…if you want to be a family policy maker, writes Harry Benson
When couples have problems or split up, the taxpayer usually ends up picking up the pieces, especially if they have children. Some 45% of teenagers are no longer living with both parents. That’s an unprecedented level of family breakdown. The current best estimate is that the total cost of this is £47 billion per year, rather more than we spend on defence and about half what we spend on education.
The state has a huge stake in the stability of couples. Yet despite spending so much time, love, money and effort when the room is flooded, nobody has much of a policy on how to turn off the tap.
Part of the reason, I suspect, has been an unwillingness of politicians to interfere in family life – despite the huge involvement when things go wrong. Part has been a lack of focus on the root cause – which is the trend away from marriage. Part is an unwillingness to accept that marriage itself, and not some other factor, is the solution. But whatever it is we are doing, it’s getting worse and worse under all governments. What can I offer that might give you a little clarity on this issue?
I’d like to help you understand how commitment works. It sounds simple and is simple. I think a clear model of commitment will give you a solid understanding of relationships, a basis from which to think fruitfully about family policy, and a way to avoid getting caught up in so much of the guff that tries to complicate what should be a straightforward issue.
Every relationship begins with two individuals, ‘you’ and ‘me’, facing one another. We find one another attractive and begin to form a relationship. Imagine this as a giant bubble placed over our heads, giving a new identity called ‘us’. As we enjoy each other’s company, spending time together becomes a priority in our lives. We live in the bubble. This means we have to let go of other demands on our time. Both of us become willing to sacrifice ‘my’ and ‘your’ interests for the sake of ‘us’. We also begin to wonder whether there is a future for ‘us’, initially just to get to the next date, but then until next week and then onward into the unknown.
This bubble is what researchers call ‘dedication’. Dedication boils down to three factors – a decision about being a couple with a future. The ultimate step of dedication is to get married. Dedication is what most of us are thinking about when we talk about commitment. But there’s another side to commitment which is just as important but is rarely considered. It’s called constraint.
Constraits comprise everything on the outside of the bubble that look in on us and see us as a couple. Friends and family, living together, having a baby, having memories, having children: all of these things validate ‘us’ as a couple.
Constraints are good. They provide stability. It’s nice having friends who see us as a couple. It’s nice living together. It’s nice having children. They reinforce our identity as a couple. Think of constraints as a fence around the bubble. A fence affirms our bubble, provides a clear boundary, and gives us some level of security and protection. But the key to successful relationships is dedication, how well things are going inside the bubble.
When dedication – our inner bond – is strong, then constraints – the outer bonds – feel positive. When dedication starts to dip, it’s easy to see how constraints can start to feel negative. The fence that protected us now begins to look more like a prison wall. It makes us feel trapped.
So how do we keep our level of dedication sufficiently strong to make constraints feel more like a fence and less like a wall? Much depends on the order in which we do things. Think about when couples move in gether. There are lots of different ways couples can do this. At one end of the spectrum is the gradual moving in. It started with the overnight toothbrush, then a spare shirt, and then it just kind of happened. Almost accidentally, we ‘slide’ into making the fence bigger. Alternatively we might move in deliberately as part of our clear plan to get married at some stage. We ‘decide’ to put the fence there deliberately. Whether we ‘slide’ or ‘decide’, moving in together can work out fine so long as our sense of dedication is strong.
Where things go wrong is when we haven’t really talked much about our plan for the future and there’s a mismatch of expectations. I might assume we’re en route to marriage. You are quite happy with things as they are and haven’t really thought about the future. So there’s an uncomfortable degree of ambiguity about the relationship that never quite gets resolved. Instead of clearing it up, we drift onwards, held together by the sheer inertia of living together. Had we not been living together, maybe we could have drifted apart. But we don’t. We didn’t ‘decide’. We didn’t make things clear. We ‘slide’ along. And now we are stuck.
Getting trapped in an unhappy relationship is much more likely to happen to those who ‘slide’ rather than ‘decide’. The story of family breakdown in the UK is all about ‘sliding, deciding, and inertia’.
Until the 1970s when the pill became easily available, cohabitation wasn’t really an option for most people. If you moved in with somebody, sex was going to lead to childbirth. So before moving in, most people needed to be really clear about their future together because it was going to involve children. It’s hardly surprising that only 5% of births were outside marriage for hundreds of years until then. Birth control was the game changer. It broke the link between sex and childbirth, and therefore also broke the link with marriage. Suddenly it was possible for women in particular to move in without worrying about the consequences. In 1980, still only 12% of births were outside marriage. Today it’s 47%. Cohabiting has become an accepted norm.
However there’s a downside to this. Whereas most of those who end up getting married are ‘deciders’, high in dedication because they are clear and intentional about their future (even if not all marriages work out), moving in early in a relationship will include those ‘sliders’ who are much less clear about their dedication and their plan for the future. By ‘sliding’ into cohabitation, those in more fragile relationships get trapped by the ‘inertia’ of living together and drift onward into childbirth. Having a baby becomes one constraint too many, giving the couple enough energy to break out through that enlarged prison wall.
We can see this clearly in the data. Half of all family breakdowns happen during the first three years of parenthood. Three quarters of that involves couples who weren’t married.
Our role at Marriage Foundation is to rebuild confidence in marriage. Sure, not all marriages work out. Human beings are flawed. Relationships can be difficult. There is no panacea. But, even today, most marriages last for life.
We’ve just done some new research, using data from Understanding Society, that looks at who stays together and who splits by the time their children are aged 14 or 15. Some of our key findings include: more than two thirds of couples who don’t marry split up; more than half of couples who marry after their child is born split up; and less than quarter of couples who marry before their child is born split up.
Whereas staying together is very much the norm for couples who marry before having children - couples who have clearly ‘decided’ on their plan for the future together - it is the exception for couples who start off unmarried. Undoubtedly some unmarried couples do perfectly well: in among the ‘sliders’ will be some who ‘decide’. But most don’t. Getting married along the way knocks about a fifth off the risk of splitting up. But the odds are still stacked against.
And just in case you were wondering whether this is really about some other factors, it’s not. Mother’s age and education made little to no difference.
This is an astonishing finding. Understanding how commitment works makes sense of it. It means that instead of dismissing marriage as ‘a return to the Edwardian era’, we can see marriage as going with the grain of human behaviour. We make our relationships work best when we establish clarity about the future, know where we both stand, and remove any lingering ambiguity and uncertainty.
In the words of the late Roy Castle, dedication is all you need.
Harry Benson is Research Director for Marriage Foundation.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 06/06/2016