For one moment pretend you are a government minister or a newspaper editor. As ever, you are under pressure from your organisation to do or say things. Rightly or wrongly, you have concluded that of family states, marriage is an ideal. What do you do next? A. Promote marriage in schools. B. Work out the root causes of the decline in the number of married. C. Invest in developing the relationship skills of everyone.
Promoting marriage is the obvious answer – until you consider why people change (a consideration almost universally absent from the processes of any government). As soon as marriage is promoted the target market is turned off (the unmarried experiencers). No matter how subtly done, school pupils from unmarried homes will feel socially excluded. Marriage is not high or even on the personal agenda of pupils (relationships of all kinds are). Marriage as an ideal fits with the real-life experiences of less and less people.
As the sometimes-awful truth has dawned of the hermetically sealed nuclear family, many people have found something nasty in a woodshed not too far away. The quality of their family lives as children was such that surprising numbers have chosen not to have families, stay single, live with people of the same sex or worry and delay doing the nuclear family. The disbenefits of natural parents holding exclusive rights to parenting were clear. Extended family influences, which can, at times, be vital to give fresh perspective and as pressure-valves to parenting, were denied any right to this role by the nuclear family supremacists. As choice has become available to new generations, the notion that their experiences of family represented the answer has found limited credibility, credibility falling further as the identities and lifestyles of many of its preachers became known.
Promoting an objective without giving people the means to get there creates frustration and unhappiness. This is the main side-effect of all advertising. The message is ‘your life would be better/happier if you got and stayed married’. But ‘how do you do that?’ ‘I may not have had a good role model’ – such a vital source of learning. ‘I may have a high angst-count to exorcise before I can sustain a relationship’. ‘I may have little grasp of the meaning or relevance of conflict resolution skills, multi-layered communication or emotional literacy’. So promoting marriage without the skills is as beneficial for many as advertising a Ferrari – it is unobtainable.
But what is being promoted by the term marriage? Today’s government is probably using the term as a proxy for family stability, the benefits for children this can bring, and the avoidance of the adverse consequences of breakdown. But watch out for a logic trap here. Does marriage produce family stability or is family stability caused by the emotional resilience and relationship skills of the individuals involved, the absence of excessive financial, work and environmental pressures, and immunity from the side effects of mass consumerism?
Marriage is a devalued term, most notably by traditionalists who used it as a proxy for the preservation of the status quo in all its forms.
Marriage is typically idealised as a romantic idyll. This is a wonderful way to start, but is not a sustainable basis. The term marriage here is used as shorthand for all long-term committed couple relationships. What is a marriage? It is certainly not a legal document, a ceremony, a public avowal, or a party, although these may be a good way to start. But to start what?
Reflecting on the self-defeating end to this year’s British Open, a golfer said that the reason he loved the game was because ‘it taught you about yourself’. That’s also a reason for loving marriage. A marriage is the best opportunity for psychic growth. At the moment you know for sure that what your partner says hurts is because it is true, is the moment you have a marriage. At the moment you recognise that conflict in a relationship is an opportunity for learning, when pride and defensiveness have been put aside, when you enjoy being wrong, you have a marriage. The purpose of marriage is the development of the self. Until this is widely-appreciated, marriage as a state will continue to wander rather aimlessly.
So, promoting the importance of marriage head on when the term has so many different meanings, when experience of marriage is very mixed and the target audience may feel excluded by its promotion is, at best, only likely to add to the catalogue of unrealistic subject teaching with which most schools are burdened. The paradox is that if you really want to promote family stability then don’t mention marriage.
By contrast, teaching relationship skills which apply to everyone, which enable each of us to achieve better outcomes without specifying what they might be, which has a small but demonstrated record in preventing exclusions and bullying and in improving educational attainment, and which address a major interest of pupils both helps everyone in our world of relationships at home, work and play and will feed family stability without casting judgement. Families are extraordinarily complex – to be in, to run, to benefit from. Simplistic solutions from on high get in the way. The answers are there if you look hard for them, they take time to be effective and are multifaceted. Families can be heroes.
Skills, skills, skills are what we want, not tell, tell, tell. It was ever thus.