Following Europe's lead? Britain traditional, but changing

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I HAVE been married for 27 years, and it's easily the greatest source of satisfaction in my life.'' Over tea and sandwiches at London's Savoy Hotel, columnist Katharine Whitehorn of the Observer summarizes her views of marriage.

She doesn't attempt to speak for every British woman. But her views are squarely in line with those of a nation that, compared with the United States, still looks on marriage in fairly traditional ways. For example:

The number of marriages here has risen in the last two years. Also increasing is the number of marriages solemnized in religious ceremonies -- up 1 percent in 1984, after a long, steady drop since World War II.

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Divorce, after steep increases in the '70s and a leveling off in the early '80s, has also begun to fall. While Britons express great concern that 1 out of 3 marriages in England and Wales ends in divorce, that figure is well below the 1-in-2 ratio in the US. There is some evidence, too, that marriages conducted in church are less likely to end in divorce than civil marriages.

Remarriage does not appear to be growing. ``A great deal of divorce is caused by a desire for remarriage,'' says Oxford demographer David Coleman. Yet last year, only 36 percent of all marriages were remarriages. By contrast, the US exceeded that figure in 1974 -- on its way up to a current 45 percent.

Cohabitation in Britain is low by Western standards. ``A lot of our cohabitation is of a different order from the Swedes and the Danes,'' says Lesley Rimmer, deputy director of the Family Policy Studies Center in London. ``They have cohabitation in lieu of marriage,'' she explains, where ``we have cohabitation as a prelude to marriage.'' Overall, only about 2.5 percent of British couples are cohabiting -- compared with 4 percent in the US and about 13 percent in France.

The illegitimacy rate, about the same as in France, stands at 17 percent of all births. By contrast, the Swedes passed that level in the mid-1960s.

Women are steadily entering the work force. But the proportion of women working (44 percent) is less than in the US (about 54 percent) -- and far less than in Sweden (78 percent).

The changes that have overtaken the institution of marriage in the past 30 years have made their mark on Britain -- but less deeply than in many other nations, the US included. Why?

One reason may be the more traditional ways in which moral issues are viewed in Britain. A 1981 Gallup survey, billed as ``one of the largest surveys ever undertaken on a worldwide scale,'' found that more than three-quarters of the British respondents agreed with the Sixth Commandment (``Thou shalt not commit adultery'') -- a far higher proportion than for any other country.

That view is changing. An October poll in the British magazine Woman's World found that 2 out of every 5 women married between 5 and 15 years admitted to having had an extramarital affair. And a Gallup poll commissioned by The Times (London) earlier this month found that 60 percent of those questioned approved of living together before marriage -- rising to 80 percent for 16- to 40-year-olds.

Yet, while cohabitation is increasingly acceptable here, it is still very much a moral issue. Mary Moore, principal of St. Hilda's College at Oxford, is concerned by the patterns of cohabitation she sees among the young today.

She sees cohabitation, in fact, as yet another evidence of masculine domination. Recalling her own student days in the 1940s -- when cohabitation was very rare -- she says that at that time ``you weren't anybody's property'' and could date a number of young men for many years before marriage.

She worries, now, that early cohabitation ties young women down unnecessarily -- a point seconded by Professor Coleman, who notes that cohabitation ``effectively sterilizes young people'' from broad contact with their peers.

On that point, Prof. O. R. McGregor (Lord McGregor of Durris) demurs. ``I don't think cohabitation is of the slightest importance,'' he says, ``because the bulk of the cohabitants marry.'' Yet in a late-afternoon interview at the House of Lords, he nevertheless put the traditional view succinctly. ``There is no society known to exist, or to have existed, that does not lay down social regulation of sexual intercourse and provide institutional means of rearing children.''

When the subject turns to the efforts in Scandinavia to abolish all distinctions between marriage and cohabitation, he notes forcefully: ``I am very strongly opposed to the notion of having a special regime of cohabitation law to match marriage law. I think there are a range of problems that are just insoluble.''

Whether or not his opinion is shared by his fellow citizens will become clear within several years. This winter, a government ``green paper'' will confront some inequities in the law which now make cohabitation (in some circumstances) more advantageous than marriage.

The new proposals, says Ms. Rimmer, are aimed at giving the advantage squarely to marriage.

In one area, however, the British and American experiences are widely divergent: government support for families. Child benefits here amount to some 6 ($9) a week -- with an additional 5 ($7.50) a week for the first or only child in one-parent families. Additional benefits flow to low-income families: According to Rimmer, a single mother with two children can receive about 55 ($82) a week, as well as rent and tax relief, until her youngest child is 16.

``In America, in comparison to England,'' says A. Sidney Johnson, former director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, ``our government policies basically say that while a family's struggling, do your best, we can't help you -- but once you collapse, we'll rush in with foster care or some institutional solution for what happened. There's no . . . middle ground of helping those families stay together.''

Others, however, contend that the long tradition of the privacy of the American family must be defended from government interference; they doubt that the US will move in Britain's direction on such matters.

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