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IDS should champion marriage, not relationship counselling

Former welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith has this week warned the government not to cut the annual £7.5 million funding for relationship counselling. But is he right?

I know a bit about this issue for a number of reasons: I’ve been researching and writing about what works in relationships for nearly twenty years; I co-wrote two family policy papers for the Centre for Social Justice, founded by IDS, in 2006 and 2007; and I’ve personally taught hundreds of relationship programmes for thousands of people, ranging from new parents in Surestart centres and post-natal clinics to couples in prison.

So you might think I’d agree with IDS that this is an issue worth championing. Instead I’m indifferent about it.

First, there’s not that much convincing evidence to say relationship counselling is as effective its advocates claim. Helping struggling couples is difficult and uncertain work. Although many couples seem to do better after therapy, it’s not obvious than any type of therapy performs better than any other. One of the top world authorities says this means therapy of any kind may be little more than a “placebo” effect. I was one of the advisors to a recent Department for Education study that analysed UK couple therapy. I eventually withdrew because of a blanket refusal to include a control group for comparison, as well as lack of clarity about what therapy actually involved. This is the study that claims £1 of input saves £11 of costs. Maybe it does but the study doesn’t prove it. I tell couples in trouble to talk to wise friends.

Second, therapy is never going to solve much of the problem of breakdown. Even if it was effective, it attacks the problem of family breakdown from the wrong end, more of which below. We should focus on how to prevent couples from getting into trouble in the first place rather than soothing them through their split when it’s all too late.

Third, compared to the giant £48 BILLION we spend on family breakdown, a puny £7.5 MILLION is a drop in the ocean. Alas, to mix metaphors, this money gives politicians a figleaf with which to pretend they are “doing something”. They are not.

The sheer scale of the problem is huge. Nearly half of all teenagers today are not living with both parents. That means one in every two couples are splitting up sometime between conceiving their children and getting them through GCSEs.

This is an astonishingly high failure rate and puts the UK at the top of the family breakdown league in the entire developing world.

The good news is that much, or even most, family breakdown is not inevitable. In the year before couples break up, 60% of married parents and 80% of cohabiting parents report that they are at least somewhat happy with their relationship and not quarreling especially often. These are not couples who are necessarily and unavoidably destined to split.

The solution will not be found by managing failure better – even if this might be a worthy aim of relationship counselling, this is not significantly reducing family breakdown, its consequences, or its costs – but how to improve the odds of success. Hardly anybody starts off in a relationship wanting it to fail. And yet half of those who love each other enough to have a baby will still split up! How can we help them and thus reduce family breakdown?

Successful relationships depend on our attitude, the way we view our relationship and the way we view one another. When we do this well, we treat each other with kindness and generosity, we are willing to sacrifice our own needs and desires, we communicate well and we handle each other’s foibles well. We don’t mistreat one another, but when we do go through difficult times we are able to resolve issues and forgive one another. We attribute bad behaviour to a bad day at the office rather than to a bad person.

All in all, happiness, conflict and stress in a relationship depend on the foundations we have set out with one another. That means commitment.

When we think of commitment, we tend to think about dedication, the extent to which we’ve made a clear decision to be a couple with a future. The ultimate step of dedication is to propose marriage and get engaged, which means deciding to spend the rest of our lives together. If we want happiness and communication, knowing that we are in it for life is the core foundation. If we want unhappiness and conflict, unspoken assumptions and ambiguity are the way to do it.

Although clearly not all marriages work out and some unmarried cohabitations last for life, it should be clear which provides the strongest foundation. Having a clearly expressed plan, witnessed and backed by family and friends, and legally validated, means you’re more likely to achieve it.

Allow me to highlight a couple of pieces of our research that shed light on where to aim our policy response.

The first involves who stays together and who splits up. Between two and three out of ten marriages will fail between the time a baby is born and when the child sits GCSEs fifteen years later. That means the vast majority of couples who are married before they have a baby will stay together while bringing up their child. Contrast this with the seven out of ten couples who never marry but split up along the way. Interestingly getting married after having a baby doesn’t improve their chances by much. Astonishingly, more than half split up.

These remarkable differences in odds hold true even when taking the age and education of the mother into account. They give the first clue that a policy response aimed at improving family stability needs to focus on both marriage and timing of commitment.

The second involves when couples split up. It turns out that half of all family breakdown is concentrated among children under three and in particular among unmarried, rather than married, parents.

Now that we know where to aim, we’re getting closer to helping more couples stay together.

Third, it’s not divorce that we need to tackle. Divorce rates have been falling for 25 years now. One of our more striking findings is that all of this change happens in the first decade of married life and also involves divorce instigated by wives. Despite years of social change, there has been no change in divorce rates instigated by men, nor in divorce overall once couples get past ten years.

This is further evidence that it’s the early years that are most malleable. And there is no point whatsoever in spending public money on trying to strengthen relationships that are a decade or more old. It also suggests that men’s attitude to the relationship matters most. This is backed up by studies that show happy wife tends to mean happy life, for husband and children alike. It’s not as true for husbands.

This leaves us with some clear policy directions if we want more of our children to grow up with both parents – and no I’m obviously not talking about the tiny minority of abusive relationships – which would lead to better outcomes for all and a lot less money spent by the taxpayer.

  • We should be championing marriage: government can do some of this for free by distinguishing marriage on government forms. I’ve just completed some tax forms that ask me about my ‘partner’. I’m married. I have a spouse/wife. Distinguishing marriage would send a signal that government appreciates the difference.
  • We should be championing commitment before children: at the moment, the government allows some couples to pay up to £210 less tax if they are married single earner families. As well as being vanishingly small, this policy is poorly targeted. By concentrating this money as an extra child benefit for first time mothers in their first two or three years of parenthood, it could be worth thousands. This would provide a real incentive for parents to marry – which means making a plan together, making a decision, talking explicitly about their future, gaining public affirmation from family and friends as well as legal recognition for their relationship – and would go a long way to offsetting the perverse “couple penalty” that pays couples up to £7,000 more in tax credits if they split up, or pretend to do so. (Incidentally, IDS’s Universal Credit scheme actually makes the couple penalty worse … because UC involves more money than tax credits, parents have more to lose if their partner moves in, let alone marries them.)
  • We should be championing men taking more responsibility for their relationship: this is especially true when couples have children and the woman’s focus shifts automatically to the baby she has carried for nine months. As mum’s capacity to carry the couple relationship diminishes, dad needs to step up and take responsibility. This is the theme of our book ‘What Mums Want: And Dads Need To Know” and explains the “Happy wife, happy life” phenomenon. This change alone could revolutionise family life.
  • And finally we should be championing relationship education programmes: there is lots of evidence that short educational courses – which are quite different to counselling – improve relationships, reduce conflict and help couples stay together. These have been tested extensively among newlyweds, prison couples, and the military. They work in all settings.

This is why I will feel indifferent if government scraps its minuscule support for relationship counselling. And if that takes away their ability to pretend they are doing something, then all the better. It won’t affect the overall level of family breakdown.

Instead we need a focused policy that does make a difference. And that has to include marriage.

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