Are we breaking up?
by Jen Lexmond
Penny Mansfield writes in the Times today about the harrowing effects of relationship breakdown on adult mental-health and children’s wellbeing. Studies show that mental-health plummets in the year running up to divorce and it can take years to recover. The effects of hostile home environment on children are enormous, particularly in the early years having a detrimental effect on soft skills development and being ready to start school, and have big consequences for the state later on down the line. So we know what we’ve always known – break ups are hard and have a detrimental effect on all those involved – but what do we do about it?
New research from Penny’s organisation One plus One tells a story of how relationships have changed over the past few generations: although the greater ease and availability of divorce has relinquished many from unhappy or abusive marriages, it has not delivered happier relationships to us on the whole, nor has it heralded better upbringings for children. Couples today are more fragile than in the past and particularly find the transition to parenthood incredibly straining on relationships. This most difficult transition occurs in tandem with the most important developmental time for children, causing a perfect storm.
Much of what Penny says chimes with a forthcoming Demos report, Building Character, by Richard Reeves and myself. The report, as the name suggests, investigates the building blocks of ‘character’. What we found is that parenting style and home environment is a huge – and probably the greatest - influence on the development of character capabilities like initiative, self-regulation, and empathy – during children’s earliest years.
Hostile home environments characterised by arguing, tension, and a lack of consistency – typical of homes where a couple relationship is breaking down badly – has a very negative effect on this early development. The consequences of this poor development include educational disengagement, behavioural problems, trouble establishing relationships and getting on with peers, and difficulty engaging and following through with projects, tasks, or responsibilities – in short, it lowers children’s chances for happy, well-adjusted, productive lives.
But the moral of the story is not so clear: being in a relationship is what’s best for us and sticking together makes us happier than being alone in the long-term, but the cost of sticking it out in an unhappy marriage takes its toll on the children. The freedom to get out of unhealthy or abusive relationships should remain unaltered, but it is clear that we need to move towards a future where that freedom is less likely to be invoked.
The Conservatives think marriage tax breaks and stopping the couple penalty is the answer, that financial incentives will solve our problems. I’m certainly not convinced of that – how can the state ever hope (or dare) to try to influence the infinitely complex factors that go to end or continue a relationship with such a blunt tool as tax breaks and incentives? Liberals remain committed to maximizing people’s freedom to move into or out of relationships, as well as the independence to make it on one’s own when it comes to that – a noble goal that must be protected but that isn’t enough to deliver the stability that we want and that children need. As One plus One concludes in their own report, the missing piece may be effective and available relationship advice and support, at the right time, whether to stop breakdown before its too late or to help minimise the damage done in cases where a split is inevitable.