The Abbott government’s promise of a $200 ‘marriage voucher’ for newlyweds will be available for any couples in a committed relationship including same-sex couples – even if they are not permitted to legally marry. This has received criticism from lobby groups such as Australian Marriage Equality. Other responses condemn the expense of the $20 million scheme. For example, people such as the Opposition leader Bill Shorten have questioned the government’s priorities when it is cutting back on public funds for school bonuses, child care and visits to the doctor (Chalmers, 2014). However, another issue to consider is that the government is not targeting those it is attempting to win over very well. This is for two main reasons – the use of the word ‘counselling’ in connection with the marriage vouchers and the romantic expectations of newlyweds that they will ‘live happily ever after’.
The government has not clearly explained let alone sold what it is actually talking about. Relationship support and education endeavours to assist couples in sustaining healthy, mutually satisfying relationships, and to reduce relationship distress and separation. There are crucial skills, attitudes and knowledge that offer partners a better chance of developing and sustaining a healthy, mutually satisfying couple relationship. Some people acquire these attributes through life experiences, but many people do not. Some programs refer specifically to marriage education, while for other programs, the more appropriate term is ‘couple and relationship education’ (CRE). CRE ranges from marriage preparation, support during marriage and helping people to stay married. Courses and activities cover issues such as positive communication, managing conflict, balancing work, home and relationships, sharing responsibility, discussing intimacy and sexuality. Many programs examine matters such as financial budgets and raise awareness about couple interactions and disagreements. CRE reflects on romance and unrealistic expectations of relationships, offering a grounded analysis of people’s experiences.
CRE is distinct from face-to-face individualised counselling and therapy which focuses specifically on relationships in difficulty. This approach deals with relationship problems and is based on a diagnosis and treatment by a therapist or counsellor, while CRE is not. So as soon as the government (and the media) describe the scheme as involving ‘counselling’ they have lost the audience. Many newlyweds or those intending to marry will reject any insinuation that they need ‘counselling’. CRE is designed in different formats and can be delivered in a range of settings ranging from face-to-face classes, completing inventories or accessing online informational support. Community sector organisations, clergy, trained para-professionals, religious and lay leaders and teachers deliver these services. If couples do not want a religious program, they may participate through relationships support services agencies such as Relationships Australia. Self-directed formats include books, DVDs, questionnaires, distance learning and online relationship programs. In any case, the goal of CRE is to prevent problems from escalating before there is any remote need for counselling.
Another problem with the government’s approach is that couples have romantic expectations that they will ‘live happily ever after’ and that their relationship is none of the government’s business. They do not wish to be ‘preached at’ or told what to do in their personal lives. Today, romantic love provides an important explanation for why people get married in the first place. If liberal democracy makes possible marriages founded upon romance, how can governments intervene? Of course this is a large and complicated question, linked to a range of political concerns including those of privacy, reproduction rights and the separation of church and state. Here I want to focus on one aspect – the question of romance and the stability of marriage as a matter of public concern. People grow up dreaming of falling in love, getting married and growing old together. Many believe that ‘love conquers all’. Contemporary expectations of relationships are very high and include romance as an important aspect of love. In popular culture, movies, television and women’s magazines depict the perfect form of matrimony via images and stereotypes reinforcing the perception that love is effortless if you meet ‘the one’. Any kind of marriage and relationship support services do not fit in this ideal, although CRE actually reflects on the role of romance. The problem is that romantic ideologies are reproduced again and again, colouring many people’s idealistic expectations and leaving little room for exploring the normality of relationships.
In sum, the government confronts policy challenges in implementing marriage vouchers because it will need to shake up personal attitudes so that it becomes more acceptable for couples to participate in the scheme. This is a huge ask. Attitudinal barriers to using the marriage vouchers include the belief that adults ‘naturally’ know how to be good partners and do not need any preventative measures to develop skills. Moreover, many couples expect the fairy tale ending and do not want ‘counselling’.
Dr Liz van Acker, School of Government and International Relations, Centre for Governance and Public Policy,
Laura Chalmers (2014) ‘Federal Government offers newlyweds $200 voucher to attend marriage counselling’, Courier Mail, 23 January.
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