When three's not a crowd in tough relationships

Sometimes it takes three people to stay in a committed relationship.

I'm not recommending Big Love. Instead, I'm suggesting Big Support. Here's why.

When I wrote about my top tips for staying married for 30 years a few weeks ago, I was prepared for all the jokes. I was even prepared for the suggestion that I come and give classes for colleagues about to tie the knot or move in together. I replied that it was good luck rather than good management and any advice I could give would probably be from the benefit of 20/20 hindsight rather than any expertise.

But I wasn't prepared for the sad emails from strangers about their lives and relationships falling apart. And to each of those emails, I had the same answer.

Get counselling and get it quickly. Counsellors are real experts. When I was a young bride with a young baby, I forgot I even had a husband. All I could talk about was what was in said baby's nappy. Or how tired I was. Or how we were perpetually short of money. If I'd been married to me, I'd have run away big time. My beloved spouse did nothing of the sort but dragged me off to what used to be called a marriage guidance counsellor. This was in the mid-'80s, when the appetite for such support was still developing.

I was so grumpy at the prospect. I thought my husband was quite mad and took great offence at the idea that we couldn't work it out ourselves.


What on earth would an elderly woman (the poor woman was probably only 50 or so but she seemed ancient) with no knowledge of my family or me have to offer a working mother. She saw us four times only, once together, once each separately; and once to hand down what I thought of then as The Judgment.

That final session was pretty brief, as I recall. She sat us both down and said we needed to spend time away from our adored baby and spend time with each other. I left the counselling session in tears. I'm a very obedient patient, my spouse not so much, but we took her advice. Within two weeks, our spare time was spent planning what we would do in that precious two hours every Saturday afternoon. Which sometimes turned into three. We hired a Karitane nurse because I was so nuts (honestly, child nurses are awesome but totally an overkill for a Saturday afternoon babysitting, no wonder we were broke).

So I was sad to hear last year that there were changes to Medicare funding for mental healthcare plans - the Better Access program - which now means that the funding for counselling sessions has been reduced to nearly half. Under exceptional circumstances, a person used to be able to get 18 sessions with a counsellor a year, now it's only 10.

Rosalie Pattenden has been a counsellor for ages, working at all the big counselling agencies. Now she is in private practice in Melbourne, and last week she gave a paper at a counselling conference. She says that the average number of sessions needed to help a relationship in trouble can be just four to five - but that doesn't take into account the couples who have put off coming because they fear it will all be too traumatic or all too late.

"People get terribly busy with young children, they are sleep deprived and they are both trying to work and get enough money," she says.

As soon as she said that, the complete mayhem of early parenthood came back to me. The tears. The exhaustion. The freaking-out about money. It's all enough to send sensible people into battle, with each other.

The fact is that some couples are in such a bad state they need more than 10 sessions - and the clause that once allowed six Medicare-funded sessions for exceptional circumstances is no longer there.

Canny GPs who see both partners in the couple can work around that by recommending that each partner have 10 sessions - but, as some counsellors say, that's quite a controversial thing to do and medical practitioners may feel it is risky from a governance point of view.

But surely the aim of any program - especially one called Better Access - should be that we want to help people to stay together.

And surely the federal government should see that is more financially important than helping people through mediation and divorce. It must cost less to fund a few counselling sessions than to fund the increasingly burdened Family Court.

The federal government's focus now is on the most disadvantaged families and particularly on the children of those families. That's very noble. But children of divorce often suffer, so perhaps helping couples avoid divorce in the first place might be a way of preventing disadvantage.

Talk really is cheap, especially when you compare it with the cost of family law.

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