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E30: Should I stay or should I go?

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On the Show Today You’ll Learn

This month Ben and Heather spoke with Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW about one of the most difficult questions couples have to answer: Should I stay or should I go?  Not only is the question fraught, it bears the weight of the many lives that will be impacted by the answer.

The following questions are answered:

  1. What are the signs that it is time to go?
  2. How much should consideration for the children affect the stay or go decision?
  3. How to confront your partner when unhappy with your relationship.
  4. What are the signs that the relationship could heal?
  5. Is it helpful to talk to your friends about the “stay or go” decision?
  6. At what point should you consider professional relationship counselling?

Elisabeth also provided her thoughts on the following general scenarios:

  1. My partner and I get along on most day-to-day issues but we differ on some of the big questions like politics and climate change which causes huge arguments sometimes.
  2. Our problems started when the kids reached school age. We simply can’t agree on how to raise our children but we can still have fun and laugh together.
  3. Things are good with my partner most of the time. But I’m just not sure they are good enough.
  4. My partner and I get on really well when it’s just the two of us. But I can’t stand to be around her friends and family.  They make me uncomfortable.

Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Relationships Australia NSW: Offers a wealth of family and relationship services and resource.

Elisabeth Shaw: Connect on LinkedIn.

Parental Conflict and its effect on children: Available from the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.  This website also has a range of other resources worth exploring.

Love in the Time of Contempt by Joanne Fedler

What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey


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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome!  Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Benjamin Bryant: Happy New Year everyone, and welcome back to the Family Matters Show where we answer the difficult questions about divorce and separation. I’m Benjamin Bryant from Bryant McKinnon Lawyers and I’m here in our office/recording studio with my partner in crime, Heather McKinnon. Welcome to 2022, Heather. Did you have a good break and are you ready to face another year with me?

Heather McKinnon: I can’t believe how good the break was but the year ahead, I think, is going to be pretty challenging Ben.

Benjamin Bryant: I’m glad you’ve had a relaxing break. Heather. But we’ve both been in this game long enough to know that a lot of families do not find this time of year relaxing. Too often the holidays heighten tensions that have been simmering throughout the year and lead couples to ask whether it’s time to call it quits. We thought this was the perfect time to tackle the ultimate question when it comes to separation and family breakdown. Is it better to stay or go? This is such a difficult and tricky decision for many couples, and it will affect the unfolding of so many lives. So, we’ve brought in an expert to try and untangle the complexities. It is my great pleasure to welcome Elizabeth Shaw, the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, who is coming to us from her office in Sydney. Thanks for being here, Elizabeth, albeit electronically.

Elisabeth Shaw: Hi, Ben, it’s good to be here.

Elisabeth’s Story

Benjamin Bryant: Let’s give our listeners a bit of a background on you, Elizabeth. It’s almost an understatement to say that you wear many hats. As well as heading up Relationships Australia NSW, you are a registered clinical psychologist with a focus on couple and family therapy, a speaker and author on clinical and ethical practises and an executive coach.  You sit on the National Board of Relationships Australia, as well as the boards of the Youth Insearch Foundation and Relationships Australia NSW Social Enterprise, and you have just finished chairing Settlement Services International. Wow. And I thought we were busy Heather.

Heather McKinnon: Well, that’s right. Elizabeth, we can’t thank you enough for taking time out of what is obviously a really busy schedule to be part of this programme. This podcast is an educational programme, and to have people like you prepared to take part is a real privilege.

Elisabeth Shaw: Really glad to help. And particularly on a subject like this at this time of year, it’s critical that we’re talking about these issues.

Benjamin Bryant: And it seems you’re singing from our hymn sheet, Elizabeth. And on that note, let’s get into it. The first question is we’ve already given a short overview of your credentials, Elizabeth, but to begin with? Can you share a bit more about your story with our listeners?

Elisabeth Shaw: Well look, I’ve always had a passion for relationship work because we are relationship beings, really. There are very few people that are in any way comfortable with being a hermit. You know, largely we exist in a web of networks. And even if you don’t need to touch base with a lot of people very often, generally, it is important to know that we belong to someone, that we matter to someone, that we’re visible to someone –  right through to getting a whole lot of other needs met. So for me, relationships are the foundation of life.  It’s been such a privilege for me to be around that sort of work in not for profit organisations my whole career. It feels like I’m doing something that’s a deep love and but also just makes sense to me.

About Relationships Australia

Benjamin Bryant: And you have been CEO of Relationships Australia NSW rather, for over five years. Can you explain to our listeners what the organisation does and how you work with people?

Elisabeth Shaw: Well, the organisation was set up post-World War Two to assist returning servicemen settle back into their families. But of course, we’ve changed a lot over time, over those 70 years. So, there’s one of us in every state and territory but we are incorporated individually, but we have a federated structure. And so, what we do is we provide a whole range of services now from our original counselling programmes. A lot of post-separation services, including helping people with parenting agreements and property settlement, but also we run children’s contact centres, we’re the biggest provider of domestic violence services in the state around prevention of domestic violence in particular, but we also run a lot of programmes in schools, relationship education, youth focussed programmes, prevention of elder abuse, working with stolen generations, forgotten Australians. So, a very, very broad remit because, you know, as I said, relationships are about all stages of life and circumstances. So, we’ve stretched much more into the mental health space more broadly.

Benjamin Bryant: And I think Elizabeth, your website, the Relationships Australia NSW website is a fantastic resource. Our interaction with your service mostly is children’s contact centres or the Triple P parenting programme or counselling services, but you guys offer a lot of services and it’s all there readily available on your website, so it’s a great resource to our listeners. And before anyone comes in to see Heather and I, they’ve usually spent weeks, months or even years seesawing over whether or not to bring the relationship to an end. The purpose of today’s show is to help people in that situation to think things through a little more clearly and to be aware of the resources available to help them make that decision.

What are the signs that it’s time to go?

Benjamin Bryant: So, Elizabeth, let’s start at one end of the “do I stay or do I go” spectrum. In your experience, are there any specific signs that it really is time to go? No need for discussion or relationship counsellor. Just get out of there.

Elisabeth Shaw: Certainly, if there is violence or a lack of safety, then without really significant intervention, that behaviour is not going to change and even with significant intervention, it’s very hard to change. So certainly, there’s the whole category where there’s a lack of safety. I think where you look ahead and you actually don’t feel much hope or excitement about what’s ahead for you as a couple, that you feel really lonely within the relationship or a sort of an endless sort of churn of discontent and where perhaps your partner’s saying, “Look, I think we should go to counselling” or things like “I want to improve”, “I want us to go on date nights”, and you actually are just not at all keen. You think, “Well, that makes sense. I should want to do that, but I don’t want to get closer”. And you find yourself building a life outside the relationship, spending more time with friends, getting too busy to participate and avoiding intimacy. Where you find yourself unable to speak positively about your partner in social situations where people say, “How are things going?” and you find yourself just with a fairly miserable story. Those sorts of things tend to mean that you’ve got one foot out. And of course, there are signs where you find yourself attracted to other people. I mean, again, that can mean many things. But where you actually do start to actively speculate about the life half lived or the life you could be leading, that can be a sign that you’re on the way out.

Benjamin Bryant: Hmm. Just took me back to one of my favourite things. All things, of course, lead to Oprah. She used to say what everyone wants to know is that they’ve been heard and what they say matters to their spouse. Heather you’ve been working with couples for decades. Are there any signs of when it’s time to go?

Heather McKinnon: Look, what Elizabeth summarised is my experience from talking to thousands of people over 40 years, and I just add that once contempt enters the relationship, people like Elizabeth train us that you can’t bring it back from the brink. So if you know if the signs of contempt are there where you really can’t stand to be in the presence of your partner, it’s certainly time to get intervention, at least. The other thing I’d add is my experience is ambivalence, that is years of not knowing whether to stay or go, can really do psychological damage long term. As you said, Ben, I’ve seen people in a state of ambivalence for a decade. In a country town, like we practise in, you get to know the community in pretty good detail. And I’ve got people that have been coming to see me every couple of years, over a decade or more, and they’re still stuck. And as Elizabeth so beautifully put it, you’ve got one life, and it’s the moment that someone wakes up and realises that the time on the planet is limited, that they really start to assess the quality of what they’re in.

Should I stay for the sake of the children?

Benjamin Bryant: Well said. And one of the reasons people decide to stay in difficult or damaging relationships is for the children. What are your thoughts, Elizabeth, on how much you should consider the children when making the stay or go decision?

Elisabeth Shaw:  It’s true that a lot of people focus on harm or perceived harm to the children by separating and sometimes can’t balance that with real harm by staying. Because you need to be looking at what are the circumstances under which the children are living with two parents? So, are they witnessing contemptuous behaviour, really poor relationship style? Do they feel like they’re ping ponging between you or trying to keep the peace or trying to placate you, distract you? Are they watching open misery? And certainly, if they’re witnessing harm or ridicule or any of those things, then you’re not doing your children any favours by, at the very least not seeking help, if not leaving. I think often when people say they’re staying for the children, they’re also staying for themselves. But they’re not sure how to work with the fact that they’re unhappy but unable to leave. So sometimes I think it’s important for adults to own their own ambivalence about going, rather than put it onto the children. Research says that children, of course, would always prefer their parents to be together, but not at all costs. There certainly are children who would much prefer for their parents to be less depressed, less miserable, less angry and to feel more safe in a relationship. So the separation really needs to be measured by whether as a couple, you can do that respectfully and well. If you can separate and be at peace with that and treat each other well, children can have a very positive post-separation experience. So you’re not necessarily harming them by separating, but you will harm them by staying under destructive circumstances or having a very destructive separation. Both of those things will be a problem for your children.

Benjamin Bryant: Absolutely, and on a daily basis we talk to parents in this position when they say they stay for the children. But, children are resilient. We say that children can handle a new home, they can handle new schools, they can handle step parents even, God forbid, but they can’t handle conflict. That is what is damaging them. And a lot of people say, “Oh, they’re asleep” or “they’re in their rooms and they don’t hear us”. It’s simply not true. There’s heaps of resources available. One that Heather and I use most often is from the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia website. They have an excellent resource on the impact of conflict on children. It’s something that we have here at the office that we hand out on a daily basis, but it’s something, of course, that I’ll put in the show notes for this episode. So, thank you for that, Elizabeth.

How do you talk to your partner when unhappy in your relationship?

Benjamin Bryant: One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how often people come to a lawyer before they’ve even discussed things with their partner. Elizabeth, can you advise our listeners on when and how to confront their partners about their unhappiness in a relationship?

Elisabeth Shaw: Look, I do find that where couples are not talking about the issues and are actually lost in their own heads, that sometimes that spirals out into, “Well, I’ve been considering this for ages. I’ve talked to all my friends. I’ve now talked to my accountant and my lawyer”. It’s all about I, which in itself is quite telling because the person’s moved into an “I” mindset instead of a “we”. And so, it says how far they’ve gone down that track. But I think the problem with that is that they haven’t necessarily thoroughly explored the opportunity to see if things can change. And in my experience, a separation will tend to go better and the recovery will go better, if you’re at peace with everything you tried. That you don’t look back with regret and say, is there a base I didn’t cover? So I think raising concerns with your partner to get a reading for whether they’re on board and doing that as soon as possible, because if your partner is completely disinterested, says I’m fine, doesn’t give you a good hearing and even if you get to the point of saying I’m considering separation and they’re just not engaged, then of course, starting to explore your options is important. But it’s very important that you do, first of all, raise those concerns and raise efforts for those things to change.

Elisabeth Shaw: I’ve done so much relationship work over the course of my career where I’ve sat with a couple where one has said, “Well, I thought you were doing this, this and this and that added up to you not loving me”. And the partner goes, ‘Absolutely not. I was doing this, this and this for another reason I thought you didn’t want me to be approaching you”. And it’s actually really sad because they look at each other and they’ve completely moved into a mindset of misinterpretation, misreading the cues. They’ve got so distant that they miss the interpretations and the others could say, “Well, remember when I invited you to do this or I came and put my arm around you” and they say, “Well, no, I didn’t even notice you did that”, you know, because people have clocked off. And over and over again, I’ve had couples say to me, “I just really wish we’d come earlier because we’ve spent two years stewing around in this. And now we see that we’ve been misreading the signs”. Now I’m not saying that means everything is recoverable, but getting lost in your own head, in your own individual interpretation of things, you really might be misreading the situation and in particular misreading the opportunities for change. So, I would encourage doing that before going too far.

Benjamin Bryant: I just want to know that what I say, you hear and what I say matters. Heather, you’ve been helping couples for decades. Like you said, those people that keep coming back every couple of years for a check in. What advice do you give them to help them get their ducks in a row or confront their partner?

Heather McKinnon:  If they’ve come to me, then my first thing is to give them the card to go to Elizabeth or one of her colleagues in the profession. I’ve seen many relationships saved by high quality intervention from relationship counsellors. And as Elizabeth said, there’s a lot of times in a relationship journey where pressures come on and people view it as a breakdown in the relationship. But once someone shines a light on what’s happening, it could be that one of the parties is clinically depressed. It could be that the children have left home to go to uni and they haven’t grieved. It could be that in a period of two years, they’ve lost four parents. There’s all these things that happen in life that can put the relationship off kilter. But people, as Elizabeth said, are so much in their own head that they don’t look to save the relationship. They throw the baby out with the bath water. So I think I’ve become one of the greatest advocates for, the intervention of social scientists in the way we live.

Benjamin Bryant: Thank you. Heather. It’s actually a great segue into my next question for Elizabeth. Not all relationships are truly broken. What are the signs that there is a potential for the relationship to heal?

Elisabeth Shaw: Well, certainly if you do raise something and your partner is concerned, I think that’s the thing. If you say, “I’d like us to spend more time together” and your partner is interested to do that, even if they don’t need it themselves, they’re interested to do it for you, I think getting that response is important. But I think it’s also about kind of owning your own part in the relationship too. Because I think when we’re distressed, we tend to focus on the problem of the other person. You know, “What the hell are they doing? And let me just point out the 40 things that they do that’s not working”. Instead, to say, “What might I be doing that I’m caught, we’re caught up in a dynamic together and is there some way I can think about the feedback that I’ve got over time and what I could be doing differently” I think usually you feel more empowered and that you’ve got some things that you could try if you let the feedback in. If you’re defensive and on guard and say, “No, it’s not me, it’s you”, then nobody’s listening to anybody. But if you can start by saying, “Well, how might I be participating in this? And am I bringing my good intentions to the relationship?” And do you go with an overture that’s actually interesting to your partner or is your way of raising problems, a confrontation or an accusation? So, if you raise it in the best possible way and the other person then can bring the best of themselves to that conversation, then there are fledgling signs that you might be able to connect and certainly at the moment of separation if you do raise, “I’m worried we’re heading in that direction”, if your partner does worry with you, panic, agrees to go to counselling: all of those things are opportunities, so they’re all really good signs. So I would really encourage people to raise concerns early and to raise them in that accountable way, and with good intentions. I want the best for us. I’m worried that we are drifting a bit. I’m aware we haven’t been out as a couple in a year and I find myself reluctant to do so. I think we’re drifting and we need to do something about that. Then that sort of offer is much better than,  “You never do this” and “I’m sick of the way you do that”. That sort of thing is also a cry for help, but your partner can sometimes tune that out and you can say, Well, I’ve raised it many times, but you might have raised it just before bed. You might have raised it when you were drunk. You might have raised it five times a day and your partner’s tuned you out. And so, it’s about being accountable for how you communicate and whether you’re genuinely inviting your partner into a positive space where you could think about the relationship differently. If you get a good hearing and you get engagement, there’s plenty of room to believe that you could be different. And doing that work could be in service of saving the relationship, but it also could be in service of a much better separation because if you make your peace as to why things went wrong, you might be able to separate respectfully too.

Benjamin Bryant: And I think Elizabeth, those scenarios that you just gave are going to resonate with a lot of our listeners. I know it resonated with me. And I’m going to give you a few very general scenarios. In each of these scenarios, can you please give us your thoughts on how these might affect the stay or go decision and what questions we should be asking ourselves in these situations?

Scenario: My partner and I get along on most day-to-day issues, but we differ on some of the big questions like politics and climate change.

Benjamin Bryant: The first one is: My partner and I get along on most day-to-day issues, but we differ on some of the big questions like politics and climate change, which causes huge arguments sometimes.

Elisabeth Shaw: Well, look, there’s quite a bit of relationship research on this now, which says that successful couples manage an extraordinarily high range of differences and that having differences in itself is not the problem. It is how you discuss them. And so you’ll find that, of course, we’re going to be different in all sorts of ways. But if in fact you argue in bitter, contemptuous ways, those are mean spirited, disrespectful conversations, then that’s what’s going to be a problem. But there’s a lot of successful couples that have very different politics or religious preferences. But it’s whether that’s a battleground or not. And I think we’ve been too caught on that: that couples should have common interests and common perspectives and even we talk about common values. I mean, yes, it’s important to be aligned in some areas, but it covers you much better to say, “Well, when we have differences, how do we manage them”?

Benjamin Bryant: Because I know a common one that we get is people get shut down, they’re not heard. It’s an irrational. Especially with COVID, especially with COVID. How can you form that view? So interesting to hear. It’s not the idea that you have a difference of opinion. It’s how you canvass it.

Scenario: We can’t agree on how to raise our children, but we can still have fun.

Benjamin Bryant: The second scenario is: Our problems started when the kids reached school age. We simply can’t agree on how to raise our children, but we can still have fun and laugh together.

Elisabeth Shaw: Well, look, it’s very interesting to me that I have quite a lot of couples that with good intentions and dedication, put their relationship on hold for years. You know, I’ve seen couples who say, “Oh, we thought when the kids got to school, we’d get our social life back”. And I think, well, if you’ve got two or three kids, that could be eight or nine years later. So I think the first thing is that those moments where kids go to school are quite pivotal because you start to feel that that’s a marker of space. You know, that people are going off into their own worlds and it gives you a little bit of psychological space back, changes the routine. And it is a point where couples start to look at themselves. I think a lot of couples haven’t really discussed the big issues, and they might have got together and feel that they’re both fairly nonreligious, for example. And then suddenly, when they go to choose schools, they say, “Well, look, I didn’t think I was religious, but now I think about it, I’d really like my kids to go through the Catholic education system because I did”. So some of it is because people haven’t actually discussed a lot of things, and sometimes they don’t even realise they need to because the decision catches them by surprise. Again, it comes back to, “Well, how are we going to navigate that”?

Elisabeth Shaw: The other thing I’d say is that some relationships are problematic throughout. It’s peppered right throughout. But a lot of couples will find that in some ways they get on really well and in some ways not. and that can be fine and you go in and out of that over the course of your lifespan. But when you find that you’re saying we have fun and laugh together, which is actually dressing up problems, it’s actually your way of staying because you’re otherwise quite miserable. Like you haven’t had sex in five years, but you still laugh together. Sometimes people say that because it’s the way they keep themselves going and have hope that they’re not facing separation or they’re not yet ready to tackle the darker, deeper issue. But sometimes it is true that they’ve almost just turned into cosy, warm slippers together, rather than finding a way to have a boundary around the couple relationship that’s, more sort of fuelling that sort of system within the family unit.

Benjamin Bryant: And of course, Elizabeth, this is at the commencement of school. You see the change or the void as it were when the kids are all grown up and they’ve left school. What you were saying reminds me of a great book by an Australian author, Joanne Fedler, about parenting adolescents. Of course, they leave home and then what? And the questions are, who are you? So it’s exactly the same thing.

Elisabeth Shaw: Well, and who are we?  Going into high school is another pivotal time because you can feel like, well the kids could cope now if we’d separate. Some people do that. But other people who are considering separation when their kids are about 16 may well say, I’ll see school out. Yeah, it’s true.

Scenario:  Things are good.  But are they good enough?

Benjamin Bryant: The next scenario, Elizabeth, is things are good with my partner. Most of the time, but I’m just not sure if they are good enough.

Elisabeth Shaw: Yeah, well, again, I think when you start to experience discontent and put it down to the problem of the other person, it’s always worth trying to have a broader view of owning your own discontent and what could be going on in me that makes me evaluate my world in the way that I am. And is it in fact a problem in the relationship? Is there something that maybe someone has never expressed or got in touch with? Have they got themselves on some kind of leash that their partner doesn’t even want them on? So I think sometimes we can feel restrained by other people, which we project onto them, and again, it can often be in counselling where the other person says, a”I’d love it if you were more fun or more sexually adventurous or more outgoing, by all means, switch that button on”, you know? But we can feel restrained because of the habits that set in over a long term , where we become known in a particular way and then become hesitant. Sometimes I have people….well it’s actually quite a common thing that’s said to me, particularly around sex I have people say to me: “You know this would be easier with a stranger than changing my behaviour in front of a partner that knows me so well. There’s something very confronting about that positive intimacy of a long term relationship where reinventing yourself is hard to do and you can start to feel like it’s the relationship or the other person restricting you. So that could be true. But I think it’s always worth saying, is there some way in which I’m doing that to myself as well? And is this a relationship issue or something else?

Scenario: My partner and I get on really well when it’s just the two of us, but I can’t stand being around their friends and family.

Benjamin Bryant: External as well as internal attribution, I like it. And final scenario, Elizabeth is: My partner and I get on really well when it’s just the two of us, but I can’t stand being around their friends and family. They make me uncomfortable.

Elisabeth Shaw: Yeah, look, I think this is common. I also have a lot of couples say to me, I think when the kids move out, a lot of our fights will stop because they get caught up in a dynamic with the kids or they witness their partner parenting in a way that’s a bit grinding, but they do otherwise love them. And it’s sometimes that’s a bit true enough, that if I can keep you away from other negative people, but ultimately, we exist in a web of relationships. And usually, it’s a pleasure to see your partner in company. In fact, often people see that as fuel. You know, you go out to dinner, friends say, “Oh, tell me about your work” and you hear your partner answer in a way that you haven’t asked them about in years. They chat on and they give stories and you think, “Wow, you’re impressive”, you know, I hadn’t realised that. So usually being around others draws things out of us that we forget in a couple relationship.

Elisabeth Shaw: So, where it’s the opposite, which is: I don’t like those people and I don’t like you when you’re with those people. I mean, again, I’d want the couple to be talking about, how do we lose ourselves in that? And is there some way we can protect the relationship when we do that? Is it true that you end up being very different with them or they change you? And in fact, for some couples, too, it is quite healthy to not go to all events where you’re not comfortable. So, say you’re going out with friends and not all partners go all the time. Maybe moving as a pack is not even necessary. Maybe not going to the occasional family event is fine. So I’m not saying avoid all of it, but sometimes couples are pushing themselves to stand together at everything when maybe they should also consider there are other ways to shake things up a bit or manage themselves in company. But keeping your partner away from others or enjoying them only in very limited ways is probably a sign to discuss it a bit more. What’s really going on there?

Is it helpful to talk to your friends when deciding to stay or go?

Benjamin Bryant: And Elizabeth, many people talk to their friends and their family when they’re trying to decide whether to stay or go. Is that helpful? Are there any difficulties with that?

Elisabeth Shaw: Look, one of the difficulties is that they’re all stakeholders, and so if they know you as a couple, they have a vested interest. They might have a vested interest in your happiness, of course, but they might also have a vested interest in “Oh, but we’re all couples together, and we’ve got such a lovely group” or, he or she seems really lovely to me. And often couples can be threatened by other couples separating because it makes them look at their own relationship and think, “Gee, well, if you’d separate, what does it say about me”? So I think there’s a lot going on about vested interests that you have to be careful about. It is generally healthy to just get a reading of what you’re picking up because, back in the day where you never talked about your relationship outside of the relationship was very problematic because you didn’t air some things that did need comparisons.

Elisabeth Shaw: There is some research that says that women are four more times likely than men to discuss issues before going to therapy. The problem with that, in a way, is that they can have rehearsed issues which makes them sound more able to talk about things than men are. Sometimes men can look very caught by surprise, by things being raised because the woman’s had a lot of practise. And that buys into a stereotype that, men are not competent about that stuff. They generally haven’t had the practise and women will speak sometimes inappropriately, I think, to a range of others. And then they get feedback that validates their own perspective. So, I think it’s healthy to a degree. I guess is my long answer. It’s unhealthy when you’re just getting mirroring back your own perspective and validation. And in fact, you might have people wind you up because it suits them you go in a particular direction. I think if you’re talking about your relationship more than two or three times in a short phase of time and you’re raising this problem and you’re sort of starting to look at it, a good friend will say, “Have you talked to your partner about this”? “Sounds to me like you need counselling”. And push them back towards the relationship.

Benjamin Bryant:  And Heather the amount of times that we’ve heard, you know. “Oh, but my best friend, they got 50-50”. I think it’s really important for people to realise it’s not one size fits all.

When to consider professional relationship counselling?

Benjamin Bryant: And Elizabeth, finally, at what point should a couple consider professional relationship counselling? How’s a counsellor going to help and what can people expect when they get there?

Elisabeth Shaw: Well, look, of course, I’m going to sound completely biased because my whole career has been this, so I can only say that I have repetitively had couples say to me, I wish we’d come earlier. I think the thing is that talking outside your relationship still has a little bit of a taboo about it, and coming to a counsellor in itself can feel like the kiss of death. Like, “Oh, we must be in really deep trouble”. Or I’m actually really afraid that this is what you do just before separation. I’ve had people come in and say, and often particularly men, will say, “I really thought I was here to get the bad news”. And that’s sad to me because I see a lot of people suffering for longer than they need to, because sometimes it is…in fact it really commonly is that the problems that they’re raising are not insurmountable, and I’ve worked with lots of couples that have solved them. What can feel insurmountable is repetitive, boring, dead end conversations. “We discuss this all the time. We never get anywhere”. Well, the problem is the type of conversation. It’s not necessarily the issue is a dead end, but the way they’ve fallen into a habit.  And some can even recite the argument and say, Well, when I say this, you say that. And then when you say that I say, and they’re true, they could write a script. So I would say, see it as a resource that you can pick up and put down as you see fit. Go earlier, not later. Just go and see what it offers you because largely that person can hear the thing you’re missing.  As you debate in front of them…. a skilled person…and I encourage you to see a qualified relationship counsellor, not a generalist counsellor. But if you see someone who actually listens to the interaction and can say, “You know, when you get to that point, I can just see you shut down” “What is it that really triggered you then”? And you can really unpack. And people often go saying, “OK, we now don’t have to do that dead end” or “I’ve heard there’s that skill” or “I find I am too defensive. How do I stop doing that”? If you tease all of that out and you find a way to have conversations, people immediately feel more empowered because they’re skilled up, they’re more resourced. They feel more hopeful that we’re a couple who can get things done. We’re a couple who can go to counselling, get a few tips and in fact, work together. A lot of the hesitancy about maybe going out on date night, people don’t want to do those things if they think they’re going to argue. So as soon as you free up some of these things, other things become possible like, “Well, now I’d have a weekend away with you, but I would have avoided you like the plague three weeks ago”. and it’s not because they don’t love them. It often can be because “I just don’t like how we are together”. So I encourage don’t see it as the kiss of death. Don’t see it as everything being over. The majority of people who get help in time actually recover and continue. They don’t necessarily separate.

Goodbye for now…

Benjamin Bryant: Well, what an amazing show. Sadly, we have to end the conversation there Elizabeth. But thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and insight with our listeners.

Elisabeth Shaw: It’s a pleasure.

Benjamin Bryant: It was our pleasure. And I think it might be one of our best podcasts yet, Heather, I just loved going through and exploring the layers of relationships. What did you think?

Heather McKinnon: Yeah, and I think the best news is that this show really focussed on how you might avoid family, breakdown because as family lawyers were usually at the pointy end. So, it’s great to give those really practical insights into how you might save a relationship rather than end it.

Benjamin Bryant:  And with those practical insights Heather there may be so families who are not going to need our services this year. We will put links on our website to a Relationships Australia NSW, Elizabeth’s social pages and any other resources mentioned in today’s podcast so that you can continue to explore the “stay or go” question further. Next month, it’s back to you and me Heather, and we are going to talk about all the ways that you can get help. Whether you want to stay in your relationship or you want to go, there are plenty of agencies and resources out there that can help without racking up huge bills, so we hope to have you back again in February. At the end of every episode, I remind people to share this podcast with friends and family, but I think this episode might be one of our most important to share. If you know someone who is struggling in their relationship, please, please share this episode with them. The “stay or go” decision is so difficult and so life changing. We want to reach as many people as possible to help them make this decision wisely. Goodbye for now, and we hope to have your ears again next month.

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