What’s really behind most marital splits?

The demands of the child poverty lobby to make major changes to
the social fund and significantly increase benefits for the
non-working poor, will almost certainly have gone unheeded in
Gordon Brown’s budget this week. But Mr Brown’s budget
will have delivered his already promised boost to couples on an
average salary in the form of the new child tax credit – at around
£80 a month paid to the main carer.

A permanent state of financial insecurity has many more
consequences than just a basic lack of cash, as is well known. Last
week, for instance, the alleged formula for the perfect marriage
was revealed and, surprise, surprise, money turns out to play a key

Some 17,000 forty-somethings have been analysed. Now, we have 10
crude indicators that a marriage may hit the rocks.

These include the fate of the parents’ marriage; the
couple’s age at wedlock; the groom’s schooling and his
behaviour at the age of sixteen. Cohabiting also increases the risk
of a split. None of which is very surprising, since it echoes years
of research conducted by academics such as Kathleen Kiernan at the
London School of Economics.

Reduced to its most simple, those who have something to lose –
in addition to the emotional tie – have an incentive to work harder
at marriage. Those who have little to invest either in cash or
qualifications or life experience discover, in general, that the
roots of matrimony are not so deep. So, is that tough luck on the
former school truant from a broken home, on probation and in a job
as a supermarket shelf stacker? Does he or she have to accept that
happy ever after, along with a home of his or her own, is unlikely
to be realised?

Again and again, social policy researchers come across the
exception which fails to fit the rule. Couples from fractured
families do marry in their teens, raise their own children
successfully and, 30 years later, still speak of each other with
love and affection. The conundrum is why policy makers show so
little interest in discovering how they have managed such a
monumental achievement.

In addition to a decent standard of living for the poor (if more
than £3bn can be found to fight what seems to many to be an
unnecessary war in the Middle East, why not hike up pensions?)
perhaps what’s required is a new school of academia devoted
to revealing not the patterns of failure in the human condition but
the skills of those who succeed against the odds?

1 J Bynner et al, Changing Britain,
Changing Lives, Institute of Education, 2003

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