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Changing role of Irish women over past 50 years reflected in relationships

The dramatic shift in the role of women in Irish society over the past 50 years has been reflected in changing kinds of familial and relationship issues, a leading relationship expert has said.

Image: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

IRISH RELATIONSHIPS HAVE changed alongside shifting cultural norms over the past 50 years, with the changing role of women in society marking one of the biggest shifts, according to a leading Irish relationship expert.

“Over the past 50 years we’ve seen fundamental change in Irish society and Irish family life, however one constant has remained – the desire for people to form strong, sustaining relationships throughout their life,” said Relationships Ireland Chief Executive, Brendan Madden, ahead of the company celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The role of women

One of the biggest impacts to Irish society in the past 50 years has been the changing the role of women, with more females participating in the workforce and more in professional positions – and this has caused relationship and family dynamics to shift, Madden said.

“Typical issues of conflict centre around household chores and financial issues,” he said. “In a situation where a couple are both breadwinners, making the decision about who goes out to work and who stays at home with the children is more difficult. There’s much more choice – and so there’s much more stress.”

He noted that while societal expectations surrounding women had changed considerably over the past number of decades, the equivalent shift had not occurred with the perceived roles of men. The result, he said, was that women often had to juggle their careers while still handling the bulk of household duties.

“Before, society and culture was geared towards the role of parenthood and women had more support. Now, the expectation on women to have two roles,” said Madden. “But there is not the same amount of a societal shift towards men taking breaks in their careers.”

As well as women now being an active part of the country’s workforce, the nature of working lives has also changed in the past number of decades – and can interfere with people’s personal lives, Madden said: “People are also expected to work harder and work longer hours. There is less leisure time,” he said. “And while people now have fewer children they are expected to spend more time with them.”

Increasing acceptance of same sex relationships, lone parents and cohabiting is also a notable change in the Ireland’s cultural landscape, said Madden.

Marriage and Divorce

A recent study by the ESRI, Households and Family: Structures in Ireland, found that one-in-three families in Ireland departs from the so-called “traditional model” of a married couple both of whom are in their first marriage – and that one-in-four children under 21 years of age lives in a family that does not conform to this model.

Never-married couples, cohabiting couples and lone mothers (both never-married and divorced or separated) dominate the “alternative family” structures of modern Ireland, according to the ERSI. These four family types, together with first-time marriages, account for 92 per cent of families.

A study by Trinity College Dublin on Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland also revealed changing attitudes towards family life.

  • 84 per cent believe that it is better to live with someone before you marry them
  • 85 per cent feel that the religious reasons for marriage have become less important
  • 69 per cent think that while marriage provides a solid family basis, cohabiting does too
  • 69 per cent think that deciding to have a child together would be a far greater commitment than getting married
  • 49 per cent of the sample had cohabited at least once

The time at which people are choosing to get married is also changing.

Couples are getting married later in life than they did in the 1960s, and the consequence – to some degree – is that couples are making better choices, said Madden.

However, no matter how committed the couple are to each other, the delay of big decisions like whether to get married or have children  also raises the possibility that potential conflicts may not emerge until much later on in a relationship.  “Problems can be negotiated much more easily when couples don’t have children,” Madden said.

He pointed out that children can bring to the fore unresolved issues in relationship, with the “peak points” being:

  • The first 7 years of parenthood
  • When children have grown up and moved out of home – and couples sometimes find that they have grown apart

“In general, people greatly underestimate the impact of having children on relationship,” he warned.

The increased acceptance of divorce within society has had many benefits for people, but the perception that a partner can leave a marriage create conflict too, Madden said: “In the past couples had less choice about leaving a marriage, so they had to figure out ways to resolve issues – of course, the downside was that many people were trapped in difficult or oppressive situations – but now people have much more choice and there is stress about whether to stay or leave.”

Perennial problems

The main perennial area of conflict in relationships, Madden says, is a difference in communication styles between partners: typically, women complain that their partner “doesn’t listen”, while men accuse women of “nagging”.

Technology is also ever-more present in people’s lives, and Madden says it can pose a threat to interpersonal relationships. “We have so many communication tools available, but the irony is that the form of communication that we most need – interpersonal communication – is less than ever. Partners can seem more absent,” he said.

However, he noted that the behaviour of ‘retreating’ into technology like a computer or phone is not a new one, but simply a new version of older “retreat” devices  - “burying” oneself in a newspaper, for example. The root problem, once again, boils down to communication.

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