I’ll come to ‘love nuggets‘ in a second but bear with me for two paragraphs while I look at communication as an example of this kind of problem.
Lots of surveys have linked happy couples with better communication. So it’s a reasonable hypothesis to ask whether helping couples communicate better will make them happier. You go off and run some courses which teach communication skills to couples and see if their happiness improves. It does. So you conclude that teaching communication is a good thing. But there’s a problem. The courses also teach a whole bunch of other stuff, So you still can’t be completely sure if it’s communication that does the trick on its own free from the rest of the package. Eventually you find two key pieces of research that give you a reality check. One of the leading US professors in this field, John Gottman, long ago found that active listening doesn’t predict subsequent happiness. And another peer-reviewed study found that even when couples are taught active listening skills alone, they don’t use them.
So having started with surveys that say couples who communicate well tend to be happier, it turns out that the presence of good communication doesn’t predict later happiness, and people don’t use good communication skills even when they are taught them. But imagine if surveys were all you had to go on, there’d be a tremendous temptation to point to the happy couples and say, look, they’re happy because they communicate well. Yet the reality is that happiness and communication tend to go together because of some other characteristic in their relationship.
All of which is to highlight the questionable thinking behind a new £45,000 campaign funded by the Department for Education to capture the nation’s ‘love nuggets‘, those little pearls of wisdom that couples live by, such as bringing a cup of tea in the morning or running a bath after work or giving each other a goodbye kiss. All good stuff. But are these ‘love nuggets‘ really the secret – or even part of the secret – to turning back the £46 billion problem of family breakdown?
One plus One, the mostly government-funded research organisation who are organising this campaign, claim that ‘love nuggets’ are backed by ‘science‘. Follow their links and you find the science to be little more than an online survey called Enduring Love that lists little things couples find useful. And they do. What they don’t do is show how doing these little things make people happier later on. A good starting point would have been to see if those who use ‘love nuggets’ are actually happier right now. The full report on Enduring Love doesn’t even do that.
Now my wife will happily remind me that the little things I do for her are terribly important. But the reason I do these little things is because I have a bigger picture in mind. I love her, am committed to her for life, and am married as a sign of my commitment to her. I don’t do the little things for their own sake, even if they help when I don’t feel like it. I do them because of my attitude, my decision, my commitment. You can teach me all the processes in the world and give me all the hints and tips in the world. But the only reason I will do them is because of the way I view her and our relationship. It’s the big picture that matters most.
I suspect most sensible people will have the same intuitive reaction. Sure, little things matter. But spending government money on ‘love nuggets’, even if only £45,000, is trivialising what makes relationships work and getting the principle wrong anyway.
The big picture is this. Out of all the parents who manage to stay together as a couple while bringing up their children, 93% are married. In other words, the parents who remain together without getting married are in the tiny minority. This should be the knock-out stat that makes you want to know why, with rare exceptions, if you don’t marry you’re not likely to last the course.
Instead we get “a light hearted opportunity for members of the public to share the ways in which they make their own relationships special“. That’s fine for a glossy magazine. But what on earth is government doing paying for this nonsense on a scale that – even if it were soundly based, which it isn’t – cannot possibly hope to dent the vast £46 billion problem of family breakdown that now affects nearly one in two of all children?
If ever there was an example of fiddling while Rome burns, this is it. Ugh.