In the early 1970s, Thailand’s fertility rate was 6.4 births per child-bearing female and population growth was 3.2 per cent. Fewer than 20 per cent of the population practised birth control. By 1979 Thailand had earned itself the reputation of having one of the most successful programmes anywhere in the world, with the fertility rate at 2.2 and population growth slowed to 1.2 per cent, below developed world rates. The architect of this extraordinary change in family behaviour is Mechai Viravaidhya founder, in 1974, of the Population and Community Development Association. In contrast to the prior, worthy, aid-funded educational programmes, he popularised birth control through restaurants named Cabbages and Condoms, blowing up condoms on television, key rings containing a condom and a miniature hammer with the inscription ‘in case of emergency break glass’, and taking carrier bags of condoms into villages, amongst other light and joyous means. He connected with the lubricant of Thai culture – humour – to transform attitudes and achieve huge change.
Great social change is achievable. It usually takes great ambition, perseverance and spark. Sometimes it is government inspired: the Victorian crusade for universal public education, the campaign against drunk driving, Roosevelt’s New Deal; and sometimes not: Mechai’s campaign for birth control, feminism, opposition to e-numbers in packaged food.
The social walls and the economic glue of marriage are no more. Personal experience of their parents’ marriage has bred caution in many. 30 years of sneering at men has left its mark. A culture of over-achievement places family behind career and visible signs of success. The purpose of friendsreunited.com is to renew dormant relationships but may depress former friends with tales of apparently superior career successes.
Over-expectation breeds impatience and mass consumerism breeds instant gratification. Institutional authority is no more – religion has returned to the top spot in the excuses for war. Indeed, we are in the midst of an institutional crisis with most organisations from the monarchy, trains and the NHS to pension providers, supermarkets and government under-performing or at best scraping by in the eyes of their customers and employees.
Hardly surprising that individualism is rampant as we transact our way around society keeping all forms of institutional engagement at arms length, and are particularly vigilant for false promises. In an age of mass advertising, can we believe anything?
To cap it all, we find that there is no such thing as an ordained social structure. Not so very long ago teenagehood as we know it did not exist. Work and responsibility started very early. Today, adulthood may not arrive until the mid-20s with the new breed of post-teenage ‘thresholders’. Social structures and conventions are the product of the prevailing economic and physical environment and power structure.
There are a few givens – a child wants both parents, relationships of all kinds are the engine of life and many people continue to be drawn to reproduction (which is fortunate as otherwise we would not be here to debate here.)
In a world where more people are more informed, more sceptical and have more choice than ever, they want and need a damn good reason to do most things and much knowledge and skill to do them well.
Commitment and passion are wonderful emotions and we can partly reignite them by proclaiming their worth. But we also need the why and the how. Why, in an unconstrained world, does a marriage or a long-term adult relationship matter to you? And how, in the face of a couple growing apart, can the enjoyment be re-established?
Passionate couple love is a great thing but does not burn unaided after 3 years or so. Then an awareness that an individual’s best source of emotional and spiritual growth is through a couple relationship may inspire one to use difference and conflict to grow. ‘Oh you shouldn’t change her/him’. Well, actually changing her/him and me is part of the point. ‘What my partner says hurts’: the hurt is often right and an insight into a source of personal development with the potential to break through a self-continued glass ceiling.
The course of true love never did run smooth. When tension is prevalent some have the role models of their parents to call on to persevere, to manage conflict and to find new joy, and others have a good stock of gremlins ever ready to jump out and feed the pain.
Whether we believe in third party help or not we are surrounded by intended and unintended sources of learning. Big Brother is a pretty good relationship primer, as are the soaps and John Peel’s Home Truths in different ways. Then there are many excellent books, peer problem pages and some superb agony aunts. But putting this advice into practice often requires some on-the-job training which is where workshops, personal psychotherapy, relationship counselling and psychosexual therapy come in. Personally, I see such interventions as no more or less essential to my emotional health and strength than diet and exercise are to my physical well-being. But many people still regard a trip to the counsellor as an affront. Maybe they do not service their cars or go to the dentist either.
Criticisms abound of the world’s fastest growing profession. The psyche does move in mysterious ways but mistakes are made as in all fields of endeavour. Understanding is emerging of the effectiveness of different forms of intervention with different people at different life stages with different presenting problems, but this research is far from complete, and the adoption of better practice is very slow. In its use of technique, counselling/psychotherapy is not so far from, ‘you can have any colour so long as it is black.’ But, at best, the outcome can be almost magical and, at least it is usually helpful so long as the outer coating of pride is not too thick.
Relationship education is now part of the school curriculum with knock on benefits for exam results and truancy, demonstrating, yet again, that these family skills count for personal and organisational success just as much as success in the home.
Our society now accepts the absolute necessity of learning for nearly all forms of human endeavour. To watch a two-year old playing is to see a happy voracious learning machine. The purpose of life is to learn. But not about sex, relationships and parenting?
Let’s loosen up and get some enjoyment into the learning. Not with a government-run programme which, with a government-process unable to do something as simple as run a train service, would lack credibility. Government can and should fund and initiate. But we need an e-numbers/Mechai/feminism approach. Some left-field spark and inspiration. How about starting with a National Wrong Day, when we each celebrate being wrong in our relationship? It really is not better or worse than being right.