The true value of relationship support when relationships break down

Published in Blog by Deidre Saunders MBE on November 23rd 2023

Deidre Saunders MBE, agony aunt at ITV This Morning, explains that funding for relationship support to reduce parental conflict more than pays its way.

I doubt there is anyone reading this who hasn’t been affected by a messy relationship breakdown – our own, our parents’, our children’s or that of someone close to us. We all know just how intense the agony is.

Sophie told me, “My parents’ separation was bad. They fought over everything – me and my sister, money, possessions. They said horrible things to us about the other. Their separation badly damaged me. I was hospitalised for self-harming.”

Laura called me at ITV’s This Morning programme, where I am the agony aunt (I’ve changed everyone’s name). “My partner and I have a three-month-old daughter but I have caught him texting someone else he had relations with previously. He initiated the conversation. We have been together since we were 18, but I don’t think I can get past it.”

Sue worries for her young grandchildren. “My son’s relationship broke down and now his ex fights him over everything. She says she wants him to be part of his children’s lives, but makes it next to impossible – even simply for him to collect them from school or see them over the weekend. I hardly get to see them at all. It’s breaking my heart.”

Relationships and the Christmas period

In the run-up to Christmas every year, the ads on TV paint a picture of family bliss, but the reality is that the first working Monday in January has become known within the family law profession as 'Divorce Monday' as so many file for divorce then.

Research has shown that one in five couples consider separating after Christmas.

Christmas can be a very stressful time for couples. It is often difficult financially, especially these days, and spending a lot of time together over the Christmas and New Year break can hold up a mirror to the strains within a relationship. Research has shown that one in five couples consider separating after Christmas.

For the last few years, one day early every January, therapists from TR have worked with me and the This Morning counselling team answering viewers’ relationship dilemmas for five hours. We are rushed off our feet with hundreds of calls – 815 this last January, and that’s from a standing start on the day.

Adults who are dissatisfied with their relationship are nearly three times more likely to experience a major episode of depression and nearly four times as likely to misuse alcohol.

The effects of relationship stress

We first trail the phone-in subject just after 10am and answer calls until 3pm. This reflects not just personal pain, but a cost to the nation. Adults who are dissatisfied with their relationship are nearly three times more likely to experience a major episode of depression and nearly four times as likely to misuse alcohol.

We know that half of today’s under-16s will be affected by the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. Children exposed to destructive conflict are more likely to experience depression or anxiety, have physical health problems, develop behavioural problems and do worse at school.

But what makes a massive difference to how badly they will be affected is how their parents handle the stresses within their relationship – and what help is available to them to minimise destructive fall-out.

TR’s effective support programme for parents under pressure

TR’s Mentalisation-Based Therapy (MBT) for Parenting under Pressure was developed to support the 12 per cent of families that report relationship distress. It helps couples develop practical skills to support communication and problem solving, so reducing conflict and improving outcomes for the whole family.

A realistic cost-benefit analysis showed it pays its way. Avoiding the need for treatment for a clinically diagnosable state of mental illness can be valued at between £15,900 and £25,400 per person per year. When the mental health improvements are sustained for just one year, the economic benefits of the programme outweigh the costs.

TR’s Mentalisation-Based Therapy came out comfortably top of the seven interventions Government spent £50 million testing for the Reducing Parental Conflict programme.

TR’s Mentalisation-Based Therapy came out comfortably top of the seven interventions Government spent £50 million testing for the Reducing Parental Conflict programme yet, frustratingly, the Government then decided not to require local authorities to commission on the basis of the evidence of which ones worked.

Funding challenges

Funding has plummeted since the Government decided to hand the money it had previously given to organisations such as TR directly to local authorities - who don’t necessarily have the knowledge and expertise to make the most effective choice.

As an enthusiastic supporter of the valuable work done by TR, I sincerely hope they are able to attract the funding needed to continue their support for struggling relationships and families. We all need them – or someone close to us does!

Further information

Read more information about TR’s Mentalization-Based Therapy training to reduce parental conflict.

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