Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina begins with the now famous adage: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Tolstoy meant that successful family relationships depend on a number of things, and deficiency in any one leads to unhappiness. If that is the case, the odds of achieving happy families would seem rather slim - for whatever the factors are which are necessary for happy family relationships, we would need to achieve them all, without any deficiency.
But for most of us, our family relationships, of course, rarely are perfect. They can be messy, flawed, and sometimes quite chaotic. Does this mean we're doomed to unhappy families? If Tolstoy was right, this would be rather cruel twist of fate - for while our family relationships might not always be easy, and family happiness may for many of us sometimes seem an elusive goal, family relationships are also central to our own happiness and health. A wealth of evidence demonstrates the centrality of relationships to our wellbeing. Good quality relationships have clear benefits for adults' and children's mental and physical health, while poor quality relationships are linked to poorer health and wellbeing and poorer long-term life chances for children. As Professor Lord Layard has observed, 'In every study, family relationships are more important than any other single factor affecting our happiness ... Of all the factors that affect happiness, your family life or other close relationship comes first.' (Layard, R. (2011) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, London: Penguin)
So just how happy are our families today? Relate's new research report published today, sponsored by Simpson Millar solicitors, Happy families? Family relationships in the UK today, looks at our family relationships, and presents findings from our influential The Way We Are Now survey. Surveying more than 5,000 people across the UK, it outlines the nation's relationships, and provides a unique and in-depth profile of the UK's relationships.
The good news is that happy family relationships, far from being an elusive and fragile constellation of an array of necessary conditions, are something most of us - in spite of our imperfections and strains - appear to enjoy. Overall, our family relationships are mostly in good health. More than nine-out-of-ten (91%) of parents report good relationships with their children, for example; more than eight-in-ten (81%) people report good relationships with their mum; three-quarters (75%) report good relationships with their dad; and 70% report good relationships with siblings.
We did observe, however, some unequal experiences. For example, while most step-parents similarly report good relationships with children, our data indicate that stepmums have worse relationships with their stepchildren than do stepdads: 65% of stepdads reported good relationships with their stepchildren compared to just 57% of stepmums. And relationships with stepchildren weren't as high quality as those with biological children: 61% of step-parents said they had good relationships with their stepchildren compared to 91% of parents who reported good relationships with their children. (If you're struggling to manage a stepfamily, Relate has some advice here) Another difference emerged in terms of sexuality, with LGB+ people's reported relationships with dad (71% said they had a good relationship) being lower than their heterosexual counterparts (among whom 75% reported good relationships).
Our survey also reveals some of the stresses family relationships are facing. It shows how dividing up and carrying out household chores can be a particular pressure for families with young children: in total, 15% of people said household chores were a source of strain on their relationships, but this almost doubles for parents who's youngest child aged 0-5 (32%). The same trend can be seen with people who had a youngest child under 19, 41% said money worries caused strain on their relationships, in contrast with 26% of those without a child under 19. (Again, if you're a parent of a new or young child feeling the strain, you can find some advice from Relate here.)
The stresses of Christmas (the cost, spending time with relatives, different expectations, etc.) can exacerbate pressures on relationships for many families. This is why at Relate we're anticipating our usual peak in demand for relationship support in the New Year: last January, we saw a 39% increase in calls to our national phone line, and a 31% increase in users of our national website.
Since our family relationships are so vital, we need to invest in them - especially in situations where they're under pressure. The high levels of family happiness most of us report suggests Tolstoy may have been at least in part mistaken, but the many and multifarious pressures our family relationships face suggest he was at least right to highlight how varied are the strains and the possibilities for unhappiness. In light of these pressures, we highlight a handful of things which policy makers could do to help strengthen family relationships - including strengthening the way in which the impact of policy on families is assessed; coordinating family and relationship support locally to widen access 'Family and Relationship Centres'; building support for relationships into public services for new parents; and expanding access to support for carers, people with long term conditions, and their families.