The Obamas, The Fogles and the importance of seeking relationship support early

Published in Blog by John Fenna and Joanna Harrison on December 11th 2018

Why it is beneficial to seek help early in your relationship, with key figures leading the way and breaking taboos.

John Fenna explores our recent coverage in the media (via our therapist Joanna Harrison) on this high profile insight into marriage counselling.

The recent publicity surrounding Michelle Obama’s autobiography picked up on her candid insights into how seeing a couple therapist helped her marriage.

It is perhaps not surprising that this is the piece of information from her story that received the most coverage in the UK. One reason is that when it comes to celebrities, although we often take notice of the rumours circulating around their personal lives, we tend to assume that behind the scenes they are the same as they are in public life. In the case of the Obamas that perception is likely to be that they are close to the perfect couple.

Yes, we appreciate that perfection rarely exists, but when presented with such likeable and often inspiring role models, we are prepared to suspend reality just a little.

Secondly, seeing a relationship counsellor is a much more commonplace occurrence in the United States, but here it still can – as the coverage highlights – raise eyebrows.

Our work has often focussed on the idea that, despite all the long-acknowledged benefits (eg improved mental health and improved welfare of children through conflict reduction), we still see going to ‘marriage counselling’ as in some way shameful or taboo. This can mean that social care and interventions can often look at individual problems while leaving the problem of two partners whose relationship is in distress behind closed doors.

Or advice on this recently appeared in a piece from 'the Times' about what we can learn about breaking taboos and encouraging couples to come forward to couple therapy :

Are Times changing? Our advice in the press on the Obamas and Fogles

There are signs that this is changing – as evidenced by the press coverage that followed on from the Obamas’ story. We were delighted to contribute to one of the major pieces in 'The Times', which featured the Fogles (Marina and Ben), who are each well-known in their own right. They talked about their ongoing commitment to couple therapy and how they have an MOT with a couple counsellor once each year, just like the Obamas.

In the piece, Joanna Harrison, a couple therapist at Tavistock Relationships, offered her advice to Marina Fogle. She talked about how sessions which feature both partners can work:

Therapy can help a couple stuck on one specific issue. There’s the benefit of the third party who can help them both think about what the underlying problem is between them.

“Therapy can help a couple stuck on one specific issue. There’s the benefit of the third party who can help them both think about what the underlying problem is between them.”

Marina Fogle was advised by Harrison that “arguments show that a couple still care”, and reflected on how, though the Fogles don’t go to counselling often, they commit to doing it when one or other suggests it.

This is something that we at Tavistock Relationships advise couples - don’t leave seeking help until you are in a very distressed state caused by ongoing and unresolved conflict. Like the Obamas or the Fogles, it is far better to talk to a counsellor in advance of any build-up of problems and, as Marina Fogle says “find out where we are both at”. In therapy there are no distractions, work, family, neighbours, TV etc.

So how do we pluck up the courage to have a couple counselling session in the first place?

If someone as high-profile as Marina Fogle takes solace in the fact that the Obamas, one of the most famous couples in the world, is going to marriage guidance and reflects on how that makes her feel, then it may make the rest of us feel that seeking help is okay.

Harrison says the problem is that most couples don’t want to be THAT couple who need marriage counselling – they feel like they have failed in some way.

Our view, one shared by the couples in question here is that instead of letting their fears delay them seeking counselling, couples who come early ofen benefit from being in a more positive place to address their differences.

The benefits of coming to therapy are getting through

  • We see thousands of couples and individuals every year and that number is rising by around 10% each year, so it would appear that the stigma is lessening as more people turn to specialists to get help.
  • There is also evidence to back up the idea that coming to sessions is not a ‘leap of faith’. When we consider that the effectiveness rates show that therapies such as ours have been proven to have a positive impact on the couple relationship, and that couple therapy does work, perhaps that gives us a reason to engage.
  • Our naturalistic study showed that our work provides a statistically significant improvement in relationship quality. Overall, across the sector as a whole, something like 60-70% of couples receiving treatment should get some improvement in relationship quality.
  • Moreover couples who do come have a good experience with over 90% of clients giving us positive feedback.

We will leave the last words to Marina and Ben Fogle:

“Ben and I have learned a tremendous amount from our therapy sessions. I have learnt to embrace rather than resent the ways in which we are different… the visit is always good and constructive, and I am glad we went.”

You can learn more about our couple therapy or book an appointment here.

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