Marriage week as a way of celebrating and nurturing the institution of marriage was established in Great Britain in 1996 and has since taken root in ten more countries. At the time of its establishment marriage was the last thing on Czechs minds. The country had recently returned to democracy and young people were on the brink of discovering the world, living a Western life and developing successful careers: everything their parents had been unable to do for four decades. As a result the tradition of marrying at 18 and having a baby within a year or two died a quick death. Marriage, at least marriage before one’s 30s, became an unfavourable prospect and many Czechs who embraced a singles lifestyle found they liked it too much to give it up or no longer knew how to go about changing their life.
Today the number of marriages has dropped by half as compared to the communist 1980s. People tie the knot on average a decade later in life, around the age of 30. Even so, half of these marriages are destined to fail, most of them sooner rather than later. Although Czech views on marriage are not totally negative there is a clear shift in people’s perception of marriage. Only 14 percent of respondents said they consider it outlived. A surprisingly high number of women - 74 percent – still like the idea of entering into marriage “at some point in the future”. However, only 52 percent of men share this sentiment. 76 percent of respondents said they consider divorce an acceptable solution if the marriage has serious problems. In 1998 the Czech Republic joined other countries in celebrating marriage week as a conscious effort to change this trend. This year’s motto was Marriage is an Art – a message prominent in the many seminars, film screenings, concerts and debates held around the country. Marriage week is co-organized by NGOs, churches and family centres. The event’s chief organizer Petr Cincala explains the motivation behind it:
“We certainly do not want to moralize or force the idea of marriage on others. It is more a question of fuelling debate and getting people to stop and think about what they can do for their marriage or their relationship. “
The face of this year’s marriage week is celebrity actress Ester Janeckova, herself born out of wedlock.
“I was raised by my mom and I really missed not having a proper family. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have a family of my own.”
Not all children from incomplete families arrive at this conclusion. According to Petr Cincala many children born out of wedlock follow the same pattern and are extremely cautious about tying the knot.
“When I lecture at primary school and talk to 14 -15 year olds I find that those with a single parent are often extremely sceptical about marriage and those who want to give it a try are convinced even at that age that it will only last for a while.”
Approximately 42 percent of Czech children are now born out of wedlock, either to single mothers or to people who are simply living together without having tied the knot. Many people point out that if every second marriage breaks up their chances of making the relationship work might be higher if they retain some degree of freedom. Marta Fenclova has a two-year-old son with her live-in-boyfriend.
“I really don’t think we need a marriage certificate to make us a family. I don’t believe marriage keeps people together in any significant way.”
Psychologist Pavel Raus says there are several critical periods in any marriage that test the strength of the relationship.
“The first crisis-period comes fairly soon in the marriage when the novelty wears off. At first partners go out of their way to meet each others needs and are extremely selfless in this respect. But in time people revert to some of their less attractive habits and no longer make so much effort on behalf of their partner. This is the period where we have to accept our partners for who they are and respect them but also to feel free to be ourselves.“
According to statistics, many Czech marriages never make it past this point. The most divorces happen between the second and fifth year of the marriage. For those who do make it there are other hurdles to cross – accommodating to big changes, financial problems, health problems, mid-life crisis and not least the oft cited “empty nest” syndrome. Petr Cincala says that while in the past, when divorce was not considered an option, people found the strength to overcome these problems today married couples often part over the first serious discord.
“In the past people felt and enormous responsibility to make their marriage work, and there was a great deal of social pressure on them to do so. They often stayed together against all the odds because they felt it was their duty to do so and that it was best for their children. They got married for better or for worse and many did not even consider divorce as a possibility. Today people perceive marriage very differently: it must bring them satisfaction. If it does not satisfy all their needs – emotional, sexual and so on – or give them freedom and allow them to grow they think they deserve better and opt out. People’s attitude to marriage has definitely changed."
Psychologist Pavel Raus says that while wanting a good life for oneself is perfectly in order people often leave a good and promising relationship at the first sign of trouble because they see marriages breaking up all around them.
“Of course there are problems that leave you no other option. Divorce is often unavoidable in cases of domestic violence, alcohol abuse or gambling. But I really think that many marriages that end up in a blind alley can actually be saved and that they are worth saving. If the couple made the effort, and gave their marriage a second change it would take them further and save them the stress of going through a divorce.”
The Czech Republic celebrated marriage week for the 7th time in a row this year. Whether the events have made Czech couples any the wiser is not clear. Finding the secret to a happy marriage is clearly not easy. But there could be one pointer for those who really want to increase their chances of success. According to statistics the highest number of divorces is in the north-western regions of the Czech Republic specifically in Karlovy Vary and Usti, and the highest marriage success rate appears to be in Vysocina, Zlin and southern Moravia.