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Three Million People in the UK Are in Distressed Relationships

25/05/2016 09:33 | Updated 25 May 2016

A wealth of evidence now shows that good quality relationships are central to our physical and mental health. Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, themed around the importance of relationships - acknowledged by the Mental Health Foundation as the 'forgotten foundation' of wellbeing. And the evidence now also stacks up showing that parental relationships are vital for children. A recent evidence review for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by the Early Intervention Foundation, for instance, found that the quality of parental relationships and family functioning have a significant impact on children's wellbeing - both in intact and separated families.

Until now, however, we have lacked sufficiently detailed national data on the quality of the UK's relationships. The Office for National Statistics does identify satisfaction with family life, social life, and the extent to which people have a spouse, family member, or friend to rely on in its national wellbeing measures. The DWP's 'Family Stability Indicator' also measure the proportions of children not living with both birth parents and the proportion of children living with both birth parents where the parents report happiness or unhappiness in their relationship. But there is currently limited national data on the quality of relationships, which the evidence shows is so important for adults' and children's wellbeing.

In a significant new report published today - the Relationship Distress Monitor - Relate has therefore undertaken a new analysis of data from the Understanding Society survey (the UK's prime longitudinal study), to estimate levels of relationship distress nationally.

A 'distressed' relationship is one with a severe level of relationship problems, which has a clinically significant negative impact on partner's wellbeing. Those in 'distressed' relationships report regularly considering separation/divorce, quarrelling, regretting being in their relationship, being unhappy in their relationship, for example. Research shows clear links between relationship distress and depression, anxiety, increased blood pressure and heightened risk of heart attacks.

Using a large sample of more than 20,000 people in relationships, we estimate levels of relationship distress using questions from a scientifically validated scale for measuring relationship quality and the severity of relationship problems, called the Dyadic Adjustment Scale.

Our analysis estimates that almost one-in-five (18%) people (2.87 million people) in adult couple relationships in the UK are in relationships which could be characterised as 'distressed'. For parents of children under 16, this was even higher - 22% of these parents were in distressed relationships. Additionally, 9.2% of partners report at least occasionally (including 'occasionally', 'more often than not', 'most of the time' and 'all of the time') considering divorce or separation and 10.4% report at least occasionally regretting getting married or living together; while 6.8% report severe levels of quarrelling (at least 'more often than not').

Rather than having a single cut-off point below which a partner is characterised as being in a distressed relationship, we follow the approach taken by other researchers and construct an interval (within which lie 'borderline' scores which may indicate distressed relationships but which are less clear-cut determinations of relationship distress) to minimise the possibility misclassifying partners. This means our estimates are on the conservative side.

This evidence clearly gives cause for concern, given the importance of relationship quality for adults' and children's health and wellbeing. Relate is calling for a national cross-government strategy for supporting good quality relationships as crucial pillars of wellbeing and life chances. A key part of this strategy must be the development of more robust data on the quality of relationships at national and local levels. Today's report is a significant contribution towards this; now government must take up this torch.

We also need to expand access to a spectrum of support for good quality relationships, overcoming barriers of accessibility, availability, and affordability to ensure that anyone who needs it can benefit from support. Support needs to be available to all who need it. Relate is therefore also launching today its first national appeal, Breaking Point, calling for donations to help subsidise vital services to support families whose relationships and finances are under intense pressure. To donate to Relate, please visit www.relate.org.uk/donate.

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