This is a book full of hope where hope is badly needed.
For years, western nations have experienced huge changes in family life. The most prominent of those changes has been a steady and relentless reduction in family stability and increase in family breakdown. Until recently, the prevailing assumption appears to have been that such change is inevitable, that family breakdown is largely unavoidable. The political, social and economic priority has been how to manage this decline.
In the UK, family breakdown has risen under all governments since the 1960s (Callan et al, 2006). In the 60s and 70s the driver was divorce: annual divorce rates rose from 0.2% in the early 1960s to 1.2-1.4% from 1980 onwards (ONS, various). Since 1980 however, the driver has been the separation of unmarried families. Across the US and Europe, the separation rate of unmarried parents is higher than the divorce rate of married parents (Kiernan, 2003).
To illustrate this, Stephen McKay of the University of Birmingham and I conducted an analysis of family breakdown amongst 14,600 parents with five year old children using new data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. We found that 9% of married parents, 26% of cohabiting parents and 60% of self-described closely involved parents had split up before their child’s fifth birthday. Combining the latter two categories means 35% of unmarried couples split up during this period.
Put another way, 71% of family breakdown affecting children under five now involves the break-up of unmarried parents. In contrast, using national birth and divorce data and assuming this marriage/cohabitation gap in outcomes has remained largely stable over time (see Kamp Dush et al, 2003), I estimate this figure has risen steadily from 20% in 1980.
We also compared the break-up rates of the 12,500 parents who started as either married or cohabiting, leaving aside the couples who started parenthood as closely involved. Across five education categories – from the best to least educated – and five income groups – from the highest to lowest paid – cohabiting parents were consistently 2 to 2.5 times more likely to split up.
These figures should shock us. How can 1 in 11 married new parents split up? How can 1 in 3 unmarried new parents split up? Given the well-documented impact of family breakdown on children (e.g. Amato, 2005; Callan et al, 2006), are such high rates of family breakdown really inevitable?
It is not obvious that these changes are inevitable. Many families clearly do come through difficult times intact. It is perhaps little known that, even today, most UK marriages still last a lifetime (Wilson & Smallwood, 2008).
The primary purpose of this book is to gather together a wide range of scholarly papers and reviews that investigate whether and how both married and unmarried couples can improve their odds of success of staying together, of being happier, of fighting less.
For policy-makers, commentators, practitioners and ordinary members of the public who are no longer prepared to accept the inevitability of family breakdown, this book offers many compelling rays of hope, grounded in top quality research and practice.
This collection of papers includes contributions from some of the leading researchers and practitioners in the US and Europe. There is a considerable degree of overlap between the various authors’ perspectives on the central theme of early intervention, the influence of prediction research and longitudinal studies to inform new theory and practice, the emphasis on the use of empirically-informed and tested programmes – especially but not exclusively PREP (Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 2001) – and the creative ways in which programmes are being adapted and applied in different settings.
Relationship education – the teaching and coaching of individuals and couples on how to have a happy, healthy and stable relationship – can contribute significantly to an overall strategy geared towards stemming and turning back the rising tide of family breakdown. This book tells you how and why.