What makes a successful relationship?
As family lawyers our work often focusses on the end of relationships and helping people deal with the difficulties of a marriage breakdown. In fact the latest bulletin from the Office of National Statistics indicates that 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. But what if we were more informed at the beginning of a relationship? Would our marriages be more likely to succeed?
Last week the results of a study conducted by the University of Exeter were published, which investigated the characteristics and skills that lead to long-lasting, happy, healthy relationships. The project was conducted in three phases to obtain the views of practitioners, couples in thriving relationships of at least 10 years and young people.
Phase 1: Why do relationships end?
Daniel Bennett, Head of the Family Department at Whitehead Monckton, was one of 10 divorce lawyers and mediators interviewed to identify key elements of a relationship failure. This sample of practitioners, which also included 2 Judges, agreed that the common causes of relationship breakdown were:
- Transition into parenthood
- Different attitudes to financial issues
- Unrealistic expectations
- Failure to deal with relationship issues
- Failure to nurture the relationship
Of the above factors, it is understandable that (a) - (d) may not be discovered until later in the relationship or marriage. However the Project Summary Report suggests, legitimately, that (e) - (h) are factors that either should be discovered prior to marrying or that could be addressed through developing relevant relationship skills.
Phases 2 and 3: How can we combat relationship breakdown?
The Report proposes that there are steps that could be taken to address (e) - (h) above and therefore reduce the level of marriage breakdown and divorce in England and Wales.
During the second phase of the study, 43 couples were interviewed and 10 key attributes and skills driving a successful relationship were identified. A list of critical questions was drawn up and it is suggested that each partner should ask these of themselves and each other prior to committing to a relationship that is intended to be permanent:
- Are my partner and I a good fit?
- Do we have a strong basis of friendship?
- Do we want the same things in our relationship and out of life?
- Are our expectations realistic?
- Do we generally see the best in each other?
- Do we both work at keeping our relationship vibrant?
- Do we both feel we can discuss things freely and raise issues with each other?
- Are we both committed to working through hard times?
- When we face stressful circumstances would we pull together to get through it?
- Do we each have supportive others around us?
Reflecting on these questions at the start of a relationship and indeed throughout helps to combat (e) and (f) of the factors contributing to marriage breakdown.
Young people were then involved in phase 3 and the skills that they thought were important to a flourishing relationship were compared to those identified by the couples. It was found that ‘open communication’, ‘mutual respect’, ‘showing you care’ and ‘identifying signs of an abusive relationship’ were most important, although ‘commitment’ and ‘empathy’ were also seen as key skills. In terms of addressing (g) and (h), it is suggested that there should be future intervention by way of a relationship skills programme for young people. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 requires schools to teach pupils the characteristics of healthy relationships and the aim of this project was to provide an evidence base that could be used to inform a fitting relationship programme for young people.
It remains to be seen whether careful selection of a partner at the outset and greater education of the factors behind a successful marriage will have an impact on the levels of divorce in England and Wales. Even if some of the factors leading to a relationship breakdown are addressed, there inevitably will still be others and if you find yourself in this situation, contact our Family team who can offer you advice on the best way forwards for you.