Govt to offer $200 counselling voucher
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. One can only hope they wheel Lawsy out for the advertising campaign: Counsoline — you know what I mean.
Divorce in Australia has been declining, from a high of 55,330 in 2001 to 49,917 in 2012.
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.
He claims, rather boldly, that the direct cost to the taxpayer is at least $100,000 for each divorce.
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.
He estimates that family breakdown costs the government in the vicinity of $15 billion a year…
“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? When a country is facing savage cuts across many services, isn’t couples counselling an indulgent pursuit?
The former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, says that while he sees it “as a worthwhile social experiment, I would question the alleged economics of the program”. He doesn’t think it will put a dent in the cost of the Family Court or reduce welfare payments, as Andrews claims. The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, says it’s a “nice idea” but “when you’re cutting the Schoolkids Bonus, when you’re seeing childcare workers’ promises being underfunded and childcare workers not getting properly paid — where are the priorities of the Abbott Government?”
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.”
He cites research that claims up to 40 per cent of people who divorce wish they hadn’t.
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’ve been together for 11 years and had intended to get married — but Lisa got up the duff and didn’t want to be fat in her wedding frock. We thought about it again, more recently, but decided to spend the accumulated cash on a family holiday to Japan. We have two kids, Joe, seven, and Eliza, three, and we reckon we have a pretty good relationship. When Joe was just 12 months old we set off on a year-long odyssey around Australia in a caravan and managed not to kill each other (not even when, against her advice, I drove our vehicle into a crocodile-infested creek in the Kimberley and we didn’t make it out the other side). Now we have a Sydney mortgage, and you can’t get a longer-term commitment than that.
There are many counselling services out there, so which one to choose? Andrews and his wife co-founded a Catholic counselling service in Melbourne in 1980 called the Marriage Education Programme. (Both have since resigned from it and Margaret is no longer doing any counselling, Andrews’ office says). I thought it may be a good place to start but discovered they don’t run courses in Sydney. Its receptionist suggested I contact a Catholic group in Sydney called FOCCUS. On its website, Catholic Society for Marriage Education, there is an article by the Melbourne theologian Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, who pulls out some teachings from the Bible to helpfully reveal, in dot points, the church’s vibe on marriage: “Man is head of woman”; “Woman is reflection of man’s glory, as woman came from him”; “Man not created for sake of woman, but woman created for the sake of man”. And, my personal favourites, “Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord” and “Church submits to Christ, wives to their husbands.”
I tell Lisa this is where we are headed. “Don’t be so ridiculous,” she tells me in a tone that suggests I am not the Lord in our family. We end up at the non-denominational, not-for-profit Relationships Australia on two Friday afternoons a fortnight apart. The counsellor is professional and friendly and we both like her but the first session is odd, at first, as we work through what we really want to gain from this. Lisa makes the point that, after 11 years, two kids and demanding jobs, we often don’t focus enough on each other. She is looking for ways to build intimacy, to be more “present” with each other. “You don’t necessarily always tune into each other,” the counsellor observes.
And me? In February this year the Australian cricket captain, Michael Clarke, was suffering a batting slump. Early in his career he couldn’t help but score, but in recent times his average had begun to wane. He was looking for ways to get back some of that exuberant early form. When asked why he’d given up a rest day for a day of practice in the nets he replied, “You don’t get better from the couch.” I am hoping the opposite, that the couch will improve my average.
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”. The counsellor is able to draw things from us that we both hadn’t thought we’d reveal. She’s very good at her job. “I don’t need to tell you this,” she says at one point, “but it is so lovely to hear the way you speak and relate to each other. There’s humour, playfulness and concern.” She praises our eye contact too and we leave our second session feeling a bit chuffed. That night, we organise a babysitter and head out on a date.
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.
Gottman — claims he can predict the outcome of a relationship to within an accuracy of 91 per cent.
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. He’s like Bart Cummings, watching over his runners at a 5am track work session and knowing exactly how they’ll perform on Cup day.
“Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling…”
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.
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.”
“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?
Jack, 49, is still bitter about his counselling experiences. Fifteen years ago, he and his partner Kylie attended six sessions of pre-marriage education. They then went on to have a couple of kids. And then, prior to their separation two years ago — which became a divorce — they attended marriage counselling. “There is no medicine man for marriage,” he says adamantly. “You either get along or you don’t. I just don’t believe there are people on this Earth who have the wisdom to fix a relationship between two people they have never met before.”
He now understands that Kylie had left the marriage years before — he just didn’t know about it. “She hung on for years; it was completely unbeknown to me that she was unhappy. What looked to me as sudden was the tail-end of five years of her thinking, ‘How do I get out of it?’ ” The only way the relationship could have worked was for him to have “changed my personality 180 degrees… I would have loved to stay together. She grew up and changed and I didn’t change enough. It’s a common story.”
Susan Visser tells me that an unfortunately high number of people come into counselling with one of the partners looking for a way out.
Visser laments on hidden counselling agenda of some couples
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. “There is an argument to be made for early intervention with relationship problems because it affects every part of a person’s life, their children’s lives and society as well.” Just one protracted Family Court matter could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, she says, let alone the distress to those involved.
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”.
Duncan Underwood, 39, the manager of a Sydney design firm, has twice been through an Anglican Church-run marriage education course. His first wife, Nicky, died three and half years ago following a long struggle with breast cancer. He married Catherine 14 months ago. “I definitely think it is worth it,” he says. “It forces you to think about the nature of marriage and what it really means.” But is it the best time, I ask, when you are madly in love and having lots of sex, to be seeking advice for problems that may arise down the track?
“Well,” he says, “it’s a way of saying, ‘Things are going to get pretty mundane. Here are some helpful tools that may help you along the way’.”
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.”
While it has been shown that counselling for couples in distress is beneficial, the effectiveness of pre-marriage counselling is harder to quantify. Doherty says the evidence points to it having “a moderate effect” on couples remaining married. He is “intrigued” by Andrews’ experiment and says that even if it only has a modest effect on separation rates it would be a good thing.
“I am often a critic of both sides on this,” he says. “Our progressives tend to ignore the ability of family to address problems like poverty. They want to emphasise important things like unemployment, structural inequality and education — and they are important — but they have an aversion to addressing divorce and unmarried parenthood, and yet there is tons of research connecting this to poverty and social inequality. The conservatives want to wring their hands in moral exhortation and say people should just live better, get married and stay married — and that’s not particularly helpful either. So when I see people like Kevin Andrews trying to create something to actually address this, I say: ‘Good for you.’ ”
It may be a good idea. It may even work. It just seems an odd one at this time, when the age of entitlement is supposedly over. With one hand Andrews is doling out money for counselling, his pet project; with the other he has flagged cuts to social service spending. This is the government that controversially pulled a website which informed consumers about high sugar and fat content in foods, aimed at fighting obesity. Obesity costs the government billions too, but some within its ranks argued it wasn’t the government’s place to tell people how to live their lives. I’m not sure what the difference is.
So, if you’re looking for a tune-up and free floor mats courtesy of Kev’s Garage, get in fast. It’s an offer that may just be too good to last.