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16 January 2014

Let’s Stick Together

Let’s Stick Together

The presents have been unwrapped, the final leftovers have been consumed and the Christmas lights have been packed away for another year. January has been dubbed the most depressing month of the year as people go back to their daily and often hectic norms.

The festive season and New Year have offered people a chance to pause and reflect on their lifestyle and relationships, and spend quality time with family members.For some, the chance of a new start in January enables people to make resolutions and lifestyle changes for the better. For others, this may be a time when they realise that their marriage and family life, perhaps heightened by financial pressures, children being off school, alcohol and disagreements with in-laws may not be quite so seamless.

Evidence reveals that relationship breakdown is greater towards the end of the Christmas season. Among lawyers, the first working day in January is known as divorce day or D-day because of the surge of enquiries lawyers received after the Christmas break. Family law firms see a 30 per cent increase in divorce enquiries compared to the following month of February.

Talk of divorce has been a regular feature in our news headlines over the past week and it is clear that it comes at a cost, both in economic and social terms. MP for Gainsborough, Sir Edward Leigh has labeled divorce "the plague of our time" because of it's enormous effect on society.

Also this week, Justice Minister Simon Hamilton announced his support for government plans for mandatory mediation between couples before proceeding to court. This requirement is contained in the Children and Families Bill which is due to come into force in April. The Ministry of Justice says the average legal aid cost of resolving a private family dispute following a relationship breakdown is about £500 per couple through mediation – compared with £4,000 per person for issues settled through the courts.

According to the Relationships Foundation, relationship breakdown costs a staggering £46 billion each year which equates to £1,541 per UK tax payer. In an attempt to address these economic and social costs, The Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland has backed the "Let's Stick Together" education programme. The programme is administered by our member organization Care for the Family and has already been successfully piloted in several areas across the UK.

"Let's Stick Together" is a relationships education programme aimed at lowering the number of family breakdowns by reaching both married and non-married parents in the early years of family life. A couple's relationship can often be overlooked in the sheer excitement and exhaustion of becoming parents. According to Care for the Family, one in two children in the UK experience family breakdown before the age of 16.Much of this breakdown happens during the first three years of parenthood.

"Let's Stick Together" is a powerful one hour session which introduces couples to simple, practical skills to help them nurture their love and protect their relationship in what can be a demanding and testing time. A pilot of "Let's Stick Together" took place in Bristol in 2012 and was met with great success. Some 94 per cent of those who attended said they enjoyed the sessions and found them useful while two thirds of those who attended said they would change their behaviour as a result.

This is a good news story of government employing a simple and relational social policy to create and support strong and stable families. It is clear that when relationships go right they provide significant benefits to society. Strong families can increase financial and social capital, improve wellbeing, cut long term pressures on public spending and reduce the role played by the state. This is not to mention the personal benefits to children and parents alike.

After years of conflict Northern Ireland is in need of good relationships at every level in society especially in families. Strong family relationships also run deep in the biblical narrative and overspill into love and care for the orphan and widow, the poor and marginalised. We welcome the introduction of "Let's Stick Together" into Northern Ireland social policy, a different narrative to the prevailing worldview of individualism and disposable relationship. Who knows, maybe 2014 will even see the beginnings of local culture changes where divorce and family breakdown are less and less considered an inevitable part of modern life?

Carla Prentice, Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland.