Whose stupid idea was couples therapy anyway?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘So, what brings you both here today?” Dr Rosemary Nutfixer folds her hands into her lap and examines Curly and me in turn over the rims of her glasses. She looks exactly like a therapist – unsurprisingly, perhaps, as she is a therapist.

I know I’m being picky, but I wish she looked a little less like one. She reminds me of my mum, and that’s not surprising, either, because my mum is also a therapist. When I was growing up almost every adult I knew was a therapist. There were so many of them that I couldn’t imagine how there could be enough mad people to go around. That was before I realised that everyone, without exception, is mad.

“We, er, haven’t been getting on.” Dr Nutfixer nods gravely. All of a sudden I can’t remember why we are here, in this sad, grey plywood cubbyhole off Tottenham Court Road. It was my idea, that’s for sure. Curly didn’t want to come, but I cried and threatened to buy Larry, Moe and myself one-way tickets to Rio if he refused.

It’s not that we’ve been arguing. It’s worse than that. Curly and I have always bickered away merrily, secure in the knowledge that we love each other like mad. But recently we’ve stopped talking. Days have passed with nary a civilised conversation in our household. Curly just watches TV and grunts occasionally. I just cry. I’ve been crying almost nonstop for weeks on end.

It could be because in the past two months neither of us has had more than three consecutive hours’ sleep; Baby Moe is proving resistant to even the most fearsome sleep training regime. It could be because our plans to buy a house have fallen through and we will probably be stuck in our slightly-too-small flat for ever more. It could be because we should never have got together, and having kids was a huge mistake. I just don’t know.

Here I go again. I sniff and a tear plops on to my mud-stained Primark padded jacket. I haven’t even taken off my coat and I’m already blubbing.

“First, I have to ask: have you been to see your GP?” says the doctor, handing me a box of Kleenex.

 “My GP? What for?”

“For post-natal depression. There is very effective medication available, you know.”

I am stunned. Is she telling me this is a clinical condition? Surely it’s just, well, life. And I can’t see how medication is going to help. How are pills going to make our flat bigger, or get Curly a lucrative job in banking, or see off the threat of redundancy, or save the environment from certain destruction?

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” I say, pulling myself together sufficiently to nail Dr Nutfixer with a death stare. “Actually we came here to talk about Curly and why he won't retrain as a plumber.”

“I’m sure we will get on to that. But first I really would urge you to see your GP. Postnatal depression is a common condition, and medication really can help.”

I blow my nose ferociously. Whose stupid idea was therapy, anyway?

Alice O'Keeffe's column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: www.oldmutualwealth.co.uk/ products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/