Human pair bonding (aka; marriage, common-law, intimate couple relationships) is an important but unfortunately unrecognized realm for improving public health.
Consider this irony. Every fall school principals brace themselves for the day head lice are found. Parents get quite distressed about it. Is this a health problem? No. Head lice are a nuisance. They don’t carry disease and so aren’t considered a health problem. Nonetheless when school starts the principal’s office and the public health nurses are besieged with calls.
Parental pair bonding on the other hand has enormous potential for the good or ill of children and yet receives no such interest except when it goes terribly wrong. Domestic violence is a case in point. We, through government agencies and voluntary efforts, attempt to pick up the pieces of these bonding disasters. There are even some resources dedicated to mitigating the negative impacts of divorce. Legislation insures some measure of divorce justice. Courts attempt to develop sensible plans the children of parents at war. Mediators assist estranged mates to part fairly.
What do we do, collectively, as a society through our governments to ensure these disasters don’t occur? Essentially nothing. Why are we satisfied to pick up the pieces when pair bonds fail instead of helping them to succeed?
The answer may lie in this. The only organizations that seem to invest in promoting pair bonds are the churches and communities of faith. Pastors often act as surrogate marriage counselors and churches have long been the promoters of marriage enrichment activities. Problem is there has been a sharp decline in religious affiliation and attendance.
According to the Vanier Institute 2010 publication Families Count: Profiling Families in Canada fewer people are marrying, the age of first marriage is increasing, common law unions are more common and four in 10 marriages end in divorce. There are no easily available statistics on “married singles”, people in pair bonds who are essentially estranged or simply disconnected and unfulfilled; roommates, not soulmates. Yet these latter unions too have enormous effects on mental health, physical health and motivation just as do those that unravel publicly. (I routinely ask my classes at university their estimates of marriages that are fulfilling and they typically report about only five per cent).
Perhaps you might think we can’t do anything about it. Ample science exists to demonstrate poor relationships can be made fulfilling and those destined to separation can do so with less harm. We have the social psychology to decrease rates of smoking, to change eating and driving habits. In other words, we have the tools to proceed. Only the vision and will is wanting.
We build dikes by rivers because one day they will be needed. We install seismic upgrades knowing it isn’t if we have an earthquake, it is “when”. Isn’t it time we thought of human pair bonds, this key social structure of our society, in the same way and make them a critical focus for public health promotion and prevention?
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Dr. Rob Lees is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry for Children and Family Development in Chilliwack