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

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”.