If you’ve ever had the chance to read wedding vows closely, they don’t actually promise bliss or a life of happiness. In between the poetry readings and relationship origin stories runs an undercurrent of truth. Despite all the distractions trying to drown it out, this slightly sinister voice remains audible, whispering that marriage is hard. Things are going to go wrong. There will be sickness and dark times, and now is your moment to commit to being there for each other when everything inevitably goes belly-up. Then people hurl confetti at you and sidle off to eat cake.
The idea that all marriages are ultimately doomed to prolonged periods of unhappiness is pretty cynical, however it lies at the root of Kevin Andrews’ marriage scheme. Since July 2014 the government has been offering $200 vouchers for couples to spend on relationship counselling in an attempt to stem the rate of divorces and separations and help build stronger relationships. It’s structured as a trial, with numbers capped at 100,000, and interested couples required to register online. While this initiative has mostly been angled towards newlyweds, same-sex couples or those in other long-term committed relationships are also still eligible. Aside from being an ethically dubious use of funds in a controversial budget, it is also a serious case of raining on everybody’s parade.
What this offer says is: if you’re not in a long-term, committed relationship – let’s just call it ‘married’ – well, perhaps you should be. If you are married and happy, you won’t stay that way for long. If you’re married and unhappy, you should just stick it out.
There are a host of ways couples can choose to spend this voucher, but I found myself at ‘The Marriage Course’. As someone who was married in April of this year, I fall into exactly the target demographic. However, I doubt that Andrews would approve of my attendance due to the fact that I didn’t actually register with the scheme, and I didn’t attend with my husband.
Motivated by morbid curiosity more than the desire to make my marriage the best that it could be, I signed up for the seven week, church-run course alongside my friend, colleague, and not-husband, Connor Tomas O’Brien. It didn’t take long for doubt to set in. It seemed like a bad idea to pretend to be married to someone else less than two months after your wedding.
As Connor and I found ourselves standing at the base of the church steps, we quickly ran over our backstory. To keep it as simple as possible we would just stick as close as we could to reality: we’d met through friends in high school, had both moved over to Melbourne, and then found ourselves working together. People would then just assume we were married, and we would only be lying through omission.
The whole thing felt weird and a little bit insidious. As we ascended the steps I was certain that at the door they would notice that only one of us was wearing a wedding ring, and that we’d be ejected and possibly even lectured. Instead they smiled, ticked off our names, took our drink orders for the mid-evening beverage, and then pointed us to a long table covered in mini-quiches and cheese plates.
‘The Marriage Course’ is the brainchild of couple Sila and Nicky Lee, who had run this program successfully for many years before committing it to DVD. Contrary to the trust exercises and mortifying share sessions I was envisioning, instead I learned that we would simply sit in the hall and watch one themed episode a week. The course is divided into seven sections and has an accompanying book and worksheets. As a result, structure-wise, it doesn’t resemble the traditional view of relationship counselling. Couples are left alone, there are no group activities, and you don’t speak to a counsellor, only each other. It’s non-confrontational, and designed to feel more like a ‘date night’ where you are directed to discuss specific topics.
Aesthetically the church hall had been translated in to what looked like a restaurant, albeit one orientated towards a large screen. Each table was candle-lit, and decorated with flower-filled vases. The tables at the back filled up first.
Our cover story imploded within two minutes of talking to the other couples. It was impossible to lie to this room full of people there to work on their relationships. It felt insidious to be a pair of fakes amongst those who were genuinely willing to make themselves vulnerable. ‘We’re writing an article,’ Connor said. The man we were speaking to barely batted an eyelid before continuing the light small-talk. My relief was immediate. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. No one was bickering or giving each other the silent treatment. Some had even brought their young children who were playing quietly in the corner. It was like a vaguely uncomfortable dinner party.
The DVD promises to be inclusive. Nicky and Sila say at the outset that it isn’t just for married couples, but for anyone who wants to strengthen their relationship. They also say that though they are Christian, and that while their faith is at the heart of their marriage, participants don’t need to share their faith in order to gain from the course. At this point, the camera pans back, revealing a room full of couples sitting at tables decorated just like the ones in our venue.
Their intention to keep this promise seems genuine, though its execution at times feels rather tokenistic. Each week centres on a different theme, such as resolving conflict or improving communication. The videos consist of introductions, anecdotes and discussions between Nicky and Sila. Scattered between these are vox pops and interviews with people who have previously completed the course, all of whom are heterosexual and married.
Though the course originates in England, effort has been made to give it international appeal. In the vox pops, cameramen have travelled to different countries to ask people on the street about their views on relationships, love, and marriage. While they are to be commended for not simply sticking to one town, the selection of countries is noticeably skewed. Naturally there is good representation of European countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland, and France. Then, from time to time, there is a respondent from India slotted in. The sample of countries visited makes the video sit in a strange middle ground between local and international.
Watching the videos is a surreal experience. The couples being interviewed are all sat on a couch, some on location at a beach or a park, others with a green screen background beamed up behind them. They discuss how they met, the issues they had, and how ‘The Marriage Course’ helped them to be more functional couples.
One such couple describes their issues compromising on décor. One liked dark wood, and the other wanted lighter colours. We are shown a video of them and their children. After they wax lyrical about the course, they show us their kitchen; they have found cabinets they are both happy with. Most of the issues outlined are in this realm. It’s all kept fairly light: disagreements rather than major arguments.
One of the philosophies of the course is that marriage has seasons, which will affect the dynamic between husband and wife. They discuss the impact of having children, the difficulties that occur when these children then leave home, and how at this point many couples don’t know how to relate to one another anymore without the buffer of a family. Everything is stated with an air of inevitability. Marriage is presented as a rigid template, with participants expected to lead mostly the same kinds of lives and experience the same kinds of problems.
The advice the course offers is sound and logical. It underscores the importance of communication and gives frameworks for resolving conflict and reaching compromises – but everything hinges on two ideas. Firstly, that no marriage is ever a mistake, and secondly, that divorce shouldn’t be an option.
There is one interviewed couple that stands out in particular. They talk about how they met and would spend all their time laughing and enjoying each other’s company. They describe how, slowly, that faded and eventually they separated. Now, due to ‘The Marriage Course’, they have called off their separation and are back together. They both speak of their marriage with an air of resignation, and all the good times are mentioned in past tense. ‘We used to laugh a lot,’ the wife says.
‘The Marriage Course’ clearly has good intentions and has improved many relationships. However, as with all relationship counselling or indeed any self-help strategies, it’s up to individuals to find value in them.
If relationships in Australia are really so bad that we need to spend taxpayer money to fix them, then there is a much bigger problem. Perhaps Andrews is correct in the idea that divorces are expensive both to the individual and the community and have follow-on economic repercussions. However, putting in place measures to keep people together who in honesty would rather be apart is a highly flawed strategy. Couples who are willing to attend counselling are already trying to make their marriages work. In reality, $200 isn’t going to be a big factor in their decision making process, but hey, maybe a lot more people will be happy with the colour of their kitchen cabinets.