The West

Children at heart of our complex relationships
Children at heart of our complex relationships

When the Australian Parliament enacted a no-fault element to the divorce laws in 1975 enshrined in the Family Law Act, it was no surprise that divorce rates across the country skyrocketed.

The following year, 1976, the divorce rate almost tripled from 24,307 to 63,230 - still the highest number of divorces recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in any single year.

The legislative change was a watershed moment for couples engaged in unhappy matrimony, and it had a huge impact not only on the way Australian families were formed but how they have related over the past four decades.

Since then, there has been a steady decline in the divorce rate, and by 2008, Australia recorded its lowest number of divorces since 1992.

At the same time, ABS figures revealed that the number of people in "new" relationships had risen. De facto relationships grew from 4 per cent in 1986 to 9 per cent in 2006, while the number of people identifying as being in a same-sex relationship also doubled in the 10 years from 1996 to 2006, rising from 0.2 per cent to 0.4 per cent or 50,000 people. During those same years, relationships where the woman was older than her male partner shot up by 23 per cent.

Meanwhile, the marriage rate had fallen from 7.9 marriages per 1000 people in 1976 to 5.5 in 2008. Despite the statistics confirming that traditional marriages had declined, they also showed that the importance of relationships in our lives had not, said Relationship Australia (RA) counsellor and supervisor Bill Robinson.

Instead, relationships - romantic or otherwise - had become more complex and layered. Both sexes worked more, houses cost more and people's personal ambitions had grown more than at any other point in history, he said.

Mr Robinson pointed to the recently released relationships indicator survey 2011 to show that while most of us were time-poor and faced a growing number of financial pressures, there was a great sense of optimism about the state of our relationships.

The RA survey examined issues and concerns in Australian relationships today and revealed that most Australians ranked their relationship with their son or daughter as the most important (59 per cent) followed by spouse (53 per cent).

Mr Robinson said the divorce rate, the rise of de facto relationships and an increase in the number of blended families coupled with a faster-paced lifestyle could explain why our children were the most important people in our lives.

"The chance to nurture a hands-on relationship with our children is limited to time - usually about 20 years," Mr Robinson said. "With both partners working more, that time with our children is even more precious.

"The partner relationship is intended for life but it doesn't always pan out that way. Over the past two or three decades our surveys have detected an attitude that an individual's path in life is the most important priority, whereas in previous decades keeping the family unit together was more important than each partner's individual happiness or ambitions.

"It's much more accepted now that both parties in a relationship will look to have their needs and ambitions fulfilled. Where once a family would move or relocate for the man's employment prospects, now it's much more likely that families will relocate for either partner's professional pathway.

"It's much more common now that partners in a romantic relationship, particularly women, are much less likely to tolerate an unsatisfactory relationship. The current generation is much more aware of what is acceptable in a relationship and hopefully modern couples are much better prepared than previous generations for a good relationship."

While different expectations and values ranked highly in the survey as contributing factors to relationship breakdowns, financial stress was the number one reason couples went their separate ways. Communication difficulties ranked second, followed by differing values and a lack of trust.

Mr Robinson said it was not surprising that money issues were having such a great impact on relationships.

"House prices and mortgages have risen so much now that one partner needs to be earning a very significant wage, or both partners have to be working," he said. "Add to that a change in the style of parenting where they are facilitating a great number of extracurricular activities, both partners are incredibly busy. What probably gets lost is their time together."

When it came to the rise of new relationships Mr Robinson said people were no longer prepared to abide by societal taboos.

"Relationships have always been dynamic and social conventions once frowned upon, such as leaving a marriage, gay relationships and older women with younger men, are now more widely accepted," he said.

"When I grew up many of those relationships were frowned upon, but nobody really made it clear who was doing the frowning.

"Those conventions don't carry the same weight now because people started asking why, and when you ask why logically, there is no reason why not."

The West Australian

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