September 13, 2008

Relating to a New World, 70 Years On

When did Plymouth Relate start?

Plymouth Relate opened in 1964. Relate was formed in 1938 and opened its first branch in 1948, dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War. When the war ended there were a lot of people caught in marriages and pregnant because they'd had affairs, and there was a lot of poverty. People needed help to manage those relationships. Life and marriage were very different then.

But the service now is about all kinds of relationships.

We deal with couples, including same-sex, and individuals. It might be a work or home life problem. It could be issues within a family: say, two sisters not getting on, a son or daughter not getting on with a parent or with in-laws.

Those who believe in the sanctity of marriage would argue relationships fall apart because divorce is easy.

It may be the pendulum has swung a little too far. Years ago, men were the ones going out to work, and were in charge of the relationship in some respects, and women stayed at home. During the 1960s and 1970s, as women became more financially independent through work, they started saying, "What do I want from this relationship? I want and expect more." It may be that helped increase the divorce statistics. I think that will probably change eventually. Surveys we've done show the one thing people really do want still is a long-term committed relationship.

There's an argument that divorce becomes a process they get caught up in and can't stop.

It can be almost like a combat zone; you fight your side. I think once solicitors are involved, that happens. They get to a point of no return if they feel they can't repair the relationship and the only option is to end it. If that does happen and they haven't sorted out the emotional baggage, it's very hard to sort out the practical side: who has the dog, who sees the kids, who has the money. It's hugely complicated and when you're on that bandwagon it's very hard to stop it.

So Relate isn't always about staying together at all costs? It might ease the process of separation and divorce?

If couples really want to divorce or separate we help them to in the best way. Counselling is giving people what they want.

What skills do counsellors have and what can Relate do to repair damage?

They're very highly trained and skilled; they train for up to three years. In the old days it was only a listening service by the twinset-and- pearls brigade who had nothing better to do. Counselling isn't just listening; it's reflecting, trying to ascertain where a couple is at that moment, and what their problems are. How have they got to this point and how can we get them to the next? If you've had problems for 10 years, it's no good you rocking up here for two or three sessions, thinking that'll be fine. It needs work and reflection. It's like playing the piano; it's not just the lesson, it's the practice. We have specialist courses too, such as for people who are divorcing and separating, so they don't take all their baggage into the next relationship and repeat the problem.

How is Relate funded and who pays for the courses?

Plymouth Relate has no council or government funding. It's a charity. The majority of clients pay for the service, but we heavily subsidise it. We try as much as we can to help those who can't afford to keep coming.

I guess you'd argue money spent on counselling is cost- effective.

Absolutely. I tell clients this is an investment in their relationship: that they may have to spend some money - a couple of hundred pounds - on a course of counselling, to make things better: get them through the crisis. It's worth it because the cost and trauma of divorce is huge. You're investing in your relationship and your family, if you have one.

Isn't the divorce rate dropping? Maybe we don't need Relate as much.

The divorce rate has dropped because fewer people are getting married. It's a 60- 40 split between those who co-habit and those who marry. They face the same issues, except in marriage you commit to stay together.

How many do you help each year, and what top their lists of problems?

About 600 or 700 couples in Plymouth. Most come with a range of problems. They feel overwhelmed sometimes. Most people say communication is one and, while there may be affairs, sexual problems, all sorts, that's the most difficult. Understanding what the other person feels is difficult. Sometimes a couple sit in a room and when they speak to the counsellor it's the first time they've heard each other say what the issue is. That one appointment can shift a range of problems.

Do you expect money will become more of an issue for couples as the threatened recession arrives?

I think so. Some see counselling as a luxury but, if they have money problems, investing pounds60 in a couple of sessions may stop them from tipping over the edge.

And excessive use of the internet is a problem too, I understand.

For some it's about socialising, and a couple of hours can go quickly. People can meet through chat rooms and build up a strong rapport, and then they have a secret life. It might not be a physical affair but it's the same process, and very destructive to relationships.

Let's be positive: what advice would you give to a couple who are just starting on a relationship on how to avoid problems?

Every relationship is different. How they were brought up and their parents' relationship can have a bearing. If they do get into difficulty, a couple of sessions might shift the balance before a crisis. It's easy to pay lip service to the idea of always talking problems through and listening to your partner. We need to find time and recognise when things are starting to go wrong.

You and your husband, Steve, were professional photographers working on cruise ships and saw the world. Is your job now, dealing with people's problems, depressing compared with that?

It's not at all depressing. I work with a great team. I love it even more than when I started 13 years ago. Some days I wish I was on the cruise ships, but we had a good eight years doing that and when you've gone into Barbados six or seven times it's a bit mundane. Like all good things in life, I guess you don't realise how good it is until you stop doing it.

Plymouth Relate: 01752 213131 and

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