'Let's not add the virtues of marriage to teachers' ever-growing list of things to teach'

13th September 2017 at 12:35
We should encourage our pupils to aspire to a life where they can be happy and fulfilled no matter what hand cupid might deal them, writes mental health expert Natasha Devon

Profound sentences rarely start with the words "Iain Duncan Smith has recommended..." Last week was no exception.

On Wednesday, it was reported by the Daily Mail that a 'powerful' cabal of 44 Tory MPS, led by Duncan-Smith, were seeking to make marriage a more attractive prospect using a range of measures. These included asking Theresa May to give married people larger tax breaks and, crucially, schools teaching their pupils the ‘benefits’ of holy wedlock.

The story was then picked up by LBC radio host James O’Brien, who supported Duncan-Smith’s educational aims, arguing that marriage is, in most cases 'just better'.

O’Brien reasoned that children are happier when they grow up in 'stable' families and that relationships which have been solidified by the act of marriage 'feel different'. Both of these statements are, in most cases, indisputable. However, I can’t help but suspect that both O’Brien and Duncan-Smith, who cited the 'evidence-based' benefits for marriage in his call for the change to SRE, have made the classic mistake of confusing correlation with causation.

Psychological research tells us that married people are, on average, happier. Traditional wisdom then extrapolated from this that it was the fact of marriage in itself which caused the discrepancy in levels of happiness. Yet, as historian Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in his book ‘Sapiens’, it is of equal probability that people who were happy to begin with, are more likely to get married.

Slapping 'marriage' onto the life of someone who is fundamentally dissatisfied isn’t going to render their life quality any better and it’s misleading to suggest to children that it would.

To give a clearer example, evidence tells us that children who eat breakfast in the morning are less likely to go to prison in later life than those who don’t. Obviously, the solution here isn’t to ensure all children eat breakfast (although that would be beneficial for other reasons), but to investigate the reasons why they aren’t been given breakfast, to examine their lives in a holistic way, using breakfast as a signifier rather than a solution.

Furthermore, the 'evidence' Duncan-Smith cites works on averages, which is always a dangerous way to generate reliable evidence.

If we measured, for example, the happiness levels of those who were trapped in a marriage to someone who mistreated them, or who they loathed for other reasons, against those who were happy remaining single, the figures would, I suspect, paint a very different picture.

I have a special interest in this topic. In 2013, I wrote an opinion piece for the Independent about my choice never to get married. At the time, it had recently been reported that 46 per cent of female graduates aged 26-40 had opted to remain single and the usual suspects in the press had heralded the cessation of social structures as we know them and the extinction of human kind. (You’ll note that I am writing this some years later and, to the best of my knowledge, babies are still being born).

I meant what I wrote sincerely, at the time. Yet, in August 2016 I married the best person I’ve ever met. And I am happier than I was before. But here’s the thing – my previous dedication to attaining financial, emotional and spiritual independence as a single person is just as much a factor in my own happiness, as well as the success of our relationship, as my marriage. I’m so fortunate that my school was populated by forward-thinking teachers who taught me that I didn’t have to rely on another person and that I was capable of doing whatever I wanted, regardless of my gender. This, at the time, belied the prevailing attitudes in the Essex suburb where I lived.

While I will be the first to admit I have made a lot of ill judgments in my romantic life, I have, thanks in part to the wisdom passed down from my teachers, always been shrewd enough to prioritise my own liberty. There is a great deal of truth in the notion that you must be capable of happiness on your own before you can be happy with someone else. Now, I *choose* to be, rather than need to be with my partner every day, knowing that I am capable of standing on my own two feet.

This is what, in my opinion, young people should be aspiring to: A life where they can be happy and fulfilled no matter what hand cupid, who is notoriously random, might deal them. 

I cannot help but think that this idea is yet another example of politicians attempting to apply sweeping generalisations to a profession which is, by its very nature, in the business of knowing individuals intimately and responding to their unique needs. The past few years have been categorised by an increasing loss of teacher autonomy. While guidance in how to deliver SRE is, of course, welcome, when it comes to relationship choices we should trust teachers to give objective advice, if asked, based on the circumstances of each pupil.

If the agenda is to ensure the wellbeing of pupils, thus generating stable households, then green-lighting a sweeping recommendation for marriage isn’t the answer. As usual, the solution is far more nuanced and complicated. Giving relationship advice is either a teacher’s job or it isn’t. If it is, school staff require the space and time to be able to make those judgment calls effectively, not have extolling the virtues of marriage hastily applied to their ever-growing to-do list.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets as @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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