National Marriage Week Conference 2003
By Liz Percival
Opening the day
This year the press launch for National Marriage Week took place as part of a day conference at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall’s in the City of London.
Jill Kirby began the day with a skilful and informative tour of the appalling statistics about family life in Britain. She highlighted first place that Britain has in Europe – in divorce rates, and percentages of single parent families. Drawing on her recent book Broken Hearts, Jill painted a sad picture of the plight that many children face through marriage breakdown. She noted the efforts of the present government to alleviate the poverty that is one of the consequences, but commented that simply tackling the symptoms was a losing battle.
As children grow up without the role models of love between parents they are twice as likely to struggle to form adult relationships and more likely to experience marriage breakdown for themselves.
Government is beginning to recognise the social capital of marriage, the benefits it brings to parents and children and the wider impact on society. There is still much that the government can do make the tax system more marriage friendly and to increase the proportion of its spending on prevention rather than the picking up the pieces after breakdown.
Jill pointed out finally that unless society and government are willing to talk about marriage then we will not be able to begin to change things and turn the tide of suffering.
Professor Richard Whitfield began by highlighting the dangers of allowing marriage and family life to decline and the impact on a society. Capabilities in making healthy human relationships can be caught, but as family life disintegrates these abilities must be taught if society is not to collapse.
“Secure reciprocal bonds between mother, father and child are the most important indicator of later life success.” The whole of society needs to recognise the value of marriage to society whatever their own choices and preferences. We should however avoid reducing marriage education and support to simple formulas. Humans are complex creature and so are the relationships that they form.
Each of us are formed neurologically from conception and we bring those “stories” to our adult relationships. Much has to be learned in order to make those relationship work. Professor Whitfield proposed that love is the social glue of society. We are not born with love, simply with a hunger for it. We need reliable love from others to begin to understand ourselves and how to relate to others. This cannot be done through sex without strings or relationships without rings.
Social science research has given us hard evidence of what enables the whole person to thrive. These findings are not being taken into account within our education system as much as they should be. Intellectual skills are being given too much emphasis compared to emotional literacy.
There needs to be an act of faith to encourage education in all spheres. At present there is a fire fighting approach. Courageous leadership from government is lacking and those working through smaller organisations need to co-operate. Trying to introduce new approaches in the beleaguered education system is about as effective as shooting a water pistol up the Niagara Falls. There needs to be a huge change in attitudes within schools and education establishments to make a difference. Christian and other faith schools of all schools should be taking this challenge seriously.
There is a need for cross-generational education in the basics of how humans function and make reliable and healthy bonds, to understand emotions and how we communicate and learn. There is a need to understand how to manage personal time and money, the options for relationship, phases in parenting, marriage as a social institution, handling of loss and bereavement, facing moral dilemmas, lifestyles and reproductive health.
This can be learnt in a variety of settings using experiential learning in small groups of all ages, with homework, with appropriately trained facilitators. We need to look beyond schools to youth groups, Community Family Trusts and the media. The media needs to take it’s responsibility to educate as well as entertain seriously and there need to be strong watchdog bodies in place to prevent the subtle indoctrination of the public into attitudes and behaviours that are further damaging society.
Couple relationships and parenting are not for everyone, but that does not mean that vocal minorities should stop this work. There is so much loneliness, that something must be done. Mothering needs to be re-established as a high standard option compared to paid work. The work/family balance needs to be restored.
Institutional restructuring will not solve anything – relational inadequacy must be tackled. No culture has ever survived without preserving the relationship between a man and a woman and the children they are raising.
Bold and sensitive political leadership is needed with strong grass roots pressure fanned by the media. A just society promotes relationships based on constant love as the rock on which society is based.