The government has clearly targeted family breakdown as one of the major issues facing this country. In fact, it is beginning to seem that people who have the temerity to separate from their partners are rapidly becoming public enemy number one.
We are regularly reminded of the cost to the country of relationship breakdown. For example, ministers recently have liked to point to a study by the Relationships Foundation think-tank that estimates that family breakdown in the UK currently costs the public purse £46 billion a year, including spending on children in care and a proportion of the costs of the health, education and criminal justice systems.
And it is not just the financial cost. Family breakdown is also blamed for children failing at school, becoming unemployed, getting involved in crime and suffering mental health problems.
A couple of weeks ago we had Senior Tory MP Andrew Selous warning that the rising number of people heading to the divorce courts as they approach retirement age was leading to “escalating” costs for the social care system, as more people live alone. He recommended that GPs should talk to those over the age of fifty about their relationships and direct them to counselling services, and that older couples should be encouraged to take “relationship MOTs” with a counsellor. The idea caught the attention of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who gave it his support and described it as “very significant”.
Mr Duncan Smith was so taken by the idea, in fact, that he has since expanded it by saying that not just GPs but also midwives and registrars should be enlisted to help all couples stay together. Apparently, GPs, midwives and registrars, having nothing better to do, should be encouraged to talk to couples about their relationships. They will then direct couples to one of a series of accredited relationship support services, to help bolster their relationships.
Not satisfied with that, Mr Duncan Smith will also encourage employers to play a more active role in signposting relationship support services to their staff.
Hmm. I’m afraid that such attempts at ‘social engineering’, with their ‘we know better than you’ attitude, just feel a little condescending to me. Further, I feel that they are doomed to be largely futile.
It seems to me that those who come up with such ideas are under the impression that people make decisions to end their relationships lightly. They very rarely do – I did divorce work for about twenty-five years, and in that time I only mentioned marriage guidance to a handful of clients. That is not because I wanted their business, but because it was obvious that the breakdown of the relationship had gone beyond the possibility of repair. People do not decide to get divorced on a whim – they usually only do it after long and hard consideration.
The vast majority of couples are also fully aware of the availability of marriage counselling, and will have already decided whether it is suitable for them. Accordingly, informing them of it is going to be a waste of time.
I’m not saying that marriage and relationship counselling doesn’t work – of course it does for some, but obviously only where both parties want it to work. Having your GP, or even your employer, suggest it to you is highly unlikely to make any difference.
What I am trying to say is that a certain proportion of relationships will always fail, and there is little that governments or others can do to alter that proportion in any significant way. The vast majority of people do know what is best for them, and don’t require any outside interference. And attempting to ‘persuade’ them to stay together when the relationship is really over would be a disaster for all, not least the children involved.
Photo by surroundsound5000 via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence