Cross-Community Marriage in Northern Ireland - Section 4
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
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All previous research into cross-community marriage in Northern Ireland suggests that attitudes to cross-community marriage are largely negative and our study would support this finding. However it would appear that the number of such marriages is on the increase. Evidence from the Social Attitudes survey series (Stringer and Robinson, 1991, 1992, in preparation) suggest that attitudes may be becoming more tolerant however it would seem from our study that while this may be the case with respect to mixed marriages outside the family circle, it is not the case when a family member proposes such a marriage.
While it is important to stress that for the couples interviewed the mixed nature of their marriage did not cause problems between them it did cause them to experience many more social constraints than supports. It is clear that there are many stresses on a couple who enter a mixed marriage, these stresses are not solely associated with those from working class backgrounds, those who are active in their faith, those from rural areas or any single group. People from a variety of backgrounds have experienced some difficulties. Only perhaps two or three couples interviewed could state that it was absolutely no problem at any time for them.
The major difficulties are undoubtedly the adverse reaction of families and the difficulties encountered with the churches. These difficulties are highlighted at times such as the decision to marry, the actual marriage itself and the birth and baptism of children. Let us remember that these are difficult times for any person, times when emotions are running high and times when we all need support. How much more true is that in the case of the mixed couple who may have already spent a lot of time reaching the decision to marry despite their awareness of potential difficulties.
The couples themselves were all only too aware of the possible difficulties they might face. However, despite this awareness, for some a full understanding of the difficulties and indeed of the strength of their own feelings only came when the potential difficulties became real, for example at the birth of the first child. That the couples were aware that they were departing from the norm is also clear and this knowledge led them to think much more carefully about marrying than they felt a couple where both were members of the one Church would.
The importance of the Church even for those who are no longer actively involved is clear. It was unusual for a partner to convert. While in many cases one partner had simply given up any church involvement, for couples who had married more recently there was a greater tendency for both to keep up an involvement with their churches.
Over the years there would appear to be some decrease in the difficulty in obtaining a dispensation to marry but the inequitable treatment of those who apply for dispensations remains from the evidence presented by our respondents. So much depends on the individual priest. Likewise for those wishing to marry either in a Protestant church or to have a Protestant minister taking part in a Catholic service there is considerable variation between areas and ministers. However the importance of support from priests and ministers is evident. They can help alleviate problems the couples may be experiencing themselves and with parents. A priest who reassures a worried Catholic mother that her sons marriage is still valid in the eyes of the Catholic church, a minister who permits a priest into his church, joint pastoral care of the couple after marriage all these things help promote and strengthen both the marriage and the couples faith in their church.
For many couples lack of information on the options available to them was a problem although this seems to be improving in recent years in Belfast at least. It would appear that the professional group having most contact with intermarrying pairs would be the parish clergy and for this reason they could be expected to provide a good measure of background information for couples. We have seen that for many of our respondents they were the first mixed marriage in a parish, how can such priests and ministers have enough experience or training to effectively support the couple?
Couples may shop around for a church in which to be married. A couple too might try to -avoid or ameliorate adverse parental reaction by marrying away from their immediate area. But in some cases couples were encouraged to do that by family or clergy.
Baptism of children is another key issue which as we have seen often causes more family conflict. This is a problem for all couples however it is very difficult for couples wishing to have a concelebrated baptism which is what some would have wished.
Again schooling of the children can pose problems for couples and the number who chose an integrated school for their children is a clear indication of the support such a school offers to those in a mixed marriage.
Parental support is very important to couples and the efforts
many people went to to 'bring their family along' as one man put
it was considerable. To be fair many families also made considerable
efforts to understand and support their children but the over-riding
theme coming through is that children try more to please their
parents than the other way around. Perhaps there is a message
there for those advocating training for parenting?
Methodologically there are several limitations to this study. Those couples participating while representing a good cross-section of the population in terms of age, length of time married, area of residence and religion of partners is over representative of those in the middle class and those with third level education.
There is little evidence that the relationships studied were highly conflictual with the exception of those that had broken down and perhaps one other couple who were experiencing some difficulties at the time of interview. This naturally suggests that an element of self selection is present in the sample with couples who do not have a healthy relationship not appearing, either because they were not suggested by intermediaries or because they preferred not to be interviewed.
The interviews ranged in length from forty-five minutes to two hours. While we have gained a considerable amount of information about the couples there are areas which have only been touched upon. Voting behaviour, reaction to news items, issues of identity - do people see themselves as Irish, British, Northern Irish or whatever - place of burialand relations between in-laws: all these issues merit further exploration.
We have only interviewed couples, we have not involved the wider family unit, parents and children. Interviews such as these might change the interpretation of some of our findings. Likewise we have not interviewed or obtained the official views of the Churches.
By the end of the interviewing the researcher was of the opinion that perhaps some of those intermediaries identifying couples were only considering for inclusion those couples where neither partner converted and this was not the intention at the onset of the study. This opinion was formed on the basis of comments from respondents saying of others where one partner converted 'of course they are not a mixed marriage'.
The time constraints involved with preparing this report to coincide
with the conference have meant that this analysis is not as comprehensive
as the researcher would have wished, we have not had time for
example, to report on cases where both partners were interviewed
together versus those where separate interviews were conducted.
However, the transcripts will be lodged with Relate and it is
hoped that further analysis will be conducted.
In conclusion it is apparent that the constraints on cross-community
marriages in Northern Ireland are very real and that much hurt,
pain and anger may be experienced by those entering into such
a marriage. Despite these constraints the couples who took part
in this study are a living example of how such marriages can work
and how Roman Catholic and Protestant can live together in harmony.
The key issues are information available, reaction of family,
the role of the churches and the provision of integrated schooling.
For the couples themselves it would seem advisable to obtain as
much information as possible before they decide to marry. This
information should include each partner finding out as much as
possible about the others religion and the differences between
the Churches. The options open to them with respect to place of
marriage, baptism and schooling of children should also be explored.
While decisions on children may be difficult to reach at this
time, our findings show that it may be even more difficult to
decide in the emotional climate surrounding the birth of the first
child. The joint pre-marriage courses which have recently become
available may be useful for couples and also provide support from
meeting others in a similar situation.
To those involved in marriage guidance our findings suggest a
potential role as providers of information and specialist counselling
services dealing with problems peculiar to those in a mixed marriage.
A further challenge to these services is how they can better support
families at this time and promote better parenting which would
enable parents to accept the decisions of their children and support
NIMMA has provided support and information to a few of our couples however a majority were not aware of its existence. The booklet produced by NIMMA on mixed marriage is indeed a useful document but it is not widely enough available. As our findings demonstrate many couples do feel the need for more information and self-help groups. If NIMMA is unable or unwilling to become more public perhaps there is a role for another such organisation.
The availability of integrated schools is a major support to our couples. All schools through the Education for Mutual Understanding classes should attempt to raise the issue of mixed marriages. Through the use of specially prepared videos, reports such as this, personal contributions from couples in a mixed marriage and their children the school system offers the best basis for achieving a change in the social climate in Northern Ireland.
The Churches are in the best position to teach and guide their clergy who as we have seen can have quite an effect on the life of a cross-community couple. They should remember that a majority of our respondents wish to maintain their links with their church. The anger and disappointment experienced by some of our respondents as a result of difficulties they encountered from their Churches is something which a caring Church will wish to avoid. The Churches must attempt to standardise their procedures at least and continue their discussions about support for inter-church marriages in particular with respect to baptism, inter-communion and joint pastoral care.
For all concerned with the divide in Northern Ireland; family, Church, school, marriage guidance organisations and others, supporting, and being seen to give support to mixed marriages may be one way of working against the context of conflict in the Province.
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