

People should be free to choose divorce if and when they want to, and the State should have less of an impact on that choice.

The first thought I had was related to our Government. The proposed change in the constitution — removing the requirement to live apart for four years prior to applying — puts quite a lot of power in the hands of the Oireachtas (not for the first time). 

For a society that has given the current Government a 5/10 in how they handle the economy (Red C poll, April), why do we feel they could handle issues related to our personal lives much better? 

So, voting yes logically means that we feel the Government is best positioned to legislate for divorce. 

This sits slightly uncomfortably with me, particularly in light of the astronomical budget overruns for the children’s hospital and monetary concerns about broadband rollout plans at the moment.

Furthermore, when we change our Constitution we are, as a society, saying that these changes are reflective of our society and culture. 

While marriage in Ireland has historically been linked to religion, religion is not the reason for marriage. 

I feel this is the point on which many people may dismiss this debate — they throw the religion argument into the fray and fail to think about the issue any further.

From a social perspective, marriage is useful because it creates a microcosm of the larger society; it reflects that society and ideally creates a stable environment for children to grow up in (which research shows is fundamental to healthy child development). 

It prepares children (in most cases) to become members of society in the future.

This involves teaching them manners, attitudes, beliefs, and principles. 

Historically, the family unit has done this quite successfully, and we generally inherit much of our social identities from our families.

However, modern Irish society looks very different from Ireland of the 1950s and ’60s and so the family unit has also changed. 

We saw the introduction of divorce in 1996 which meant that there was finally a legal recourse to dealing with an abusive, toxic, or unhappy relationship, for example. 

The types of family units changed as a result — we now have blended families, one-parent families and, more recently, same-sex families within the legal bounds of marriage. 

All of this combined to make Ireland a more caring and progressive place but, at the same time, Ireland has become more consumerist. 

One of the key features of this kind of society is the privileging of the individual above all else. 

The wishes, desires and choices of individuals become central to cultural values and principles. These attitudes are reinforced by multinational organisations selling products. 

Once people are chasing individuality they are buying (into) the identities that, for example, influencers are selling them. An alluring, bright and distracting world, yes, but one potentially incompatible with married life.

Married life requires you to put yourself second for the greater good. Psychologists maintain that healthy relationships are forged through ongoing, persistent, proactive and devoted efforts in maintaining the quality of the relationship. 

This rise of the self-serving individual is matched by equally high expectations of marriage. Narratives are sold to us online, in movies and TV shows of the perfect man or woman in the perfect romantic relationship. 

When these characters are faced with difficulties in the relationship, the result is often, aside from perhaps a feeble attempt at communication, relationship breakdown. 

Portrayals of relationships in which couples are presented with problems which they eventually overcome through healthy communication are few and far between.

Romantic love and the accompanying relationships are idealised at the same time as they are disposable. 

The message being “if it doesn’t work move on to the next”, all the while failing to realise that people aren’t perfect and all relationships need negotiation.

While the grass may look greener, a new relationship will need the same amount of work eventually, because we are separate people dealing with the realities and difficulties associated with life. 

If relationships and thus marriages are less sacred and more easily disposed of, it stands to reason that they are functionally less useful. 

Rather than teaching positive lessons through helpful communication practices, children are taught to look out for ‘number one’.

Our right to choice as individuals should always come first, we are led to believe, but harmony in society is built on community; on members of that community looking out for one another.

I don’t worry about divorce as a legal entity or even shortening the time people have to live apart; for some this might be absolutely necessary. 

I do, however, worry about the message we are sending our youth when we leave the legislating of divorce wide open and subject to the whims of a Government we have faith in 50% of the time. 

Are we telling them to privilege the transience of relationships above the effort in maintaining them? 

I also worry about how we treat those with whom we have built relationships, families and lives. 

In an Ireland rapidly changing, perhaps it might be worthwhile stopping to think about what kind of society we want because how we legislate for our citizens sets the stage for how people will interact and who they become.

Jill O’Mahony is a lecturer in sociology in the Waterford Institute of Technology, where she has been based for 11 years

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