As you kindly gave an interview for the practitioner sample of the Shackleton Relationships Project, I thought that you may be interested to know that on Friday we published the project’s findings.
The study, funded by Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, investigated what makes long term relationships thrive. In addition to interviewing 10 family lawyers and mediators and two judges, we conducted longitudinal research with a sample of couples married for ten years and cross-sectional research with couples in relationships of at least 15 years.
In addition we worked with local schools to co-design the foundations of and the best format for an innovative relationships toolkit.
Key findings and recommendations
More relationship education in school was seen positively by young people and they wanted to
be involved in the future programme design. We anticipate a top-down approach in such a
personal area of educational activity is unlikely to succeed. Furthermore, according to the young
people who worked with us on our study, this would go against the strong wish of students to
contribute to further curriculum development in this important field. In order to ensure that
optimum positive student engagement is achieved with the new curriculum, we therefore first
suggest a co-development approach is taken. Any programme within the curriculum must be age appropriate
and cover the spectrum of relationships. Our findings also showed that it might be
beneficial to have some sections of the programme delivered and discussed in single sex groups.
Furthermore, in terms of how the curriculum is delivered, we recommend the programme should
also be available in a range of delivery formats and settings from which schools can select in
consultation with students.
Young people saw open communication, mutual respect, showing you care and identifying
signs of an abusive relationship as most important, but agreed discussion of commitment and
empathy should also be included in relationship education. Social media (and its effect on how
you perceive or reflect on relationships) as well as figuring out who your ‘matching partner’
could be were seen as less important elements to cover in RSE. The divergence between the
young people’s dismissal of these elements and current best evidence on impact of social media
as well as our couple findings prioritising ‘choosing your partner carefully’ would need to be
addressed constructively when developing a programme.
Two of the most common or predictable reasons for relationship failure– incompatibility and
unrealistic expectations – could and arguably should be discovered before a couple agrees to
commit to each other. Often, people may not reflect hard enough on what they individually want
from the relationship and from life before considering whether their partner is the right person
from their own perspective with whom to make a shared life. How that compares with their
partner’s perspective and whether their individual or joint expectations are realistic for their
couple relationship over time are just as vital to consider. Avoiding asymmetry of expectations,
levels of commitment and power relations between partners at the outset have been identified
by this study as key to relationship success. Building the relationship in which you are both
invested, which is resilient and which is right for you both is the best way forward.
A further two identified common causes of relationship breakdown – failure to deal with issues
and failure to nurture the relationship – exposed a lack of relationship skills which could in many
cases be addressed. These may be called into play at different times within relationships, such as
transitions into and out of parenthood and bereavement. At the outset an understanding of what
skills each partner has and how you will work as a team in the face of bad times as well as good is
vital to reflect on and then call on over the course of the relationship.
Ten relationship attributes and skills were identified from our married and more diverse couple
samples as being key to driving and sustaining a thriving relationship. These are fully discussed
within the report and also broadly reflected the matters expressed as important by young people
at our workshops. They were also used to inform the critical questions which should be asked
before committing to a relationship intended to be permanent. We summarise them here as
Choosing carefully; friendship; realistic expectations; seeing the best in each other;
communication; being committed; building a relationship that suits you both; willingness to work
at relationship; adapting to change; building a support network.
Friendship had a central role in sustaining relationships in the longitudinal sample of oppositesex
couples married for ten years, which also revealed two important areas negatively affected
by asymmetry: the first as at the point of commitment and the second around decisions to end
the relationship. The couples who had separated had lacked a solid, mutual basis of friendship
from the outset. This had made it difficult for the couple to navigate an agreed course for the
relationship and had given them little to fall back on when they encountered challenging
circumstances. In marriages that broke down, we also noted asymmetry in the initial desire to
progress the relationship, with one person often keener than the other to cohabit or get married.
This was later reflected in asymmetry around decisions to separate, a phenomenon also noted
by practitioners. Unhappy husbands tended to internalise their distress. Unhappy wives vocalised
their discontent but felt unheard. This led to unhappy spouses emotionally disengaging some
time before separating, making attempts at reconciliation mostly doomed to failure.
From this study, we conclude that the combination of mindsets, attributes and skills are likely
to determine how well or otherwise a couple are able to deal with the stresses and strains of
life through transitions and periods of difficulty. The identified attributes and skills interact with
existing typologies of mindsets within a couple –which may be deliberative or implemental at the
time of commitment, combining then with either a developmental or non-developmental
approach to nurturing the ongoing relationship itself. There were differences in the mindsets
within and across the two couple samples and our development of the critical questions aimed to
take aspects of these attitudes and perspectives into account. There will always be differences in
the way and times these attributes and skills come into play. Facets of them may also combine
differently when considered in the context of different styles of relationship. However, we
concluded that there are two overlapping groups of relationship attributes and skills. First there
are those which are critical for all to identify and address at the outset of the relationship to ensure
compatibility or acceptance of areas of incompatibility between partners. These are choosing
carefully; underpinning friendship; realistic expectations; seeing the best in each other; open
communication; being equally committed. Second there are those attributes and skills which need
to be understood by each partner as things which must be maintained throughout the relationship
and through which a relationship will be happier, healthier and more resilient over the long term.
These are friendship; realistic expectations; seeing the best in each other; open communication;
being committed; building a relationship that suits you both; willingness to work at relationship;
adapting to change and building a support network.
From these, we proposed ten critical questions for each partner to reflect on individually and
then use as a basis for discussion with their partner before committing to a relationship
intended to be permanent. Some of these are principally aimed at avoiding incompatibility at the
outset. Others are aimed at identifying the skills and mindsets of partners which can be developed
over time to avoid relationship breakdown.
The critical questions
1 Are my partner and I a ‘good fit’?
(Can we work well as a team? Do we have similar values and outlook on life?)
2 Do we have a strong basis of friendship?
(Do we have fun together? Share interests and humour? Appreciate each other?)
3 Do we want the same things in our relationship and out of life?
(Do we each feel that we can jointly agree a plan for our lives together? Can we negotiate?)
4 Are our expectations realistic?
(Do we accept there will be ups and downs? Understand the need to make effort?)
5 Do we generally see the best in each other?
(Can we accept each other’s flaws? Respect our differences?)
6 Do we both work at keeping our relationship vibrant?
(Do we make time to spend together and time apart? Each show the other that we care?)
7 Do we both feel we can discuss things freely and raise issues with each other?
(Do we deal with issues promptly & constructively? Enjoy talking & listening to each other?)
8 Are we both committed to working through hard times?
(Do we both ‘give and take’? Work on ourselves? Look to a positive future together?)
9 When we face stressful circumstances would we pull together to get through it?
(Can we each adapt well to change? Would we seek professional help if needed?
10 Do we each have supportive others around us?
(Do we each have a good support network we can turn to or call on for help if needed?)
Whilst we recommend that all these questions are critical to reflect on and discuss prior to committing
to each other at the outset, as couple situations develop and change, the balance between individual
and couple perspectives can also shift. We would also suggest that these questions are kept in mind
and discussed from time to time as a way of reviewing the relationship dynamics from all perspectives
– making sure both partners are still a good team and pulling in the same direction. They are also a
basis on which to consider ways of building better relationship skills and support if and when issues
and life challenges arise.
Whilst people have come to accept much more that their physical health is enhanced by physical
activity, it is hoped that this sort of exercise will in future be viewed as a good way of keeping
relationships healthy and on track.