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?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University