Wednesdays, BBC2, marriage on the rocks

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Indy Lifestyle Online
We know why couples go to Relate. But what on earth possesses them to let television cameras in, asks Brigid McConville.

It has been riveting television. For four weeks now we've been able to watch couples in crisis being counselled at Relate, courtesy of BBC2's fly-on-the-wall documentary Breaking Point. We've empathised with their sadness, been moved by their hurt - and impressed by their struggles to understand each other.

To some extent we've all been there - yet most of us haven't broadcast our private wrangles to the nation. It's tough enough to salvage a troubled relationship without going so totally public. So why do people do it? And what - ultimately - does going on television do to them?

First of the series featured Trevor Collen, a research scientist in viral immunology, and his wife Tracey, a landscape gardener. Both "normal" people, parents of two young children, yet locked into a perpetual misery of bickering and blame. The film made it clear at once that Trevor's thoughtful, reserved personality is at odds with Tracey's quick-fire, up and down nature.

Unusually, it was Trevor who urged Tracey to go with him to Relate, and the film showed how they gradually learnt to listen to each other. It closed with them embracing, Tracey in tears, Trevor comforting her.

Since then, unfortunately, there have been many more tears from Tracey, much more comfort required from Trevor, because the fall-out from the film has caused the couple immense grief and upset. "Tracey feels extremely vulnerable," says Trevor, "as if people are whispering about her, and she has had a series of weird phone calls. She's also had bitchy comments from some women locally, such as `how sad for you; we don't need help like that' - which is uncalled for and not true."

Cruelly - because he is a mild and well-intentioned man - various journalists have sneered at Trevor, calling him "gormless" and taking Tracey's "side" against him. "The press has been a lot ruder about me than about her," he says, "but that's set her thinking, `God, I must be stupid to be married to him!' - instead of thinking that it's our life and it's how we feel that counts. The way she's reacting has set us back."

So why did they do it in the first place? "We were both so fed up about our relationship and our life that when we were approached we didn't consider the long-term implications," admits Trevor. "We also thought it would help people. But no, we wouldn't do it again."

Tracey has complained to Trevor that, in contrast to her own experience, the woman who was in Driving School, a fly-on-the-wall story about an attempt to get behind the wheel, is now a celebrity. So perhaps it was the chance of fame - or just being on telly - that drew Tracey in.

Trevor and Tracey also seem to have misunderstood what sort of film it would be. "We thought it would be a video for people who wanted to try counselling," says Trevor. "We never envisaged it going out on mainstream TV. We got the wrong impression - but on the other hand we didn't ask for it to be spelled out. It was our naivety; not a deception on their part."

Peter Gordon, who shot and directed Breaking Point, says: "We did make it very clear it was going to be broadcast on BBC. They saw it before it went out and they had the right to withdraw from it at any time during the counselling - and for two weeks afterwards. Relate also had a veto."

But is there an intrinsic conflict between the healing process of counselling and the revealing process of television, with all its attendant publicity? "I think so," believes Trevor. Both he and Tracey were in a poor mental state during their discussions with the BBC. "Tracey was undeniably depressed, almost suicidal," he says, "whereas I had been suffering from depression for some time. I've been on Prozac for the past three years. Perhaps that affected our decision making."

There is another, related issue which has again made things worse for Trevor. He has come to the conclusion that men don't get a fair hearing in counselling. "Relate do an excellent job of trying to stay impartial," he says, "but I don't believe it's possible. We are all unconsciously drawn to the person who speaks our language, and because most counsellors are women there is a problem for men before the thing even starts."

Breaking Point didn't show it, but at one point, claims Trevor, their (female) counsellor sided with Tracey against him. "I got very angry and switched off, but both of us felt that things had gone wrong."

Subsequent press reports, in Trevor's view, have echoed this bias. Polly Toynbee, writing in the Radio Times, suggested that "maybe Tracey wanted the cameras to be there for the same reason that she eventually relented and agreed to go to counselling - to prove that she was right all along, and her husband was the one to blame. Then we'd all get to see the truth, and we'd all be on her side. (I was.)"

Not so simple, argues Andrew G Marshall, president of the Men's Counselling Association: "People exhibit different parts of the same problem," he says. "A wife complains her husband doesn't communicate - but when he does speak, she interrupts him. You are nearly always guilty yourself of what you complain about in your partner."

He agrees with Trevor, too, that men are often at a disadvantage in counselling.

"Counselling is a female language," he says. "It's what women do naturally over the kitchen table without even being aware of it. Men don't have the language.

"Men are very problem oriented; they want solutions. But counselling often isn't like that. We need to make men feel more comfortable and the differences between men and women have to be tackled. We need to get more men in - it's a scandal that there are so few male counsellors - and we must address how hard it is for men to speak the language of counselling."

Julia Cole, of Relate (where 15 per cent of counsellors are men), is adamant that sexist attitudes of any kind are always challenged in the training of counsellors at Relate. "We would very much value far more men as counsellors in Relate," she says, "and we do incorporate how a man may feel in our training."

On the vexed question of taking sides, she points out that "Relate counselling is about maintaining impartiality. It is a difficult issue - and journalists writing about the series have illustrated just how difficult it is. But the perceptions of people in counselling about fairness are bound to be different, and these differences can be part of the process itself."

The initiative to take part in the programme, she says, was very much left up to the couples: "Every new client at the time was given a letter which said: `if you wish to opt in, you can contact the BBC'. At any stage they could have said `we don't want to do it any more'. They are adults who took their own decision about being filmed, and Relate did seek to protect the couples to the best of their ability."

Relate, she adds, is "very grateful to Trevor and Tracey, who were extremely brave. If it has had a negative effect on their relationship then it is very sad, but they can have further counselling to help them get over the issues raised by the programme."

Julia Cole acknowledges that there were "risks in making the programme, but on the whole they were worth taking". Calls to Relate have gone up dramatically each time a Breaking Point programme is shown, she says, "which has an incredibly beneficial effect for people who feel their relationship is in trouble".

Peter Gordon also feels he could hardly have been more careful. "I've been making documentaries for a long time [including BBC 2's 1995 film Family Therapy] and I've never felt we've taken so much into account what people feel. We have re-cut and adjusted scenes; we've pulled a whole programme at the last hurdle because one of the couples was feeling very vulnerable."

His main ethical concern in these extremely intimate documentaries has been "what are the limits? The biggest area of self-censorship for those taking part has been the difficult things they had to say about their parents. In the end we decided we couldn't have someone saying what an unhappy childhood they had."

He says he has no idea why people agree to be in his films, except that - like Trevor - "nearly everyone who took part said they thought it might help other people. We're all interested in these stories for healthy reasons, but the closer you get, the more difficult they become. It's a complete minefield."

The last edition of `Breaking Point' is tomorrow at 9.50pm on BBC2.