Why Couples Counselling Is No Longer The 'Last Chance Saloon'

"The youngest couple who came to me were 24 years-old – they had been in a relationship for about 10 months."
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Mental health issues — especially among young people — are on the rise, but so are the number of people willing and able to talk. Therapy shouldn’t be the preserve of the wealthy or privileged – that’s why we’ve launched The Therapy Edition, a series of stories on how to seek support and embrace it once you do.

Sarah*, 27, and her boyfriend, Tom*, 26 have been together for a year. There’s no major issue in their relationship, but for the past four months they’ve been going to couples counselling. It was Sarah’s idea at first. She was frustrated. They weren’t communicating properly. The way she saw it, she was more emotionally literate than he was. “Every time we argued, I was leading it, and sometimes I felt like I was delivering a monologue because he just didn’t know what to say. It doesn’t make for very fruitful arguments,” she says.

They’re finding the sessions useful so far and plan to keep on going, though are yet to tell friends and family because they’re worried about their reactions. Perhaps they needn’t be. There has been a significant uptake in therapy among young, unmarried couples – Relate, a charity offering counselling and mediation for couples and families, has seen a 30% increase since 2014 of clients in their twenties or thirties.

Lisa* and her partner Charlie*, both 33, go to couples counselling in central London once a week. The hour-long session – for which they split the £70 cost equally – is a chance to talk about their relationship and the issues they’re facing: trust, excessive drinking and two instances of infidelity (his). Afterwards, the pair go out for dinner to decompress and talk about progress – or lack of.

This scenario will be familiar to the estimated four million adults across the UK who are currently in couples counselling or relationship therapy. The difference for Lisa and Charlie is that they’ve only been dating for six months, with problems surfacing just 12 weeks into their new relationship.

After meeting on Tinder, things escalated fast. They labelled themselves exclusive, met each other’s friends and family, and soon Charlie effectively moved into Lisa’s flat. “In your thirties you don’t mess around,” she says.

Just a few weeks into co-habitation, however, Charlie confessed: he was married. And though initially he said he and his wife were separated, Lisa later found out he was still sleeping with her. She called things off, then five weeks later, they spoke again and Lisa decided to give things another go, on two conditions: Charlie had to leave his wife, and he and Lisa signed up to couples counselling together.

“If it doesn’t work out, I can always say I tried.”

- Lisa, 33

Infidelity can be the death knell for marriages spanning decades, even ones where mortgages, children and intertwined lives are at stake. So why would a young couple facing issues so early on fork out for professional help, when they could walk away – having lost only six months? If you’re got this many problems when you’re still in the honeymoon phase, why not just break up?

“Many people have asked that question,” says Lisa. “I’m invested because I love him and we’re building a solid foundation for our future. We’re lucky the infidelity happened at the beginning because we can get past it with the expectation it won’t be part of our relationship again. And if it doesn’t work out I can always say I tried.”

Couples counselling as a professional concept is less than a century old. Historically, your relationship woes would have been remedied by friends, family or religious leaders. Before a couple embarked on a religious marriage, they might go for instruction at their church, synagogue, mosque or temple – a tutelage that would touch on the spiritual and practical, even emotional, obstacles their marriage might face.

Today secular relationship counselling is an accredited profession. The UK Counselling Directory lists 16,673 qualified counsellors and therapists across every city and county who specialise solely in relationship problems. Prices vary anywhere between £30 to £150 per session, according to Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate. Some centres provide bursaries or free sessions to those who qualify. All it takes to get in touch with your own personal counsellor is a Google search.

As access improves, we’ve also seen a shift in acceptability. Popular media has brought a once-hidden phenomena to our TV screens. Take Nick Hornby’s current BBC mini-series The State Of The Union or Showtime’s Couples Therapy, as well as podcasts such as Where Shall We Begin, which has made a minor celebrity of Belgian relationship therapist Esther Perel, whose 21-minute TED talk, Rethinking Fidelity, has been watched by 14 million of us.

The large audiences these shows attract may just be a sign of our nosiness, or perhaps we take comfort in others voicing the problems we’re experiencing: a report by Relate found almost 3 million people in Britain were in ‘distressed’ relationships, meaning they regularly argue or consider splitting. Just because they are at breaking point, doesn’t mean everyone is acting on it. Data shows women are still far more likely than men to want to access therapies. But some of us are seeking help – both younger and sooner.

“I have definitely seen a rise in younger couples coming to see me,” says Kate Moyle, relationship therapist on BBC’s Sex On The Couch. “And that has happened just in the last couple of years.”

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Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, author of Happy Relationships, agrees. “It is one of the biggest trends I have noticed in my counselling work. The youngest couple who came to me were 24 years-old – they had been in a relationship for about 10 months,” she says.

Paul, 22, who did not want to share his surname, and his partner, Jamie, 23, from Glasgow have been together for two years. They started couples counselling at the beginning of their relationship – Jamie was already in individual therapy and thought it would be useful to frame their relationship in the same way by having a safe space to talk. They did 20 sessions together.

Paul tells HuffPost UK: “I had never been to therapy before but I really liked Jamie so I was up for giving it a go. It’s hard to tell if our relationship would have been really different if we hadn’t done it but we’re still together. It was nice to have that regular time together where you can focus just on you two.”

He hadn’t been in a long-term relationship prior to Jamie so doesn’t have a bar for comparison, but enjoys the “emotional toolkit” their counselling has given them, and he still relies on now if they ever argue.

Unlike Lisa and Charlie, the relationship hadn’t hit any obstacles that propelled them into counselling, but it was something they were willing to spend a large chunk of money on (Paul estimates upwards of £300 each) at a point when they did not yet know how long they’d be together.

“We are all starting to recognise that therapy has a role before crisis, which is the best time it can be used”

- Kate Moyle, therapist

When I get in touch with Murray Blacket, a sexual psychotherapist, he says he had two clear examples of couples who fell into this category and he had been trying to understand their motivations. Both were in their twenties and had come to see him for what he describes as a :relationship MOT”. “They just wanted to make sure they were doing the best they could for each other. I’ve not seen this before in my career.” he says.

“People who come to me under the age of 35 are usually not doing it because they have hit a big problem, they’re coming because they want to nip any potential problems in the bud; they come earlier. Those who are over the age of 45 on the other hand are more likely to come later when problems are really entrenched and have been happening for years, with resentment building.”

Unlike their parents generation who might have only gone to counselling once the marriage was in crisis, young people no longer see this option as the ‘last chance saloon’, says Moyle. “This is not about reaching the end of the road and trying to salvage something. We are all starting to recognise that therapy has a role before crisis, which is the best time it can be used. In my experience, if so much water has passed under the bridge, it’s too late.”

This shift in understanding has been two-fold. Firstly, that relationships are no longer something to be undertaken out of duty. We don’t want to stay married out of obligation, but for love. “Divorce rates are at a high,” says Moyle, “and people see that they don’t have to stay together forever if things aren’t working. Conversely that is pushing more people to try and improve things.”

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Esther Perel famously tells her clients: “Divorce happens now not because we are unhappy, but because we could be happier.” Instead of simply swallowing your problems, knowing you have no choice but to stay – or leaving – people want to do better to improve the relationship they have. Or as Moyle puts it: “We’re all settling for less – we want things to be better or else we leave.”

The second change is a reduced stigma around seeking help and putting our wellbeing first: a survey by Time To Change found 11% of people have greater understanding and appreciation of mental wellbeing since 2009. In 2017, even MP Iain Duncan Smith criticised the government for cuts to relationship support services like Relate, arguing they were helping to “stabilise” families.

Beresford says: “We’ve had a shift where people now prioritise wellbeing. There’s a generational difference, baby boomers thought ‘our parents were in the war; we don’t need that’, but now it’s what we do. Going into counselling doesn’t hold the same stigma or taboo. It’s not about necessarily about trauma or mental illness, it’s just something that happens to oil the wheels of life.”

This chimes with Sarah in Bristol, who is glad she and Tom and learning to talk things through. “Even when my parents were on the brink of a divorce they wouldn’t go to a therapist because my dad refused to talk about his feelings. Ultimately it ended things and I refuse to let my boyfriend take us down that same path because of his fragile masculinity.

“Watching the therapist teach him about his feelings is like watching a toddler learn how to walk – it seems so simple to me but so alien to him.”

“It’s not cheap, but it’s their whole damn future. Someone will spend a lot on a destination wedding, but think it’s too much for therapy."”

- Murray Blacket, psychotherapist

The average age for first-time marriage has risen by eight years and now sits at 31.5 for women and 33.4 for men, but that doesn’t mean younger couples aren’t committed in the long-term or don’t want to invest in the future. “I often now see couples where there are no apparent issues, they just wanted a space to chat,” says Beresford. “It’s the same as getting a gym membership – no, you don’t think you’re going to have a heart attack tomorrow, but you’re working to keep your body fit and prevent devastating outcomes.”

The space to mull over your relationship might sound appealing but of course it comes at a cost – a large one when it comes to private counselling. Blacket says he often has couples come for a handful of sessions, then bow out before he feels they’ve finished the work.

Money is very likely an issue for younger couples, because it’s not cheap, but then again it’s their whole damn future. Someone will spend a lot on a destination wedding, but then think it’s too much for therapy.”

If you can afford it, all the therapists we spoke to suggest it’s worth considering – even if your relationship is not in choppy waters. “These people who are doing this right haven’t necessarily hit bumps,” says Beresford. “What they’re trying to do is make sure any bumps in the future don’t turn into fucking great mountains.”

And if you spend all that money – and time – only to break up anyway? The risk doesn’t bother most of the young people that Moyle meets, she says. “People are recognising it’s an investment not just in them as a couple but in themselves. It will be helpful for them in this relationship, when they’re single, or in a different relationship down the line.”

*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.