Each relationship is different. When individuals come together as a couple, there are any number of factors which will determine and influence the success of that relationship. Personal experiences of our parents’ relationships, how we communicate with our partners, how we treat them and how we are treated in turn, how we deal with disagreements and how we manage our differences – these all play a part in the lifecycle of a relationship along with many other dynamics. What is certain is that some relationships will fail, often for a number of reasons. But to what extent can this be predicted or more specifically, with knowledge of what supposedly makes relationships thrive, can we embark on a relationship with enhanced confidence or hope? Further, can targeted education in schools at an early stage also contribute to relationship success?
In this blog, Family Law in Partnership associate Carla Ditz reviews a research paper entitled ‘The Shackleton Relationships Project’, published by the University of Exeter in August 2018 and sponsored by Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia LVO.
The overall purpose of the research was to explore ‘the nature of happy and enduring relationships and identifying attributes and relationship skills critical to both developing and sustaining them and to avoiding relationship breakdown.’
The research conclusions were drawn from academic literature, experienced lawyers, judges, mediators and couples who sought either to confirm or challenge those academic findings through their own experiences. James Pirrie, Solicitor, Mediator, Collaborative Lawyer and Arbitrator of Family Law in Partnership was consulted as part of the professional consultation process.
Ultimately, the report concludes that asking 10 critical questions before embarking on a serious relationship can help couples to thrive. Recent legislation in the form of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, s34 requires schools to teach pupils the characteristics of healthy relationships. Consideration was therefore given in the report as to what type of educational tools might benefit young people in making better relationship decisions with the ultimate intention of seeing whether and how such tools and information could be included in the school curriculum in an accessible and age appropriate way. As part of the research report, the findings were explored with young people aged 14-18 whose input helped to ‘co-design the foundations of and best formats for an innovative relationship toolkit.’
The research emphasises a rather poignant point surrounding the impact of successful relationships not only for the couple involved but of course for their children – the next generation – and how children will inevitably carry their experiences (of family breakdown) with them when they embark on their own relationships.
With 42% of marriages ending in divorce across England and Wales (not to mention the number of couples in cohabiting relationships which break down), there is a strong argument that relationship education at an early stage could indeed go some way to mitigating this rather depressing and discouraging statistic.
The report notes that there is no such thing as the ‘right’ relationship: ‘what is important is that couples build a relationship that is deeply meaningful to them’. ‘Couples in thriving relationships chose a partner with whom they are a ‘good fit.’ Qualities of friendship (respect, shared interest and humour) were important to all. Couples had realistic expectations of the relationship and would seek professional help if needed.’
What flowed from identifying relationship skills and attributes present in successful relationships was the emergence of 10 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’.
The key to success? The 10 questions
According to the report, by asking yourself the following questions, you will have at the very least a better understanding of whether your relationship is likely to endure:
- Are my partner and I a ‘good fit’?
(Can we work well as a team? Do we have similar values and outlook on life?)
- Do we have a strong basis of friendship?
(Do we have fun together? Share interests and humour? Appreciate each other?)
- 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?)
- Are our expectations realistic?
(Do we expect there will be ups and downs? Understand the need to make effort?)
- Do we generally see the best in each other?
(Can we accept each other’s flaws? Respect our differences?)
- Do we both work at keeping our relationship vibrant?
(Do we make time to spend together and time apart? Do we each show the other that we care?)
- Do we both feel we can discuss things freely and raise issues with each other?
(Do we deal with issues promptly and constructively? Enjoy talking and listening to each other?)
- Are we both committed to working through hard times?
(Do we both ‘give and take’? Work on ourselves? Look to a positive future together?)
- 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?)
- Do we each have supportive others around us?
(Do we each have a good support network we can turn to or call upon for help if needed?)
Family Law in Partnership Counsellor and Family Consultant, Joanna Harrison comments, “I think that reflectiveness and self-awareness are key aspects to a relationship and it is helpful to have this report and the list of 10 questions as a pointer to some of the key issues that couples might reflect on together. All individuals are different and at the essence of any relationship is working out how to manage differences over time. If this report can help couples feel encouraged and emboldened to acknowledge their differences and expectations, and to find ways to communicate about them and negotiate them, then it can only be a good thing. However, it isn’t always easy to communicate and couples may need help to begin (and continue) conversations about the key issues that this report raises. This is one of the ways that seeking professional help can be of benefit – indeed when working with couples for e.g. marriage preparation these are likely to be some of the areas that we would reflect on.”
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The Shackleton Relationships Project Report, University of Exeter. Anne Barlow, Jan Ewing, Astrid Janssens and Sharon Blake.