Squeezed Middle: Couples therapy

I genuinely don’t know if I can accept advice from a man who seemingly takes his fashion cues from Simon Cowell but, having got this far, I feel obliged to give him a chance.

‘‘Please take a seat.” Curly and I sit down on the cheap blue foam chairs. It turns out Dr Nutfixer wasn’t our couples therapist, after all. She was just an intermediary and, having assessed us, she has now referred us to Dr Gordon.

I am far from delighted at this development. Dr Nutfixer may have been stern but she was at least wise and female. She was exactly how I had pictured a therapist. Not only is Dr Gordon a man, but his face is strangely immobile. I definitely don’t look at him and think “emotional intelligence”. I look at him and think “fish on a slab”.

I’m sure there is a deep-seated psychological explanation for the overwhelming hostility I am feeling towards him. But right now, I feel like it has more to do with his trousers, which are hitched up and tightly belted way above his waist. I genuinely don’t know if I can accept advice from a man who seemingly takes his fashion cues from Simon Cowell but, having got this far, I feel obliged to give him a chance.

“So. Would either of you like to tell me why you are here, what you would like to get out of these sessions?”

The ensuing silence seems to drag on for years. I have no idea where to begin. I glance hopefully at Curly, who is examining a picture on the wall with intense concentration. It is a still life, a vase of flowers in pastel shades, the kind of mock-art you might find on the wall of a cheap hotel room. I hate it almost as much as the trousers – almost as much as giving a glib summary of my most intimate life to a wall-eyed stranger.

The irony is that after months of waiting for the couples counselling appointment with a desperation bordering on despair, we have actually been getting on pretty well lately. And now here we are, having to stir up the hornets’ nest again.

I muster all the enthusiasm I can and start waffling something or other about how we need to lay a firm foundation for our family in the future. Dr Gordon does not look impressed. He looks bored. When I have finished, he turns to Curly.

“So, a great result the other day.”

What is he on about? It takes a moment before I realise that Curly is wearing his Aston Villa T-shirt. The man is talking football! In time that we are paying for! Is this some kind of trick to get us to relax? If so, it’s not working on me. I don’t feel relaxed, I feel furious.

“Erm. Yeah.” Curly laughs nervously. There is another long pause. I have slumped in my seat like Kevin the Teenager.

Suffice to say, the session is a disaster. Curly is delighted. He never wanted to go to therapy anyway. “You should have seen your face,” he says afterwards, wiping away a tear of pure hilarity.

“Who did he remind me of? His eyes were so weird. Blank.”

“That one from The Addams Family – Lurch.”

I’ll say one thing for Dr Gordon. We haven’t laughed like that in quite a while.

Couples therapy: not traditionally a barrel of laughs. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.