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Richard Reeves on The Symmetrical Family

By OnePlusOne, 13 February 2013 Children, Marriage

At the end of his lecture on The Symmetrical Family last night, Richard Reeves acknowledged the importance of strong relationships to a thriving family. Though not until the end, and only when pushed by questions from OnePlusOne and the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships.

Up until that point, the word ‘relationships’ had been mentioned but one or two times in the hour long lecture, delivered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of 4Children. While Reeves affirmed the importance of family function over form, and the need to support parents rather than just deliver interventions with children to improve child outcomes, points on the quality of the parental relationship were notably absent.

Reeves opened the lecture with a point on the gay marriage debate – that sincere opposers take issue not just on the grounds of sexuality, but also due to their views on gender roles and the differing roles of mothers and fathers in childrearing. Reeves affirmed that his support of gay marriage is connected to his belief in the ‘symmetrical family’, where parents share breadwinning and childcare on equal terms. He believes gay marriage will revive the institution of marriage rather than dismantle it.

The rest of Reeves’ lecture looked at:

  • The change of family from economic necessity to social choice.
  • Challenges to the family – squeezes in income; disengagement of young men; issues with work-life balance and inequalities in home-learning environments: family gap creates opportunity gap.
  • The symmetrical family as the answer, to be achieved by equalising attitudes, rights, and increased childcare.

There was little the audience appeared to disagree with. Even panellist Shaun Bailey, the Conservative politician who has previously voiced concerns over liberalism, acknowledged much of what Reeves said was, ‘undeniable’, though he questioned the relevance of the model to low-income households.

Reeves’ talk referred regularly to the roles of men and the roles of women. The concept of symmetry assumes something on the left and something on the right. But it’s what’s in the middle that counts. The research evidence shows an unequivocal link between couple relationship satisfaction and supportive parenting; the role of strengthening couple relationships, including post-separation relationships, to minimise the impacts on children is clear.[1]

But Reeves did not choose to affirm the importance of strong couple relationships. Why? Perhaps he does not perceive it as new or newsworthy. Reeves, and fellow panellist Frank Field, were acutely aware that the one piece of content the media and twittersphere have picked up from Reeves’ paper was the line “lone parents are, on average, less effective parents”. While highlighting the weaknesses of lone parents generates comment, pointing out that relationships are vitally important to child wellbeing rarely does.

But it’s imperative that the issue of healthy couple relationships gets the media attention it deserves if we are to bring about a culture change that will see British families thrive. For this reason OnePlusOne is now embarking on a two year culture change project alongside partners from other family organisations, in order to put strong relationships in the media spotlight and encourage families to take steps to strengthen their own relationships.

Reeves’ key point was that the next 30 years needs to see the reintegration of men into family life – a shift in men’s roles in the home as significant as womens’ roles in the workplace over the last 30 years. Let’s please also see a shift in the level of debate on relationships and the quality of interaction between men and women. That’s what children see, learn from, and apply as they form their own relationships later on.

[1] Coleman and Glenn, 2010, When Couples Part’, Executive Summary


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