Prime Minister David Cameron has declared that marriage is imperative for society. He is proud of legalising same-sex marriage and recognising people’s love as equal.  In July 2013, he announced that Britain was “the best place to be gay, lesbian or transgender anywhere in Europe”.

Whether this is the case is open for debate, however, a recent article by Liz van Acker in Social Policy and Society raises other questions around marriage concerning gender. She examines couple relationship education (CRE), which aims to strengthen marriage and relationships. These programmes are worth considering because they offer opportunities for women and men to develop communication skills, manage conflicts, balance work and home and deal with intimacy and sexuality. To improve relationship quality, programmes discuss issues such as handling finances, sharing domestic chores and raising awareness about couple interactions and disagreements. While CRE has potential, it is white, middle class, well educated couples who access the services most readily. To create a population level impact requires improved access to services designed for disadvantaged or vulnerable couples.

Gender interacts with class, ethnicity, age and disability. Advocating marriage per se is too simplistic a solution to the complex problems of couples with diverse needs or low-income earners: flourishing relationships do not develop in a policy vacuum. If the government is serious about wanting to strengthen relationships and marriage, CRE would be a better investment if it was coordinated with policies and services such as juggling work and family and alleviating stressful areas of daily life, especially problems for low-income families.

Overall, programmes to strengthen relationships should be positioned within a gendered context that considers both the public and the private spheres. The decline in policy support for women demonstrates the low priority given to gender concerns and needs, even though this support could actually contribute to stronger couple relationships. Assuming a neutral role for the individuals within marriage will do little to heed women’s demands for domestic and economic equality. The success of CRE also depends raising awareness and motivating couples, especially men, to participate. A clear, coherent strategy combining couple relationship support and ‘gender-friendly’ policies is surely feasible and desirable for strengthening all families, not just the wealthy.

Read the entire article ‘Investing in Couple Relationship Education in the UK: A Gender Perspective in Social Policy and Society.

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