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Every three years Kevin Andrews and his wife Margaret book themselves in for a joint ¬session on a marriage counsellor’s couch — or the workshop, as he prefers. They have a solid and loving 35-year marriage, he insists, but he likens his relationship to the modern motor car. “It might last a lifetime,” the Minister for Social Services explains from a couch in his Melbourne electoral office as modern motor cars scurry along Doncaster Road, “but usually we get it serviced every two or three years.” Without that service the car, like his marriage, may still run along, seemingly OK, “but the tyres get a bit bald, the brake pads need replacing and, you know, the steering needs adjusting — if you’re fixing it up, you’re going to go on for longer.”
Andrews, an ordinarily waxen figure, becomes animated by the topic and whips out a yellow sticky notepad, drawing a large circle in the middle. “That’s the relationship,” he explains. He then draws half a dozen smaller ¬circles ¬surrounding the large circle. “These are all the issues surrounding a relationship — they may be work, leisure time, finances… every now and again one of these issues attaches itself to the relationship,” he says, scribbling vigorously. “The issue gets bigger and bigger and it eats away at the relationship. The issues end up taking over the relationship.”
And when that happens, it’s time for a service. Possibly even a new transmission. Bald tyres are so Noughties.
The relationships of Australia are about to get a free tune-up, courtesy of Kevin Andrews. In July this year he will introduce a program whereby couples of all persuasions — those about to be married, the already married, the unmarried, same-sex couples, those hoping to soup up a sagging sex life — will be able to apply online for a $200 counselling voucher. The $20 million pilot will allow 100,000 couples to take that voucher to an approved provider, a marital mechanic, for a service.
Divorce in Australia has been declining, from a high of 55,330 in 2001 to 49,917 in 2012. It converts to roughly a third of first-time marriages failing and doesn’t take into account de facto relationships. Even in decline, that’s still a lot of broken families and potentially damaged people; the outcomes for the children involved when these unions end, married or de facto, can be dire. …
Andrews hopes that through his scheme he can make a dent in the separation rate and, by extension, improve the lives of children. He claims, rather boldly, that the direct cost to the taxpayer is at least $100,000 for each divorce. He estimates that family breakdown costs the government in the vicinity of $15 billion a year, which he calculates by adding up the cost of the Family Court, welfare payments and a few other things, and then extrapolating from a recent UK study. He doesn’t produce Treasury costings to back up his claims and, frankly, his calculations appear a bit back-of-the-envelope. But still, the costs are significant.
“Some people say it is none of the government’s business, to which I say, ‘Well, unfortunately it becomes the government’s business when it doesn’t work out because we pick up all the costs’.” Which is all well and good, but how does this sit with a government that has adopted Abraham Lincoln’s mantra that government should do for people what they can’t do for themselves and no more? …
Andrews is undeterred. It’s a pet issue of his: his wife Margaret is trained as a counsellor, and as a socially conservative Christian he is an avid promoter of the tradition of marriage as “the bedrock of successful societies”. He even penned a book, Maybe ‘I Do’ — Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, a 480-page ode to marriage, in which he says that the ¬greatest threat facing the Western world is not climate change or radical Islam, but the “continuing breakdown of the essential structures of civil society — marriage, family and community”.
His scheme will mainly target people who are intending to get married but will be open to any couples for almost any reason: financial counselling, help with sexual problems, new step-families or young gay couples. “It’s not up to the government to tell counselling organisations what they should be counselling about,” Andrew says. “If we could get a five per cent reduction in the divorce rate, that would be a reasonably significant outcome.”
Andrews tells me the driving force behind his scheme is to protect children and give them every chance of a stable upbringing. He cites research that claims up to 40 per cent of people who divorce wish they hadn’t. During his 23 years in Parliament the two most emotive issues “that people come into my office and sit on these chairs” to discuss have been immigration and family breakdown. “I’ve seen some pretty sad cases of family breakdown,” he says, recalling single mums struggling to raise kids, or fathers who’ve been cut off from their children. Counselling won’t work for everyone, he admits, “but all you can do is take all the evidence overall and say it would have a positive impact”.
With Kev’s words ringing in my ears, and his explanatory notes in my pocket, my partner Lisa and I take the plunge. …We end up at the non-denominational, not-for-profit Relationships Australia on two Friday afternoons a fortnight apart. …The sessions take us down some unexpected corridors. The counsellor says it is a joy to be working with two people who want to build on their relationship and who are positive towards each other. “This must be a doddle for you,” I say, as most of her clients are at each other’s throats. She says it is a welcome relief, but in some ways it can be difficult when the adjustments are subtle. We are, she says, among a “trickle of clients”, like Kev and Marg Andrews, who come in “seeking to address the drift”. She tells us we need to be active in writing the story we want for our life “or life will write the other one for you”.
… Our friends are fascinated and it is a topic of dinner party conversations for weeks. “Was it worth it?” we are asked. Definitely. It put the focus onto us. We spend so much time prioritising the kids when probably the greatest thing we can give them is a good and loving relationship between us. We knew that already, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed. It enhanced the tenderness between us.
We were unaware of it but our counsellor was observing our facial expressions, eye contact and how we reacted to each other as much as she was listening to what we had to say. Much of this observation during therapy is based on the work of the famed relationship psychologist Dr John Gottman, who, over many years, has observed and analysed hundreds of conversations between partners in conflict in his “love lab” at the University of Washington, Seattle. Gottman then followed what happened to those couples over time.
With this research behind him, Gottman — by observing couples and how they interact, even for a short time — claims he can predict the outcome of a relationship to within an accuracy of 91 per cent. … Gottman identified the four negative interactions between couples that can spell death for a relationship. He calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling,” he writes. Contempt — “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humour”, is by far the most lethal.
Conversely, one of the keys to a happy and lasting relationship is an ability to “fight well” and be able to reconcile the inevitable differences that arise in a relationship.
“What really separates contented couples from those in deep marital misery,” says Gottman, “is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings and actions towards each other. As part of my research I carefully charted the amount of time couples spent fighting versus interacting positively — touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing, etc.” He found that the magic ratio was five to one. “As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage is likely to be stable over time.”
But can this be taught? Can couples learn to admire each other? Can they be made to see that their good points far outweigh their bad ones? Can they learn to fight in a good way? Can relationships in severe distress be saved?
…Susan Visser, director of clinical practice for Relationships Australia WA, tells me that an “unfortunately high” number of people come into counselling with one of the partners looking for a way out. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Visser, a counsellor with 30 years’ experience. “One is desperately trying to hold on and the other is using counselling as a way of softly ¬telling the other person the relationship is over. They have already psychologically divorced.” “Would it be this way in, say, 20 per cent of cases?” I ask. “Oh no, much higher than that.” But she won’t put a figure on it.
It is very difficult, Visser adds, to save a ¬marriage when it has passed that “tipping point”. “I think that is why counselling sometimes gets a bad rap,” she says. “Sometimes you actually have to help the couple tell one another where the relationship is going, and that sometimes means ending it.”
However, when there is goodwill from both partners, even if the relationship is in deep crisis, it can be saved. Professor Margot Schofield, head of Counselling and Psychological Health at La Trobe University, is part way through a major study on the effectiveness of couples counselling in Australia. The results, so far, show it doesn’t work for everyone but “overall … there is an improvement” not only to the relationship but also if either person is suffering from depression, which often accompanies relationship distress. She points out that only a small percentage of people who divorce or split from a long-term de facto relationship had sought counselling.
Schofield is an enthusiastic supporter of Andrews’ new policy. “We pay for all sorts of preventative care in relation to physical health,” she says. …What she and Andrews are hoping is that this goes some way to de-stigmatising counselling in Australia. If couples have had a positive experience in a premarital counselling course it may encourage them to seek help “down the track when they confront something that really is very stressful, like the death of a child, or a partner who loses their job”.
…In the US, Professor Bill Doherty, an expert in family therapy from the University of ¬Minnesota, says a recent paper in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, which reviewed much of the research into couples therapy from the previous decade, found that while it didn’t work for a third of couples, it did for the other two-thirds. That’s a lot of families that are still together because of counselling, he says.
Doherty coined the term “relational intelligence”. “That is not something we acquire going to school learning reading, writing and arithmetic.” He says this relational intelligence — about how our relationships work, how we ¬communicate with our partners and the things that have shaped us — can be learnt through counselling sessions. In essence, it is the whole point of them.
Doherty says couples tend to catastrophise when they hit a rocky patch. In his analogy, “they have a version of the common cold and they think they have cancer”. Because people tend not to talk about the problems within their relationship, as they would, say, about the problems they are having with teenage kids, “they are often not aware that most other couples have exactly the same problems and these problems are solvable.”
Questions for Discussion
- What role does the government have in supporting marriage and family? Is this voucher scheme appropriate?
- The author speaks mainly about marriage counselling as opposed to marriage education – is one likely to be more effective than the other?