Have you seen the latest report from the Centre for Social Justice? I am no fan of this right-wing think tank, founded by Iain Duncan Smith MP, which left me flabbergasted last year when it published patronising proposals for “family relationship hubs” and enforced “cooling off periods” for couples whose relationships had broken down.
It may surprise you to learn that in the CSJ’s latest report, Family breakdown in the UK: it’s NOT about divorce, I find something to like. The report’s author, one Harry Benson, brought his own marriage back from the brink and has thereafter dedicated himself to saving others’ marriages. He founded the Bristol Community Family Trust, which runs marriage relationship and mentoring courses.
Of his bona fides, there can be no issue. I admire his sterling work to try and keep couples together. I have long thought that the abilities to recognise when marriages are in trouble, and to help the parties through their problems before the “uncoupling” process has gone too far, are vital tools in saving marriages that might otherwise be doomed.
My opinion of the Centre for Social Justice, however, remains unchanged. I find much in the latest report to dislike, and I have wearied of this think tank’s sugar-coated vision of marriage as the magic cure for UK families’ shortcomings. In short: while I agree that marriage is the “gold standard” for couples, particularly those who have children, I do not believe that a broken marriage can be held together by divorce law aimed at forcing couples to remain married. Indeed, I believe there are plenty of instances of children who have been gravely psychologically harmed by remaining with dysfunctional parents who loathe each other.
My son Ben wrote his dissertation on this same subject. It is a complicated study, based on many authoritative sources in the field. He writes about the uncoupling process and the need for education about this, but he parts company with the Centre for Social Justice on the wisdom of keeping failed marriages together. This he rejects as too late, since the uncoupling process to which he and Benson both refer is, by the point of divorce, complete and irreversible (you can read his full dissertation at the bottom of this post).
Family breakdown in the UK: it’s NOT about divorce is a short report that focuses on the costs of family breakdown in families where there are children. It divides parents into married, cohabiting and non-cohabiting groups.
The report’s data and charts show that divorce is “not the problem”, in that it “accounts for £1 in every £7 of support for lone parents with children under 5”. So the focus falls to unmarried couples, who account for £6 in every £7.
Mr Benson’s figures appear to be taken from a number of sources, including the Office for National Statistics. He states:
By mapping family breakdown data amongst parents with five year old children from the Millennium Cohort Study onto national birth data from ONS, it is now possible to establish the specific contribution of divorce to lone parenthood during these crucial early years.
I must admit, however, that I find the formula used to calculate costs somewhat odd:
The cost of family breakdown for each birth cohort by category = (the number of births) x (the average break-up rate) x (the average number of years that family breakdown takes place before age five).
I am not a statistician, but I am unsure why the costs have been calculated in this way. Perhaps a more detailed explanation should have been included, for clarity.
The report concludes that because unmarried couples with children are far more likely to split up than married couples with children, and because family breakdown amongst unmarried couples is so much more expensive, the answer is to encourage unmarried couples to get married: “reasserting marriage is contentious but is vital”.
Personally, I don’t think this adds up at all, in that it presumes a ring on the finger is some sort of magic talisman to ward off family breakdown. As if a wedding turns a vulnerable relationship into an invincible one! It doesn’t. When a marriage reaches the divorce stage, that marriage has failed. The uncoupling process is complete.
It is a shame that the conclusion is so predictable, because the raw data is interesting and I can’t help thinking that plenty of other highlights and ideas could have been pulled from it. For example, the results show that couples who have children but who do not live together have a higher breakdown rate then cohabiting couples and account for disproportionately high costs. This nugget is almost brushed aside, however, as the report’s focus is trained upon cohabitants and married couples.
Does this report feed into the agenda of keeping failed marriages together? For various reasons, it doesn’t add up for me. What would add up is a recognition of the need for improved legal rights for cohabiting couples, for all the reasons that I have described in previous posts about cohabitation. if the government is going to remain determinedly blinkered on this issue, no doubt we will be seeing more reports like this one from the Centre for Social Justice and its ilk.