New parents will be offered 90 minutes of free marriage counselling from Relate under plans to try to head off relationship breakdowns in the future.

Posted by: on Aug 3, 2012 | No Comments

New parents will be offered 90 minutes of free marriage counselling from Relate under plans to try to head off relationship breakdowns in the future.

The organisation wants to make preventive counselling just as popular as its traditional work with couples whose relationships are already in crisis. From this autumn, married and cohabiting couples in Plymouth and four London boroughs will be given Relate vouchers at antenatal classes to use at a time of their choosing. If the pilot scheme is successful, preventive counselling will be extended throughout the country.

Ruth Sutherland, the new chief executive of Relate, will oversee this radical shift at the country’s biggest relationship guidance service.

Having a child is only one of many “crunch points” that can threaten even the strongest relationships, she says. Couples need to know about them in advance and prepare for them.

In her first interview since taking up the job a few weeks ago, Mrs Sutherland also revealed that she went to Relate when her first marriage broke down and a new relationship threatened to go the same way.

“Having your first child, having subsequent children, when your children leave home, looking after an elderly parent, retirement and having to care for a partner through, say, cancer or dementia — these are all crunch points for a relationship. Times of transition are very difficult. I want Relate to offer more preventative services at these stages so couples are not just coming to seek help when things become unbearable. If you prepare for it, it will help,” she said.

Her conviction that people need to be better prepared for the travails of marriage and cohabiting extends to having compulsory lessons in school on how to have successful relationships.

She is currently locked in a battle with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who is considering paring down the softer subjects in his review of the national curriculum, such as Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), to free more time for core subjects such as maths and foreign languages.

That will simply shore up problems for the next generation, she says. “Relationships take work. They are not all magical and lovely the way they are portrayed in the movies.”

Not only should the present lessons in the national curriculum be preserved, but they should go farther. “Children need to be taught that relationships are hard work, worth investing in, that they require trust, respect and knowing how to communicate. These are skills that can be taught, and from any age. Pre-school children can be taught to imagine how other people feel, for example. Emotional understanding and how to make relationships work is just as important as knowing how to add up.”

Part of that education is encouraging people to seek help if they are in difficulty. It bothers her greatly that there is still great stigma attached to going to see a relationship counsellor, that it is something to be hushed up. For that reason, she has chosen to reveal her own experience of using Relate more than 30 years ago.

She married at 19 and was working as a nurse while her husband studied at art college. By the age of 22 she came to the view that they were too young. They divorced and she “blagged her way” into Warwick University, despite having failed her A levels. There she started a new relationship. But it soon went the way of the first and she began to think that maybe she was the problem.

“I had six sessions with a Relate counsellor. It transformed my life. A good counsellor has the skill to help you put together your own story and then help you hear it. You then come to your own conclusions. It is not about giving advice. I am still married to the man from that new relationship and we have three grown-up children. The youngest is about to leave for university, which will be a crunch point for us.”

She would love relationship counselling to be something that people talked about freely. She has considerable experience in tackling stigma, having run the Alzheimer’s Society before joining Relate. During her time there, the charity transformed attitudes towards dementia from a condition that families hushed up to a widely discussed illness and serious political issue.

The Alzheimer’s Society also won a landmark court battle against the Government over the availability on the NHS of drugs to treat the condition. With relationship counselling, she believes the measure of success will be when people talk about it in the same way as going to the gym or seeing the dentist.

Mrs Sutherland, 51, has taken over at Relate as the number of divorces in the UK appears to be on the rise again.

There were 119,589 divorces in England and Wales in 2010, an annual increase of 4.9 per cent. This rise brought to an end seven years of decline. Mrs Sutherland was never convinced about the seven years of decline, however.

“The figures mask an underlying trend, which is that as a result of the economic situation people cannot afford to get divorced. It is not a sign that couples are happier,” she said.

“Families are having to endure a lot of stress — job insecurity, having to manage with not enough money, debts, the rising cost of childcare. It all takes its toll. I expect the numbers will rise again when people can afford it.”

The other challenge for Mrs Sutherland is how to make the Relate business model work. Relate counsellors are trained intensively for the role and then become highly sought after in the private sector. A decision was made many years ago that they should be paid, in contrast to Samaritan counsellors, for example, who are all volunteers. But the fees are modest, a fraction of the £100 or £150 an hour they could earn in private practice, so it is a constant battle to hang on to them.

There are now 1,800, helping 150,000 people a year. That means that there is usually a waiting list, a considerable disappointment for couples who have plucked up the courage to seek help. They are asked to pay what they can manage, usually about £40 a session.

Mrs Sutherland is conscious that this puts Relate counselling out of the reach of many couples, especially those who are going through a financial as well as marital crisis.

“I feel this is very unfair,” she said. “This service should be available to everyone.”

There is some cross-subsidising, but she would like to see more free or cheaper sessions.

“I have to focus on finding new funding streams. The vouchers for new parents are being funded by the Department for Education, for example. We are also moving into other areas, including an occupational division, which offers education and training at work.

“It is a small part of our work currently but I want it to grow. It is about helping teams develop skills so they can work better together.”

She added: “People who succeed at work are generally people who can manage relationships well and it helps people to be more productive. At Relate we want to support relationships in the broadest sense of the word.”

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