The modern family structure is in flux. Psychotherapist Philippa Perry discusses parenting, marriage and masturbation with Christian broadcaster Anne Atkins
The average marriage lasts 32 years and the divorce rate has fallen, yet many believe the institution is threatened by changes such as gay marriage. Psychotherapist and writer Philippa Perry believes blended, extended families can work just as well as conventional set-ups. Christian commentator and novelist Anne Atkins takes a more traditional view. Interview by Susanna Rustin.
Philippa Perry: I don’t really know what we mean by the “traditional family” but it brings to mind a picture of a man and a woman and 2.4 children.
Anne Atkins: Families can take different forms and the nuclear family is a modern and isolated construct. But I would say a family is a unit of people committed to each other beyond likes and dislikes. It’s that old cliche that you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your brothers.
Susanna Rustin: You choose a partner.
AA: In our society you do; you don’t in many societies. But you choose your partner once and then that’s it. It’s that classic prayer-book thing: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.
SR: You’re a believer in monogamy?
AA: Commitments for life have a great deal to recommend them, for the people in them and particularly for children. That’s not to say there is never a downside, but at its best, marriage is a wonderful thing.
PP: If you haven’t got children, I don’t think chopping and changing partners matters all that much. If you have got children, I think I’m probably with Anne that commitment is important.
SR: Is the traditional family in decline?
PP: My fantasy, maybe a too-hopeful one, is that people are becoming more emotionally literate and understanding more about how they make and break their relationships. Maybe this is why the divorce rate is evening out.
AA: What’s your evidence for that?
PP: When I started in the mental health field, people I came across didn’t really understand things like the unconscious or acting out of old patterns, but now people have become aware of them and can apply such concepts to themselves.
AA: Before I got engaged, my brother told me most relationship breakdowns can be put down to poor communication, and that stayed with me.
PP: I agree communication is important, but what a stable partnership needs is to be a safe emotional home.
AA: That’s why I’m so excited by the idea of commitment. Because once you’ve made that commitment, you’re in the safest place in the world. I know that no matter what I do, I’m still married, and my husband is there for me.
PP: You can make a commitment without having a traditional marriage, so maybe we differ.
AA: Marriage may make it easier.
PP: But I also think we can make a commitment and then feel we are unable to keep it.
AA: I read once that one of the ways to keep a marriage alive is to keep something private.
PP: I think one’s entitled to privacy, but not secrets. For instance, you might want to keep private the fact that you masturbated this afternoon, because that’s just something for you. I think we each own our own sexuality.
AA: That’s something we disagree on. My understanding of the Christian teaching on marriage is that when you get married, you each give your sexuality to the other person.
PP: One size does not fit all, and it sounds like your way of thinking about sexuality works for you. But I don’t like secrets. For instance, I’m married to a transvestite [artist Grayson Perry], and it would upset me enormously had he kept that secret from me.
SR: Should politicians be trying to make laws that encourage certain ways of organising our personal lives?
PP: Trying to legislate for behaviour is like trying to keep water in a paper bag. I would like to see emotional intelligence taught in schools. What is important for children is to be safe and secure, and to be somebody’s priority. But how you legislate for parents to take their children seriously I don’t know. When I say parents, I don’t think you have to be a man and a woman. Any combination of adults can be brilliant parents.
AA: I think it’s perfectly rational for society as a whole to say: “These structures seem to work well so we’re going to support them.” I’ve heard it said that for every pound we spend helping couples stay together, we spend hundreds on the fallout of broken relationships. Now that’s bonkers. We all know broken relationships cause a lot of pain and that a lot of people struggle to stay together. So yes, it’s legitimate to take an interest in people’s private arrangements.
SR: Don’t pro-couple policies like tax breaks risk punishing single people?
AA: I’d hate to go back to a time when a single mother felt she had to give up her baby because of public disapproval. But to encourage the idea that two people together can give a child a lot – I can’t see anything sinister about that.
PP: It’s not necessarily that a couple together works, it’s that an unsupported parent doesn’t. So if you are a single parent, but you’ve got a support network, you’ve got as good a chance as a couple.
SR: What are family values that matter?
PP: At least one of you won’t die alone! I don’t think it’s good for people to be alone. We are pack animals, we’re meant to be with each other and, of course, that means we make compromises. But I don’t agree you have to be a man and a woman to live in a loving community. I think you can be a group of nuns or a household of friends.
AA: But that couple commitment is the iconic one. I’m committed to my friends, but to none of my friends have I got that absolute commitment.
PP: I’m talking about a group of people deciding to live together as a unit and become a family. The word we have for that might be roommates or friends. But it might be two women, aged 35, who want children and can’t find men. But they can commit to each other, to help each other bring up their children. That kind of relationship can work well. I’m supportive of different types of families. Children from lesbian couples do statistically a little bit better than children from heterosexual couples.
AA: I agree the family can take many different shapes, but marriage is not the disaster area we sometimes believe. Most people get married, most marriages last for life, and most children are reared within a marriage. That’s a thing to remember.
Anne Atkins and Philippa Perry are taking part in an Intelligence Squared and Google+ Versus debate on family on 29 January in London.