Yesterday the Relationships Alliance, including Marriage Care, published their manifesto, calling on all political parties to put good-quality couple, family and social relationships centre stage in policy making in the run up to the General Election.
Together with 11 other recommendations, the Relationships Alliance called for ways of developing and extending access to relationship support including asking local government to waive the notice of marriage for those who have taken part in an accredited relationship education programme.
Why are we so keen to promote relationship education? In this day and age, don’t people know enough about what makes a relationship work? Isn’t it a private matter between two people? Is it presumptuous of us to think that we have something to share that others will want to know? And if it’s so great, aren’t we being rather exclusive by only incentivising it for those getting married?
When I was Head of Personal and Social Education at a girls’ comprehensive, the young women would often talk about their aspirations for their relationships and personal lives. They had high expectations of an intimate relationship and had new and exciting interpretations of the roles that they would take within that relationship. Even in a North London comprehensive with a high number of girls from a faith background, many of them felt freed from religious and social norms and expectations to be able to create their own expressions of what they thought would bring them happiness. They were looking for equality, never ending happiness, a sexually satisfying partner and a soul mate. This contrasts to expectations of previous generations of women who might have been searching for other goals such as financial security and a socially acceptable environment to bear and raise children.
Yet, 10 years on, I suspect that it has been harder than my students thought to achieve. With the breakdown of cultural, religious and social mores, the freedom to choose and the increase in expectations about what an intimate relationship might provide, the millennium generation need skills to bring to their relationships that in previous generations were perhaps not so crucial to building a strong relationship. These include interpersonal skills such as the ability to negotiate, to listen, to communicate and deal with conflict in our close intimate relationships.
So how do we support people for this reality? Markman and Rhoades define relationships education for couples as: efforts or programs that provide education, skills, and principles that help … couples… increase their chances of having healthy and stable relationships. There is much evidence from the USA but now in the UK too (Spielhofer et al, 2014), that even a small evidenced-based programme delivered by a trained, motivated and skilled facilitator who knows their audience makes a real difference. When our services were evaluated by an independent team, they found for those who had attended our ‘Preparing Together course, there was a significant positive effect on their well-being. For those who had attended or FOCCUS sessions, there was a significant improvement in their relationship quality. Overall, 80% felt that as a result of attending marriage preparation their understanding of how a healthy relationship is built and sustained had increased.
Marriage Care, along with many other organisations, uses the transition to a committed relationship such as marriage, an opportunity to offer couples dedicated time to think about their relationships, what makes a good relationship great and a chance to practice these necessary skills. Although people are initially bemused about what they can learn, by the end, almost all our couples think ‘everyone’ should do it. There is a need to dispel the fear that it’s about counselling and therefore only for relationships that have a problem. Here’s what some of our participants have said
‘It was more interesting than I expected. I found the dealing with anger and the 4 negative behaviours very useful because I recognise that I behave in some of those ways when angry’
It was good to have time to think about yourself and your relationship, something there is often not time for. I enjoyed the speaker/listener exercise – I think this is a very useful technique for conflict resolution’
‘I found talking about who our experience and children have affected our personalities most useful. Thinking about what we want to take from our childhood and past into our relationship. It was just good to talk and has been a great time for us to think about and focus on our relationship.’
Because of our values and our foundations within the Catholic community Marriage Care has a much valued opportunity to offer relationship education to the couples marrying in the Catholic church. But making relationship education a ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) activity to a wider audience as parenting education is becoming, offers us a challenge. How do we create ‘nudges’ in the form of incentives and promotion that will spread the take up and therefore the more widespread acceptance that this is something that would benefit more people?
One way is to create an incentive at the point of registering a marriage. This is why the Relationships Alliance has recommended that local government should waive the notice of marriage fees to those who have taken part in an accredited relationship education programme. Marriage Care hopes that this recommendation is taken up and looks forward to working with government to implement this proposal.
Howard J. Markman and Galena K. Rhoades Journal of Marital and Family Therapy Relationship Education Research: current status and future directions doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00247.x January 2012, Vol. 38, No. 1, 169–200
Spielhofer, T., Corlyon, J., Durbin, B., Smith, M., Stock, L. and Gieve, M. (2014). Relationship Support Interventions Evaluation. Department for Education.
Sue Burridge, Head of Policy and Research
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