In his second year of marriage, about 13 years ago, journalist Vincent Heeringa introduced his wife to a woman colleague at a Metro magazine staff party. "This is my wife, Sarah," he said proudly.

His colleague, accustomed to the politically correct term "partner", apparently regarded this as arrogant, or "labelling". She turned to Sarah and, in a sneering tone, said: "Hello, 'my wife'."

"I thought, 'You cow'," says Sarah. "She was patronising, she was imposing her hangups about the whole situation on to us. We were perfectly happy."

Across New Zealand society, marriage has become unfashionable. Sole parents have increased from 10 per cent of families with dependent children in 1976 to 29 per cent today - higher than in any other developed country except the United States. By the age of 20, 35 per cent of Pakeha children, 49 per cent of Pacific children and 57 per cent of Maori children have lived in homes without one parent, usually the father.

Forty-one per cent of Pakeha babies, 55 per cent of Pacific babies and 76 per cent of Maori babies were born last year to unmarried parents.

The Labour Government sees nothing to worry about. In a Herald interview five years ago, Social Development Minister Steve Maharey said that as long as sole parents were "able to provide love, discipline and sound nurturing, things are going to be okay".

But National leader Don Brash told the Orewa Rotary Club that the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) had contributed to the growth in fatherlessness and births outside marriage: "It is idle to pretend this is anything but a disastrous trend."

Sole parents are accustomed to being political footballs, but Brash's proposals would be tougher than any previous regime since the DPB was created in 1973. They raise questions. Why does New Zealand have such a high rate of sole parenthood? Does it matter?

The DPB is a major factor in the rise of sole parenthood. Mothers who, before 1973, felt stuck in marriages can now leave, knowing the state will support them.

A British study of child benefits in 2002 found that New Zealand's DPB was the ninth most generous out of 22 developed countries. In contrast, New Zealand treats couples with children worse than most. It was the only one of the 22 countries that paid neither family benefits nor child tax credits to a couple with two children earning the average men's wage plus half the average women's wage.

The latest increase in family support has not changed that. National calculated in January that a family comprising a father earning $12.50 an hour and a fulltime mother with a baby would get just $23,254 a year after allowing for family support and taxes.

But if the mother went on the DPB the couple could get $35,780 between them.

However, the tax and welfare system is clearly only part of the explanation, because the United States has an even higher rate of sole parenthood - 31 per cent of all families - than New Zealand yet pays sole parents little more than a third of New Zealand's DPB.

Interestingly, New Zealand and the US also have the developed world's highest rates of teenage pregnancy. Something else, besides the DPB, must be going on. Both countries have been affected by global social changes since the contraceptive pill facilitated sex outside marriage.

"By the late 1960s we had an extraordinarily high level of pill use in New Zealand," says Waikato University demographer Ian Pool.

The proportion of teenagers living with partners before the age of 20 rose from 25 per cent for people born in the 1940s to 39 per cent among those born a decade later.

People now have more partners through their lifetimes, leading to a greater chance of being a sole parent, and more relationships are informal rather than legal marriages. A study by Pool and others last year found that three-quarters of women who had their last child in a de facto relationship had become sole parents by the age of 40, compared with only one-quarter of those who had their last child in a legal marriage.

In the past few decades, women's reproductive and financial independence fed a new wave of feminism that was part of a general liberation of individuals from economic bondage to the farm or the production line, bondage to the church and social bondage to the family.
Marriage came to seem oppressive and patriarchal, embodied in vows to "love, honour and obey".

Auckland Women's Centre worker Leonie Morris, who wrote a thesis on sole parents in 1999, says a big factor breaking up marriages is domestic violence. A 1996 survey found that 73 per cent of New Zealand women, including 90 per cent of Maori women, had experienced at least one act of physical or sexual violence by their partners.

Morris cites Shaun Metcalf, the 17-year-old Warriors player who, two years ago, beat and kicked his partner in the stomach with two mates to try to make her miscarry.

"That attitude is blind domestic violence," she says. "It's about men wanting to control women, control their behaviour and still believing that what they say should go, that they should rule the home."

The law has facilitated women's escape from marriage. No-fault divorce laws, legal aid for divorce, the Matrimonial Property Act 1976 - which gave each spouse a half-share in the couple's assets - and the extension of that act to cover de facto relationships and civil unions have all made it easier to separate.

Economist Paul Callister has uncovered another surprising factor producing more sole mothers - a shortage of men. Last year, New Zealand had 109 women for every 100 men at the peak childbearing age of the early 30s.

The imbalance is worsened when you consider only "marriageable" men, now that women are better educated and more men than in the past are unemployed, earning low and insecure incomes or in jail.

So does it matter? Feminists such as Morris say sole parenthood is "no kind of crisis ... It's something that reflects many changes happening throughout society. The main social issue it throws up is poverty ... Any sort of moral outrage is unhelpful".

There is no evidence, she says, that solo mothering has been bad for children.

Janet Robin of the DPB Action Group says number of solo mums is a good sign that women can leave abusive relationships.

"There is the whole challenge of the old patriarchal family, which was the male having all the power," she says.

"So maybe this high ratio of single parents is a transition period when the gender relationships are being renegotiated, and it may not be permanent."

But perhaps it is now time to look at the costs of family breakdown and to seek new forms of marriage that are not oppressive.

Bruce Logan, from the pro-marriage Maxim Institute, says the breakup of marriage is "the principal cause of declining child wellbeing".

"A nostalgic return to the patriarchal marriage forms of earlier eras is not being suggested," he wrote last year. "A marriage form which puts children first and is based on a sense of mutuality and equal regard between husband and wife is being endorsed."

Historically, marriage was always for the sake of the children, based on the biological fact that human babies need more care and support than a mother can provide alone.

Since time immemorial men have been condemned if they left a marriage. Yet today women often believe they are right to leave an unhappy home. As Logan puts it: "Instead of serving as our primary institutional expression of commitment and obligation to others, especially children, marriage has increasingly been reduced to a vehicle - and a frail vehicle at that - for the emotional fulfilment of adult parties. 'Till death us do part' has been replaced by, 'As long as I am happy'."

Our original values are still there underneath - almost all parents would willingly die for their children if necessary.

But those basic values have become confused with the new values of self-empowerment and independence to the point where many are not willing to make the much lesser sacrifice of lifelong commitment as co-parents who share their love for their children.

Separation is almost always a disappointment, a shattered dream. And it is almost always traumatic for the children.

"A boy needs a man around him to download the software of how to be a male," says Ian Grant of Parents Inc. And girls need good male role models so that they know what to look for and what to avoid in their own partners.

Bruce Logan says parents' top priority should be to spend more time parenting and to aim for an overall employment commitment that does not exceed 60 hours a week between them.

Ian Grant says a parent staying at home to look after young children is in effect doing a $30,000-a-year job, so that amount should be lopped off the taxes of the other parent in paid work. Employers have a role too. Logan calls on them to let parents job-share, work fewer days a week, and work more at home.

Morris proposes courses to help parents raise children and resolve their own disputes without violence, instilling an abhorrence of violence. More fundamentally, as Vincent Heeringa argues, we need to recover the age-old understanding that human beings are social animals and cannot be happy without committing to others.

He says that our culture perpetuates the biggest lie of all - that we can be most fulfilled when we are selfish.

"It's a very destructive world view. What happens when a person gets really, really sick. Who's going to look after them?

"My parents would say happiness would come from fulfilling your responsibilities as a citizen, a father or mother, employer or employee. Happiness is a byproduct of your duty." 

When everything is falling apart 

Ana Sullivan kept hoping everything would work out. She was unhappy, her husband was unhappy but there were two adorable boys involved.

There was no abuse, no violence. Just two people who had been in love but who were heading in different directions and were finding the stresses of child-rearing and financial instability too tough to cope with - at least, too tough under the same roof.

Did they try hard enough to make their marriage work?

"Oh, God, yeah," says Ana. "We did. Even when he said 'Right, that's it, I'm moving out', I said 'No, one last crack, so we can say to our kids we absolutely did everything'.

"We did counselling on our own, we did counselling together, we did whatever we could in order that we could have a healthy, happy, functioning family."

In the end, her husband moved out thinking it was better for the children, now aged 2 and 7, if their parents were happy.

She believes finger-pointing at those on the DPB is short-sighted, devaluing the role of parenting. 

The story of two different marriages 

The way Waikato dairy farmer Hamish Burdon and his ex-wife tell their story, it's hard to believe they shared the same marriage.

Together for nine years, they had two children, now 11 and 8.

Says Hamish: "Two-and-a-half years ago I thought I was happily married. I went away for a family weekend. My wife found someone else and decided to move in with him. I was absolutely shocked."

But his ex-wife says communication - and even sex - had broken down long before.

Since the marriage broke up, Hamish Burdon has become vice-president of the Waikato Union of Fathers and fought successfully in the Family Court for equal shared custody of the children.

His ex-wife didn't want her name or those of the children used because her story was "too painful and too private".

"There were numerous occasions when I was going to leave. I wanted to do counselling but he didn't.

"I felt he had this role of 'the woman does this job and the man does this job'." 

In it for life and worth the fight

It was the tone in Thomas Breinhorst's voice that his wife Iona found hardest to deal with.

As an engineer, he ordered other people around all day at the office.

"He would come home and use the same tone to me," she says.

"I'm not a passive woman. I would react almost instantaneously, and we'd be yelling at each other in two seconds flat over nothing."

In another relationship, such things might be the beginning of the end. But when the Breinhorsts married 11 years ago, they did so for life. Iona was determined to change her husband's tone.

"I was not going to give up, he had to change. I was going to make his life a living hell till he changed."

It was a struggle, because she was trying to change an ingrained habit. She tried humour.

"I'd say, 'Would you like me to bend over so you can kick me?"' she says. "Then he realised.

"I changed too. He said, 'I'm very tired of you always being tired, you could at least acknowledge me when I walk through the door.' My effort was to run to the door and say, 'Hi, darling!"'

The Breinhorsts got good advice from a pre-marriage course run by their Catholic parish in South Africa.