Why it's Low Conflict Break-Ups That Should Really Worry Us

31/05/2016 12:03 | Updated 31 May 2016

Everyone knows that bad relationships are bad news.

According to a report last week from Relate (pdf), reported by BBC news, 18% of people in relationships are 'distressed'.

That's an awful lot of people, 2.87 million apparently. This means that if we look around at any group of people, our friends, our family, colleagues in the workplace, chances are that 'one in five' have serious problems in their relationship.

The reason this matters is fairly straightforward and non-contentious.

When children see bad stuff going on between their parents, it's thoroughly unpleasant for them. Stress levels rise. The atmosphere at home is horrible. Well-being suffers. Relationships with friends and family suffer. Mental health suffers. When high conflict relationships come to an end, away from the stress, children generally fare better.

However there's another type of relationship issue that matters just as much to children although it's a lot less obvious and a lot less well-known.

Good relationships that end are also bad news.

When couples haven't been bickering and arguing much in the run up to their divorce or separation, when they haven't shouted or thrown stuff, and haven't even been especially unhappy, when it's not terribly obvious that something is wrong, children struggle afterwards because they never saw it coming. "Mummy and daddy don't love each other any more" makes no sense to a child. It comes largely out of the blue.

The only way for children to try to make sense of their parents low conflict split is either to blame themselves - "maybe I did it" - or blame the nature of relationships that go pop for no apparent reason. Either way, children who take that view on into adulthood are likely to have big problems with committing to anybody. How could they when the relationship is going to fail one way or another? If they want to avoid hurt, it's best not to commit - or so they think.

I have a lovely female friend who fell in love with an equally lovely man. After his various proposals over a number of years were rebuffed, because she was too scared to say yes, eventually he gave up and left her. She remains heartbroken to this day. Her fear of commitment stems from the sudden break-up of her parents marriage. She never saw it coming.

So how many couples are in this situation, breaking up from a low conflict relationship?

Last year Professor Spencer James of Brigham Young University in the USA and I wrote a paper called 'Out of the blue: Family breakdown in the UK' based on an analysis of exactly the same dataset that Relate used. Here's what we found.

Among couples who split up, low conflict is very much the norm.

  • 71% of parents who split up had reported one year earlier being 'fairly or 'extremely' happy with their relationship and quarrelling 'of the time' or 'most of the time'.

This is astonishing. The vast majority of break-ups seem to come out of the blue.

In contrast, among couples who stay together, high conflict is very much the exception

  • Just 2% of parents said they quarrelled 'all of the time' or 'most of the time'.
  • Only 9% of parents said they were 'extremely' or 'fairly' unhappy with their relationship

This seems a lot lower than the 'one in five' we've been hearing about his week. It begs the question of how or why so many people are categorised as 'distressed' if they are neither fighting very much nor especially unhappy. If 'distress' is much more about 'conflict' than 'unhappiness', then the real figure for couples in distress is nearer 'one in fifty' than 'one in five'.

(If this now sounds far too low, consider that in any given year only around 1% of married parents and 5% of cohabiting parents split up. So we're in the right ball park)

Regardless, roughly the same number of children experience either of these two similarly bad situations each year. There are as many low conflict couples who separate each year as high conflict couples who stay together.

So the really interesting story here is not that a minority of couples fight - whether 'one in fifty' or 'one in five' - but that the majority of couples who split up risk damaging their childen just as much because the reasons are so unobvious. The awful irony is that these low conflict couples ought never to have split up in the first place.

Better public information about the long term effects of low conflict break-up on children might make more couples think twice.

But that doesn't have to mean putting up with a less than satisfactory relationship. Short courses - such as provided by the Marriage Course, Care for the Family, Marriage Encounter and Marriage Care - are wonderful and can revitalise a flagging relationship.

I know it's possible. Because we've done exactly that.

Harry Benson is Research Director for Marriage Foundation, a charity set up by a former high court judge to restore confidence in marriage. Read his blog here.