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Relationship counselling fails more than one in four couples, says Australian Institute of Family Studies

A capacity to self-reflect is crucial to successful counselling, says Relationships Australia. Marriage counselling fails more than a quarter of couples, with those experiencing the greatest distress the least likely to benefit from professional help.

New research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies reveals that relationship counselling doesn’t work for 25–30 per cent of couples. “There is this core group that just aren’t helped by counselling,” senior researcher Cathryn Hunter said.

“It’s a bit of a cause for concern.” Ms Hunter said there needed to be more research into why counselling failed to help such a “significant percentage” of couples.

Relationships Australia’s director of clinical services NSW, Lorraine Murphy, said therapy often didn’t work if domestic violence was present, if people came to counselling just to tell their partner they were leaving them or if they were simply unable to see any perspective other than their own.

“There has to be a capacity to self-reflect,” Ms Murphy said. “If that’s missing altogether there are not a lot of problem-solving shifts that can occur.”

Ms Hunter’s research found that couples having the most relationship difficulties show the least improvement after attending counselling.

The latest Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia survey, which has been tracking a group of households since 2000, found that poor mental health is a strong predictor of marital breakdown, as is the presence of dependent children, domestic violence or if only one partner smokes. Yet personality differences, age, ethnicity, education and drinking behaviours have little bearing on relationship breakdowns.

The HILDA survey confirmed relationship satisfaction deteriorates over time, with men in their 40s most likely to be dissatisfied with their partner, while female relationship dissatisfaction peaks in their 50s.

The AIFS research found that counselling worked for couples who had a good relationship with their therapist, believed in the value of therapy and its likelihood of success and were committed to making their relationship work.

Titled “Relationship education and counselling – recent research findings” the report also found that only one in five couples having relationship problems seek professional help. Yet marital discord can affect children, mental health, work performance and social relationships.

Lack of interest in relationship counselling prompted the federal government to abandon its Stronger Relationships trial after just seven months. There were 100,000 $200 counselling vouchers available under the scheme devised by former social services minister Kevin Andrews. However, it is estimated only 4,200 couples attended the tax-payer funded counselling sessions.

Relationships Australia’s Ms Murphy said there was a stigma associated with seeking help for marital problems. “It’s seen to be the beginning of the end, that there must be something very,very wrong [if you go to counselling],” she said.

“It’s a shame that stigma is there. [Seeking professional help] doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed, it’s a healthy and mature thing to do.”

The AIFS research found that 40 per cent of couples who divorce had not sought counselling before splitting up. People are most likely to talk to their friends rather than their partner, a professional, or family, about their relationship issues.

But Ms Murphy said Relationships Australia received “tremendous feedback” from those who did use the government counselling vouchers. “They said it was really helpful to get the other person’s perspective,” she said.

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