‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented‘, claimed David Cameron today. “Families that break apart“, he said, “are twice as likely to experience poverty as those that stay together“.
Actually families that stay together are a whole lot better than that. Lone parents may be twice as likely to live in poverty but they are six times as likely to rely on housing benefit. In other words, the welfare system quite rightly shields couples that split up from the full effects of family breakdown.
Therefore I really ought to be welcoming the PM’s new plans to double government spending on relationship support that is designed to help couples stay together.
But I can’t, because it won’t.
Let’s start with the problem of sheer scale. The government already spends £47 BILLION each year on the direct costs of family breakdown. This new policy will double spending on its prevention to £70 MILLION spread over five years. So for every £100 spent on family breakdown, the government now plans to spend 3p trying to stop it.
WIll this 3p make any difference at all? I doubt it.
Almost all of this money goes to organisations that provide couple counselling. I’ve long been a sceptic of couple counselling since reading a 1998 academic paper by top marriage researcher Professor John Gottman (entire paper can be downloaded here). He observed that studies of couple counselling tended to show remarkably similar results, more or less regardless of what method was used, even including one “based on an erroneous assumption about what makes marriages work“. In essence, he concluded, all of the effects of couple counselling “could be considered to be placebo effects“.
Recent studies (summarised nicely here by the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships) do little to convince me otherwise. Tavistock report that some 60-75% of couples see immediate benefits following therapy, yet they also acknowledge that 45% of these couples later become distressed again or split up. So counselling or therapy ultimately seems to help about 15-20% of couples stay together in the long run. Is that any better than you’d get if you asked couples to spend a few evenings with good friends? It doesn’t look very impressive.
What does help couples stay together?
Relationship education is very different from relationship counselling in that couples are taught practical skills commonly found among couples who do manage to stay together. In counselling, they are expected to work things out between them without ever being taught how. A simple example of relationship education is to identify the different ways each spouse most feels loved, whether through Time, Words, Actions, Gifts or Touch. Recognising these ‘Languages of Love‘ can overcome wrong assumptions from one spouse about another and provide immediate boosts to intimacy.
The research evidence in the field of relationship education is both well established and increasingly robust, showing that the best short courses of relationship education can improve satisfaction, reduce conflict and lower divorce rates significantly.
There are however two big problems. The first is that, as with couple counselling, the positive effects also tend to wear off with time. The second is that it is difficult to persuade couples to attend courses on any meaningful scale in the first place. Having run hundreds of courses for thousands of couples myself, I know that the hardest part is always getting people through the door. The government learned this recently with their failed parenting intervention.
In the UK. the relationship education field is small and fragmented. Courses provided by excellent charities – such as The Marriage Course, Care for the Family, Marriage Care, Prepare, Time for Marriage, Marriage Encounter and Family Life – probably reach little more than 10,000 couples per year. Couples who attend courses invariably love them.
Changing culture to make courses seem more normal could be done. After all, ante-natal courses were once considered odd. Why go to a class to have a baby? It’s natural, isn’t it? Yet most new mothers now attend some sort of course. The same thing could be done on a large scale for relationship courses.
What persuaded me to temper my enthusiasm for relationship education were the results from the American ‘Building Strong Families‘ programme for unmarried new parents, a large scale government-backed programme that ran in eight US states. Only one such programmes – which I happened to observe in action about ten years ago – ran well enough to demonstrate any kind of success. What this showed was that it takes huge amounts of money, effort, skill and tenacity to run a public health campaign. I just don’t think the will exists in the UK to do this.
The good news is that there is a well-known and powerful intervention that strengthens families and reduces family breakdown. After taking this intervention, 76% of all new parents stay together throughout the sixteen year period of bringing up their children. By comparison, only 31% of those who don’t take this intervention achieve the same thing. Neither age nor education have any significant impact on these proportions.
The intervention is of course marriage. It’s marriage that is the best anti-poverty measure ever invented.
If marriage were a medicine, NICE would be falling over themselves to recommend it on these figures alone.
So why is Mr Cameron – who has repeatedly affirmed his support for marriage and commitment – spending yet more money on programmes of limited scale and limited short-term effectiveness and ignoring the one tried-and-tested intervention that works really well over the long term?