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Harry Benson: Nearly one in two fifteen year olds experience family breakdown. That fact should shock us.

BENSON HARRY2Harry Benson is the author of “Let’s Stick Together – the relationship book for new parents” and Communications Director of The Marriage Foundation.

The great majority of children want to grow up with both their parents. But today 300,000 fifteen year olds (45% of them) in England and Wales are no longer living with both natural parents. That’s just this year’s fifteen year olds. Next year, there’ll be another 300,000. And then another. And so on.

Few parents want to bring up children on their own. But today two million lone parents are looking after three million children.

Beyond the individual stories of pain, loss and disappointment, families and society pay a price. Family breakdown influences almost every key social indicator: well-being, health, truancy, crime, future relationships. The direct cost to the taxpayer of picking up the pieces is estimated at £44 billion per year, most of which on benefits and tax credits to support so many lone parents.

Despite this vast bill that exceeds the defence budget, there are no ministers, no departments, and no policies to address the problem of family breakdown.

Government says it spends £7.5 million per year to “put relationship support on a stable footing”. That equates to £1 of pee into £6,000 of wind. In fact little of the £1 is even spent on prevention.

You’d be pushed to find a subject where more research has been done, yet where more myths remain prevalent and where less policy has been enacted, than marriage, cohabitation and family breakdown.

Amidst the gloom, there is hope. At a conference held by the charity Marriage Foundation last Friday, academics and legal experts sought to shed light on some of the myths and realities.

Some of the key quotes from the day might surprise you.

  • “Common law marriage” has never existed in the UK, even before 1754 as sometimes assumed.
  • The myth of “common law marriage” first gained credence alongside the emergence of pre-marital cohabitation in the 1970s, the “post-pill” generation.
  • There is simply no historical precedent for today’s level of births outside marriage
  • Marriage is of course no panacea but married parents are still far more likely to remain together than cohabiting parents.
  • Successful cohabiting parents who are still together when their child reaches fifteen are few and far between.
  • Peak divorce rates always occur around years three to six, blowing the myth of a “seven year itch” out of the water.
  • Divorce rates after ten years of marriage have remained the same since 1970, suggesting that the underlying nature of marriage has not changed.
  • Recession has no effect on overall divorce rates, either up or down.
  • More marriages fail when it is the first marriage for the husband. The likely cause is that, first time round, more men slide through cohabitation into marriage without deciding to commit fully.
  • Low conflict divorce is more harmful to children than high conflict divorce.
  • Pre-nups can facilitate marriage in certain situations although their impact on stability is not known.
  • Public attitudes to pre-nups have become more accepting for others though not for ourselves.
  • One in five married people have accessed some form of relationship education compared to one in twelve divorced people.
  • By far the biggest barrier to marriage for cohabiting men is the cost of wedding. Waiting to be asked is almost as important for cohabiting women.
  • Cohabiting couples rate having a baby and moving in together as stronger signs of commitment than opening a joint bank account or getting a pet together. US outcome research suggests the opposite is true.

Baroness Ruth Deech, chair of the Bar Standards Board, made a simple but startling observation in her keynote.

We are encouraged to take care of our own and our children’s health by taking exercise, eating healthily, wearing cycle helmets, not smoking. Yet when it comes to the one issue that does more harm than any of these – the absence of fathers – there is a conspiracy of silence.”

The key driver of family breakdown is the trend away from marriage, an issue with which political parties have been shockingly slow to recognise.

In the coming years, Marriage Foundation will showcase hard evidence on how our young adults can improve their odds of forming and maintaining reliable long-term relationships, which in most cases means marriage.

Remember the nearly one in two fifteen year olds who experience family breakdown. “If that doesn’t shock you,” says high court judge Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of Marriage Foundation, “I don’t know what will”.


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