Twenty years on, still married to counselling: Zelda West-Meads, of Relate, is practically a household name. She talked to Angela Lambert about living together and staying together in the Nineties

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IT IS a mantra for our time: Zelda West-Meads, of Relate. So often does her name appear in the media, as press officer and spokesperson for the country's main marriage guidance organisation, that it has begun to sound almost triple-barrelled, like Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

When a new set of statistics shows that people who have lived together are more likely to divorce, when some high-profile show-business couple pronounce on the foreverness of their togetherness, when an erring politician admits that his marriage is in difficulty, journalists turn to Zelda West-Meads of Relate for a wise and measured overview.

Yes, she says, she knows her name is a sort of catch-phrase, and no, it isn't altogether a comfortable role. 'I wanted counselling to be taken out of the realm of the slightly shameful, the guilty secret, and brought into the public glare. I believed in it enough to put my name behind that belief; to be identified as an individual, a real person and not just an anonymous organisation. Yet that has been very difficult. I'm naturally reserved and shy, and I've had to develop a tough skin.'

She is happy to state, on the record, that her son lives with a woman to whom he is not married. That is the way the world turns these days, and Relate is happy to counsel people who are partners or cohabitees, and not just married couples.

Nevertheless, as we begin the interview in her Victorian villa in one of London's leafier suburbs, she seems nervous. She looks poised and focused, with the slightly unnatural stillness of the trained listener, but would clearly be happier if I were doing the talking. She waits for the end of each question and then ponders before delivering a careful, balanced answer. After 20 years' experience as a counsellor she has developed a sort of professional neutrality, and seems uneasy with personal revelations. Yet it is surely relevant to trace how she arrived at the point where she speaks on behalf of all those trying to hold together painful, fractured relationships. All she is prepared to say about her own is that she is married. How about her childhood?

'My father was in the Navy, so my childhood was spent travelling the world. My education was non-existent. I attended seven schools in 10 years and none of them recognised that I was severely dyslexic. I left school at 15 and went to Hong Kong for two years, teaching English and History to Chinese children. Then I went to Paris to learn French, and then, well . . .' At this point she became evasive, but next morning she rang me up to say that when she was 17 her parents divorced. She hadn't mentioned it because she didn't want to upset them. But maybe enough time had elapsed by now . . .

'After that there was absolutely no money - not that I would have wanted to do the season anyway - so it was imperative to get a job. The quickest way was to do a four-week modelling course at Lucie Clayton.' What, I say, awestruck at the memory of the Sixties: you mean, with Jean Shrimpton? Yes, she says. Zelda West-Meads is still obvious model material. Divinely tall and slender, she totters across her spotless kitchen floor on pencil-slim legs and stiletto heels to feed her three loudly demanding cats.

'I lived in a bed-sitter, alone, because that was cheapest. These things are very good for you at 17. It didn't last long. As soon as I found other girls to share a flat with I started to have a great time. I had two very social years and a lot of boyfriends. And then, having really only been brought up for the marriage market . . . I mean, you did a little job for a couple of years until you found a husband . . . I got married.'

Weren't you ever tempted to rebel? She pauses. 'I rebelled by wanting to take my job very seriously, even though it was in a non-serious world, but I had very little idea of how to go about it. But I married and had two children very quickly and loved all that, and it wasn't until they went to school that I thought, right, now, what career do I want?'

She applied to be a marriage guidance counsellor because it would give her some training, and because the itinerant life of a naval officer's daughter had taught her to get on well with all sorts and conditions of people. 'I flourished during the training. It was the first time I'd done well at something - I was more used to failing exams. But dyslexia actually gives you a very highly trained memory, so I had no difficulty in recalling a whole interview in great detail for later discussions.'

She has now been counselling for 20 years. Has marriage changed in that time, given the seismic effects of hippiedom, feminism, New Men and Wild Men?

'Twenty or thirty years ago people married for love - as they still do - but also for security. The gender roles were much more clearly defined. Man was the breadwinner; woman the carer. Today's marriages may be more stimulating and fun, but they can also be more difficult. Women want more from marriage than their mothers and grandmothers expected. They want equality, a good lover, a good friend, career possibilities for themselves - and children as well.

'Men want that, too, for their partners, at one level; but the reality of having to adapt to such rapid change means that men are dragging behind their wives. And after all, why should they change? The old way suited them much better. The person you loved looked after your children, had a meal ready at the end of the day and was anxious to listen to you. It's what their fathers had and the model they grew up with. It was a powerful position and one in which your decisions were rarely challenged. All that was very nice for men. They felt loved and respected, and didn't have to grapple with today's constant shifting of their power base.

'But women are ambivalent about the changing roles, too. I sometimes see a marriage going through a tough time, and the woman will say: 'I like it when he's in command and successful. I find it hard to cope when he's muddled and in debt. Yet I also like it when he can talk to me and be intimate.' So women are putting out confusing signals. They want their men to display control and vulnerability. Men are afraid of talking because they fear that they'll be 'stripped bare'. And when they talk about their feelings some women do take advantage and may, in anger, use their confession against them, to undermine them.'

I ask about infidelity: is it something modern marriages can adapt to? 'For most people, infidelity feels like the ultimate betrayal. Very few people can cope with the thought of their partner making love to, touching, having candlelit dinners with, somebody else. Or the lies. In other cases, the affair is never openly acknowledged: the other partner 'colludes'. He or she suspects, but they choose to ignore the signs in order to preserve the marriage. The danger is that they may continue along these lines for years until a more serious affair brings the whole crisis to the surface, creating tremendous bitterness. Yet the majority of affairs don't break up marriages, and the majority of mistresses spend their time waiting in vain for their lover to leave his wife.'

I ask whether she thinks our century over-values romantic love? 'It's a very difficult question. You need romantic love in marriage - though it's often a casualty of the first baby. The heady, in-love newness of it all can't be sustained endlessly, but you can still have deep passion in a marriage, emotionally and sexually, and go on feeling solidly, deeply in love, rather than giddily.

'But many people can't adjust to the day-to-day busy-ness of marriage and not living on a high all the time. Traditionally, women didn't expect fidelity. They expected to be looked after, given the status of wife, and it didn't matter if the husband was unfaithful as long as he was discreet.'

Is this, I ask, the biologically correct model: woman as nurturer and nest-sitter; man as wanderer, looking to impregnate more young females? This question - a parody of human marriage - bothers her. 'I don't think monogamy is a natural state for men or women. If it didn't hurt the spouse, it would be natural to have several liaisons outside marriage. But if people love their partner and value their marriage, they'll try not to put it at risk. But there is a degree of unnaturalness in the expectation of fidelity - 60 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women admit to having been unfaithful. That is the percentage admitting to it. Yet most people still want the one-to-one relationship of marriage.'

Does she, I wonder - seeing her wrestling with the tricky role of handing down the secular tablets to a no-longer God-fearing society - find her spokesperson role very difficult?

'I find it humbling. It's very nice that people value what we at Relate have to say, because we do have substantial experience in counselling, seeing relationships and how people tick, and so what we have to say is valid and can throw light on issues or open up taboo areas.'

Would the world be a better place if people got married and then said, right, like it or not, this is for ever?

'No. If there are children, of course people should struggle to work out their difficulties. But about a third of our work is about helping people through separation and divorce and trying to stop couples from damaging their children in the process. By counselling we may not be able to save the marriage but we can reduce the hurt to the children. This differs from the traditional Christian view, but I can't approve of hanging on to violent marriages that put women and children at risk.'

She would like to put paid to the impression that Relate is an overwhelmingly middle-class organisation. 'Our clients come from all socio- economic groups, though slightly fewer from classes 1 and 5, the top and the bottom. Nor are all our counsellors middle-class either. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and accents and expertise.'

Finally, I say, treading delicately, what about their success rate? 'Look,' she says, 'you can't measure it crudely by whether couples stay together or split up. If we help warring couples to an amicable divorce, would you call that a success? Research in 1982 asked clients to evaluate their satisfaction or otherwise with counselling. About three-quarters said they were satisfied, of whom half were really, really satisfied; and the remaining quarter felt they were not. Some people say to me - perhaps years later - 'Relate changed our lives'. But you know, the lovely thing is watching people's body language change, from being tense and scrunched up and averted from one another when they first arrived, to six months later when they look alive again.'

Hunter Davies is away until the autumn.

(Photograph omitted)