We’ll Meet Again: The Breakdown of Family Relationships after World War Two

Featured Image taken from: Fashion-era.com. Image shows Bridal Party leaving the Church, in South Wales in 1947.

When thinking of the World Wars and relationships, they are often thought of in two ways. The first, the strengthening of a bond after war because of what was nearly lost. The second, women widowed because her boyfriend, lover or husband never did come back. The generation of widows and spinsters after the First World War is a common phenomenon that comes up in conversation, and those who can remember the 1970s often mention the number of elderly women who were single, possibly because their husband or boyfriend had died in the war. However, for this piece, I wanted to look into something else. I wanted to counter the idea that those men who did come back, came back to strengthened relationships. In fact, it can be argued many came back different men, from the things they’d seen and done, to both wives who didn’t really understand and children they’d barely ever seen. This post will looking at marriage in general and the Second World War, which means both marriages and relationships that were established before the Second World War and those during the war. My interest here is on the effects on relationships post-war.

Divorce Rates

In their essay on World War Two and divorce in the US, Pavalko, Elder and Elder, Jr. underline that Veterans were more likely to divorce than non-Veterans. In the US, they claim, divorce rates soared to a new high, and it was usually attributed to the new, quick marriages during the war.However, there have been few studies to this field, and therefore not much discussion on what exactly caused these consequences for marriages and families. The graph below demonstrates the slight peak in divorce rates in the US, just after the end of the war. But why? Was it because the families could not cope with the return of often incapacitated men? Or was it because women had found a new freedom in the war, with industrial work, and didn’t want to give it up?

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Returning Sweethearts and Unknown Fathers

The graph above also illustrates the rise in marriages, indicating many were celebrating their sweethearts returning home, but why then did divorce also peak? One reason could simply be, the man who returned home was unknown to the family of young children. Many young children who had grown up during the war, old enough to remember it but too young to remember their father who only had returned home sporadically if at all, arguably did not understand the new hierarchy created with his return. Considering the first few years are vital in forming relationships with parents, having an absent father would have affected the development of these relationships not only in the immediate aftermath of the war, but also in later life.

Of course, one factor is that of hasty marriages in wartime, and the subsequent breakdown of these. Returning sweethearts were sometimes just that, brief sweethearts whose moment in the sun had passed. However, for many, the issue was deeper than that. Unknown fathers were returning from war, but also were changed husbands. Much has been written on the shell shock of World War One, and the repercussions from that, especially concerning deserting and cowardice. However, this is as much an issue after the Second World War. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not defined as a mental illness until the 1970s, with the diagnosis of Vietnam veterans. The issue before and during the Second World War (and of course, after) was that only weak-minded and hesitant men were affected by psychiatric problems caused by combat. Wilbur Scott, in his article, underlines that in the Second World War, it began to be documented that even men who had performed well in previous combats were affected by trauma and mental health issues. This illustrates a changing view – that mental health problems could affect anyone.

Misunderstanding Mental Health

It was an issue that went widely ignored, much like after the First World War. Even when there was some consensus amongst medical professionals that anyone could be affected, ‘weak-minded’ or not, there was still some dispute that it was a real medical issue. One US general, George Patton, notably stated that ‘I won’t have the hospitals cluttered up with these sons of bitches who haven’t got the guts to fight.’ This attitude, and the following lack of support for those coming back at the end of the war, resulted in the straining of relationships, with both their spouses and their children..

However, it was not only the men who suffered from mental illness. Harry Leslie Smith fought in the Second World War and met his wife, Friede, during his time-serving. She was from Germany, and had seen and dealt with some life-changing experiences. Her father had been a trade-unionist and therefore an enemy of the Nazi party, and she had seen her city of Hamburg firebombed in 1943, in which tens of thousands were killed. Because of this, after the war and her move to Britain with her new husband, she grew depressed, withdrawn and anxious. Smith claims these times were particularly trying, and difficult for them to understand and get through. Mental health is viewed poorly enough now, but in post-war Britain it was barely understood, let alone talked about. Memories of shell shock shadowed the previous war, but it was something the people trying to rebuild their lives couldn’t understand in the same way.

Smith underlines how the National Health Service (NHS) and its establishment were pivotal in their understanding of what Friede was going through. The doctor they saw treated Friede for depression and what is now known as PTSD.  Smith attributes the NHS into helping save his marriage, and his wife. However, this also makes it evident that the lack of knowledge surrounding these issues meant not everybody took advantage of the new free health service, nor did many people realise there was something wrong health-wise to help treat the issue. Smith himself states it was only when a friend recommended going to the GP did either he or his wife contemplate seeing a doctor for her problems. This illustrates how many marriages and relationships may have disintegrated due to this lack of understanding, and also lack of help and discussion concerning contemporary mental health issues.

The Man’s War vs The Woman’s War

When looking at marriages and relationships between men and women in the Second World War, it is important to underline the different experiences both have had. For some women in Britain, they had been a driving force in industry and gotten a taste of working life during the war, and afterwards were expected to go back to the home and to raise their families. This was something some women could not adjust to. In the same way, it was also difficult for men to adjust from fighting in a war – from having seen death, come near to death and having killed – to going back to day-to-day work life.

Although the image of wartime for women is often that of increased freedom to work, the case for many was unexpected single motherhood – and usually the raising of very young children. Married women who had had children in the years leading up to the war had not expected to be raising their children alone. This in itself, in 1940s Britain, was a difficult task and could have had an effect on familial relationships, not only with the children and their father, but with the woman struggling to see her husband in an equal role to hers as a parent, when she had been the only one caring for the children for so many years. This would have put a further strain on family dynamics.

This post has mainly been used to establish reasons why family relationships broke down after the Second World War. It is also important to consider that not all separations ended in divorce, due to their time-consuming nature and expense, especially amongst working-class families. Unfortunately, this post is lacking evidence and is mainly based on theories, but I thought it was an interesting topic to share theories on, and hopefully in the future more research will be done on this topic. Soon, like the First World War, this period will be out of living memory and now is really a good time to start asking these questions, and a good time to build up some new evidence.

Further Reading

History of PTSD: World War Two

Harry Leslie Smith: The NHS Changed Everything

Lewis, Jane, Women in Britain since 1945 (Oxford 1992).

Pavalko, E.K., Elder, G.H. & Elder, Jr., G.H., ‘World War II and Divorce: A Life-Course Perspective’, American Journal of Sociology, 95, 5 (1990), 1213-1234.

Scott, W.J., ‘PTSD in DSM-III: A Case in the Politics of Diagnosis and Disease’, Social Problems, 37, 3 (1990), 294-310.

Wilson, Elizabeth, Only Halfway to Paradise: Women in Postwar Britian: 1945-1968 (London 1980).

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