Modern Marriage 13 January 2016
‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented‘, claimed David Cameron today. “Families that break apart“, he said, “are twice as likely to experience poverty as those that stay together“.
Actually families that stay together are a whole lot better than that. Lone parents may be twice as likely to live in poverty but they are six times as likely to rely on housing benefit. In other words, the welfare system quite rightly shields couples that split up from the full effects of family breakdown.
Therefore I really ought to be welcoming the PM’s new plans to double government spending on relationship support that is designed to help couples stay together.
Let’s start with the problem of sheer scale. The government already spends £47 BILLION each year on the direct costs of family breakdown. This new policy will double spending on its prevention to £70 MILLION spread over five years. So for every £100 spent on family breakdown, the government now plans to spend 3p trying to stop it.
WIll this 3p make any difference at all? I doubt it.
Almost all of this money goes to organisations that provide couple counselling. I’ve long been a sceptic of couple counselling since reading a 1998 academic paper by top marriage researcher Professor John Gottman (entire paper can be downloaded here). He observed that studies of couple counselling tended to show remarkably similar results, more or less regardless of what method was used, even including one “based on an erroneous assumption about what makes marriages work“. In essence, he concluded, all of the effects of couple counselling “could be considered to be placebo effects“.