Former welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith has warned the government not to cut the annual £7.5million funding for relationship counselling. But is he right?
I’ve been researching and writing about what works in relationships for nearly 20 years, so you might think I’d agree with IDS that this is an issue worth championing. Instead I’m indifferent about it.
First, there’s not much convincing evidence that relationship counselling is as effective its advocates claim. Although many couples seem to do better after therapy, it’s not obvious than any type of therapy performs better than any other. I was an adviser to a recent Department for Education study that analysed UK couple therapy. I eventually withdrew because of a blanket refusal to include a control group for comparison, as well as lack of clarity about what therapy actually involved. This is the study that claims £1 of input saves £11 of costs. Maybe it does, but the study doesn’t prove it. I tell couples in trouble to talk to wise friends.
Second, therapy is never going to solve much of the problem of breakdown. We should focus on how to prevent couples from getting into trouble in the first place.
Third, compared to the giant £48 billion we spend on family breakdown, a puny £7.5 million is a drop in the ocean. Alas, to mix metaphors, this money gives politicians a figleaf with which to pretend they are doing something. They are not.
The sheer scale of the problem is huge. Nearly half of all teenagers today are not living with both parents. That means one in every two couples are splitting up between conceiving their children and getting them through GCSEs. This is an astonishingly high failure rate, and puts the UK at the top of the family breakdown league in the entire developing world.
Allow me to highlight a couple of pieces of our research that shed light on where to aim our policy response.
The first involves who stays together and who splits up. Between two and three out of ten marriages will fail between the time a baby is born and when the child sits GCSEs 15 years later. That means the vast majority of couples who are married before they have a baby will stay together while bringing up their child. Contrast this with the seven out of ten couples who never marry but split up along the way. Getting married after having a baby doesn’t improve their chances by much. Astonishingly, more than half separate.
The second involves when couples split up. It turns out that half of all family breakdown is concentrated among parents of children under three and in particular among unmarried, rather than married, parents.
Successful relationships depend on commitment. The ultimate step of commitment is to propose marriage and get engaged, which means deciding to spend the rest of our lives together. If we want happiness and communication, knowing that we are in it for life is the core foundation. If we want unhappiness and conflict, unspoken assumptions and ambiguity are the way to do it.
Although clearly not all marriages work out and some unmarried cohabitations last for life, it should be clear which provides the strongest foundation. Having a clearly expressed plan, witnessed and backed by family and friends, and legally validated, means you’re more likely to achieve it.
This leaves us with some clear policy directions if we want more of our children to grow up with both parents, which would lead to better outcomes for all and a lot less money spent by the taxpayer.
We should be championing marriage: I’ve just completed some tax forms that ask me about my ‘partner’. I’m married. I have a spouse/wife. Distinguishing marriage on official forms would send a signal that government appreciates the difference.
We should be championing commitment before children: At the moment, all the government allows some couples, if they are married single earner families, to pay up to £210 less tax. As well as being vanishingly small, this policy is poorly targeted. If we concentrated this money as an extra child benefit for married first-time mothers in their first two or three years of parenthood, it could be worth thousands. This would provide a real incentive for parents to marry, and would go a long way to offsetting the perverse ‘couple penalty’ that pays couples up to £7,000 more in tax credits if they split up, or pretend to do so. (Incidentally, IDS’s Universal Credit scheme actually makes the couple penalty worse. Because UC involves more money than tax credits, parents have more to lose if their partner moves in, let alone if they marry.)
We should be championing men taking more responsibility for their relationship: Studies show that happy wife tends to mean happy life, for husband and children alike. When couples have children, the woman’s focus shifts to the baby, and her capacity to carry the couple relationship diminishes. Then dad needs to step up and take responsibility. This is the theme of my book What Mums Want: And Dads Need To Know.
And finally we should be championing relationship education programmes: There is much evidence that short educational courses – which are quite different from counselling – improve relationships, reduce conflict and help couples stay together.
If your relationship is in trouble, you’re better off sitting down with wise friends who will value your marriage, booking yourself on to a marriage course where you can learn how to do it better, and read a self-help book – such as What Mums Want or Let’s Stick Together – on what can help you make a difference.
This is why I will feel indifferent if government scraps its minuscule support for relationship counselling.
And if no longer funding relationship counselling takes away ministers’ cover for pretending they are doing something, then all the better. It won’t affect the overall level of family breakdown.
Instead we need a focused policy that does make a difference. And that has to include marriage.
Benson, H. (2013) Let’s Stick Together. Oxford: Lion Hudson
Benson, H. & Benson, K. (2017) What Mums Want And Dads Need To Know. Oxford: Lion Hudson