Thursday, 28 April 2011

Were families happier in the past?

This is a rebuttal of Happy Families? - a document that concludes, amongst other things,

# The 'permissive'1960s were not the decisive break with long-established norms of marital stability and sexual propriety that is often thought.*
# There was a change in the late 1960s from some of the norms of the post-Second World War period, but that was the historically unusual period, with high rates of relatively long-lasting marriages.
# High rates of unmarried cohabitation of men and women bringing up children prevailed over many centuries, mainly due to the difficulty of obtaining a divorce before 1969.

Professor Rebecca Probert and Dr Samantha Callan offer a different view:

In expressing serious concern about the evidential basis for the claims in Happy families?, it is not our intention to suggest that all marriages in the past were happy and long-lasting, nor that there were no examples of successful and stable cohabiting relationships. But the quality of family life should be distinguished from its form: the fact that a number of marriages were brutal and fleeting should not obscure the centrality of marriage to family life in previous decades.Whilemany Victorianmarriages were short-lived because of the untimely death of one of the spouses, this does not mean that the experiences of the survivors were in any way comparable to those undergoing a divorce today. Similarly, while one can of course find examples from all historical periods of couples who lived together outside marriage, it does not follow that cohabitation was remotely as common in the past as it is today. In the preface to Happy families?, it is implied that those who make public policy are ignorant of the historical context, this report being presented as ‘bring[ing] to bear the skills of the humanities on questions of public policy.’67 It is of course vital that those working in the humanities contribute to debates on public policy by providing accurate and unbiased accounts of the past. But a failure to do this, as we have seen in Happy families?, jeopardises the integrity of the field and is likely to lead to ill-informed public policy.

Download as pdf here.

* Speaking as someone alive at the time, I can only say, "Oh yes they were."

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1 comment:

  1. There is a great temptation when attempting to comment on such debates, to colour the past with the good bits we remember. My feeling is that yes, families were generally happier 'then'
    but I also think expectations were lower.
    These days there is much media 'hype' about the feel-good factor, our 'right' to happiness and the 'we deserve the best' by virtue of merely being alive.
    When I was growing up there was no such carrot dangling before we donkeys, and if anyone did manage to grab a mouthfull of said vegetable it was because they had worked for and earned the right to it.
    There was it is true a less sophisticated attitude to enjoyment and people laughed more readily and more often so if that equates with a then maybe you are right.
    Marriage was seen as the ultimate goal for most young people and no-one questioned whether it was the best one.
    Sorry, I've wandered off at a tangent, as usual.

    As they say "the past was a different country"