The government is trialing a plan to provide newlywed couples with gift vouches for marriage counselling. They are going to spend 20 million dollars to give couples a $200 subsidy to attend counselling.
From July this year, 100 000 newlyweds will be able to use the vouchers for relationship counselling, conflict resolution, parental education and financial planning.
Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews says that the move will help to promote family stability, creating a better home environment for children.
Realistically, a $200 voucher is only going to cover the cost of a single counselling session or maybe two if one or both people in the couple are eligible for a Mental Health Care Plan through Medicare.
For couples who are generally not distressed and are coping pretty well, a session or two to “check in” seems like a good idea, but what about ongoing support for families who are in distress?
My concern is that if only a couple of counselling sessions are funded, it could send the message that this is ‘enough’.
For couples who have real concerns about conflict resolution, behavioural management of children, and long-term communication issues, you’re looking at a minimum of six sessions to elicit meaningful behaviour change.
Couples usually need a chance to test out new communication strategies and skills outside of sessions, come back for support, trouble-shooting and review, and then add to their skill set.
It’s sad, but true that couples often attend relationship counselling not to prevent a break up, but to initiate it. Working with couples who genuinely want to work through their issues can be a rewarding experience for all involved.
Certainly, for people who have children, having happy, healthy parents can only be a good thing, and counselling and parent coaching can assist with this.
However, it is rare that people present for relationship counselling in the early stages of a problem. Early on in relationships they are in the ‘honey moon’ phase where no one wants to think about potential problems or sources of stress.
More often than not, they only make the initial steps to seek help when a problem has become unbearable.
For many couples, attending counselling is actually the “last straw”. Often, these couples will come to sessions with loaded expectations that if the counsellor can’t “fix” things, then that will be the end of the relationship.
It may be the case that they present a united front when they attend together, but when you see them for their individual sessions one of them may reveal that actually, they want out.
They might only be attending sessions to keep the peace, or because they feel guilty, and what they actually want you to do is help break the news.
If couples drop out of sessions early on (e.g., after two or three sessions), then there’s a good chance that they won’t repair the relationship.
If it is the case that taxpayer funding of early relationship counselling can indeed promote family stability, then that’s wonderful.
If it turns out that this is an opportunity for many reluctant couples to take the initial steps to engage in long-term behaviour change, then that’s also wonderful.
However, we’re yet to see the research-based evidence that clearly shows how this move actually creates a better home environment for children, and how we measure these outcomes.