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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Table Of Contents Executive Summary

4

Background

6

Program Design

7

Key Dates of Pilot

9

Theory of Change

11

Evaluation Methodology

12

Reach of Program

13

Outcomes:

Reduced couple conflict

14

Improved relationship knowledge

16

Improved communication skills

20

Mutually agreed future pathway for relationship

22

Conclusion

26

This report was prepared by Alicia McCoy using information presented in the RRR Evaluation Report authored by Professor Thea Brown and program content written by Coni Forcey.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Executive Summary Australian and US research has suggested that there is a gap in family support services for couples whose relationship difficulties have taken them close to separation or to actual separation but whose difficulties may be able to be overcome with timely assistance. In 2014, the Department of Social Services funded Family Life to deliver a pilot program, the Relationship Review and Renew (RRR) program, to explore and address this gap in service delivery. The aim of the pilot was to explore if the new program could assist couples to strengthen their relationship and, by using a particular process, confront and overcome potential separation before or soon after it happened. The program which ran over an 18-month period was modelled on the Couples on the Brink program of discernment counselling that is mandated in Minnesota USA for couples prior to seeking divorce. Following training and consultation with the Couples on the Brink program designed by Dr William Doherty, Family Life refined and strengthened the program for the Australian context and culture. The RRR program comprised a time limited, structured series of up to 5 sessions for each couple with 100 couples eligible to participate in the pilot program. Each session was arranged to include time for the counsellor to meet with each partner separately and then together. This allowed the counsellor to support the couple with identifying, prioritising and considering relationship issues, and then assisting with decision-making regarding whether to continue the relationship or not and what future support the couple would need.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

The evaluation of the RRR pilot program was undertaken by Professor Thea Brown from Monash University in partnership with the Family Life Research and Evaluation Unit. Evaluation findings confirmed that the RRR program attracted the 100 couples it sought and that outcomes for the couples were very optimistic in terms of strengthening their partnership. 78% of couples reported deciding to recommit to their partnership, with 60% of these deciding to stay together and to seek further help, and 18% deciding to stay together and not seek further help. 22% decided to separate, with 13% of these couples deciding to seek further help. When these decisions at the end of the program were contrasted with the respondents’ positions on their relationship at the start of the program, almost all of those who were originally ambivalent about maintaining their relationship had decided to stay in it, and those who were clearly unwilling to stay in the relationship remained in this position and were joined by a half of those who had said they would stay only if their partner changed. Clients were very satisfied with RRR and spoke highly of the program in terms of its structure and content and spoke especially highly of the counsellors. The clients saw the counsellors as experts and as professionals, and the many comments indicated that the counsellors were particularly good at tuning in to the clients’ issues and problems, building a trusting relationship with them, and adapting strategies and solutions to individual client needs.


The RRR pilot program ran smoothly and the model presented few implementation difficulties. Being located at an agency, Family Life, with a history of effective provision of related family support and partner separation services, proved an advantage for the program as it meant staff were familiar with the nature of clients’ problems and skilled at the elements of the model, even though they were combined differently from the programs offered previously.

The evaluation showed that the model adapted by Family Life was an effective program in early intervention into partnership problems, whether the partnership was teetering on the brink of collapse or whether it was in less serious difficulty.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Background The Relationship Review and Renew (RRR) program was developed by Family Life, at the request of the Department of Social Services, in response to research suggesting that there is a gap in family support services for couples whose relationship difficulties have brought them to, or close to, separation but whose issues might be overcome with timely assistance. RRR was modelled on Dr Bill Doherty’s Couples on the Brink program that was mandated in Minnesota USA for couples prior to seeking divorce. Family Life further developed Dr Doherty’s program to suit the Australian context. The aim of the pilot program was to assist couples, with the aid of a trained family/relationship counsellor, to assess the status of their relationship, resolve their relationship issues, and where possible move them toward a stronger, healthier relationship. It also aimed to assist couples who had decided to separate, to do so in a manner that remained amicable and that minimised the impact on and children. Couples were given the opportunity to review their relationship, identify issues and problems that may require further attention, and determine if they would like to renew their relationship by either returning it to its original state, renovating it to a healthier position, or moving it forward in an entirely new direction. It was anticipated that by assisting the couple through a psycho-educational framework and therapeutic focus, that they would take a more considered approach to considering the pathways before them. That is: to stay together; to separate amicably; or to continue further with relationship counselling.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Program Design

Family Life designed the RRR innovation by adapting a discernment counselling model from the USA. Dr William Doherty developed the discernment counselling model out of his experience counselling couples where there was an unsteady commitment, he believed, derived from one person in the couple wanting to stay in the relationship (“leaning in”) and the other not wanting to stay (“leaning out”). He thought that such couples required a new approach; a

structured and time limited process to assist them to make a decision for their future direction, rather than an open-ended couples counselling approach with no pre-set goals, structure or time limits. His experience was that as couples approached divorce at the point of being in court, some were undecided (Doherty, Willoughby & Peterson, 2011). However, there was no service to help them review their situation and then make a decision; they were on a pathway leading only to divorce.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


This model was tested in the Minnesota Couples on the Brink program of 100 couples who were actively pursuing divorce but who showed some ambivalence. In this program the couples were offered what was termed “discernment counselling” to assist them in reviewing the issues between them and in deciding whether to seek reconciliation, engage in reconciliation, place the decision on hold, or pursue divorce. The evaluation (Wilde & Doherty, 2013) showed that 47% moved to the reconciliation phase (some 22% were engaged in the reconciliation phase, 10% had achieved reconciliation, 14% had placed decision making on hold), 27% were divorced, and another 27% moved to the pathway to divorce. Experienced practitioners and managers from Family Life adapted the discernment counselling model following training and consultation with Dr William Doherty.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

RRR was designed to be a short-term intervention where the focus was not on solving relationship problems but on clarifying what were the issues from each partner’s perspective and then seeing if they could potentially be solved. Unlike traditional couples counselling that assumes that both people are willing to work on the relationship, RRR helps people decide whether to work on their relationship or keep moving towards separation/divorce. RRR is for people who are considering separation/ divorce but are not completely sure if it’s the right path for them. In other words, they want to take one more look before making a permanent decision with longterm consequences. It’s for people who want to give their relationship another chance even though their partner is moving towards separation/divorce.


The counsellor helps individuals and couples decide whether to try to restore their relationship health, move towards divorce, or take a time out and decide later. The sessions are divided between the counsellors holding conversations with the couple together and individual conversations with each partner. The counsellor respects the reasons for separation/divorce while trying to open up the possibility of restoring the relationship to health.

considered to be useful skills and knowledge for use in all future relationships. RRR is considered successful when people have clarity and confidence in their decision. When a decision emerges, the counsellor helps the parties to either find professionals who can help them have a constructive separation/divorce or to formulate a reconciliation work plan to create a healthy, successful relationship.

The counsellor emphasises the importance of each party seeing his or her own contributions to the problems and the possible solutions. These are

The pilot program commenced in October 2014 and ceased in April 2016.

Key Dates of Pilot October 2014 Mon

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November 2014

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Advisory Group Meeting Training with Dr William Doherty

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Ethical Approval Advisory Group Meeting Advanced couples counselling training for counsellors

Advisory Group Meeting

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Key Dates of Pilot January 2015 Mon

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March 2015

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August 2015 Thu

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Marketing commenced

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First client seen

Advisory Group Meeting

February 2016 Mon

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April 2016 Fri

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Evaluation report completed Final Advisory Group Meeting


Theory of Change Current family law legislation has an emphasis on cooperative post separation parenting however there is limited emphasis on preventing relationship breakdown. Past research found that once separated, 15% of men and 11% of women regretted their decision and wished they had not separated (Wolcott and Hughes, 1999). Also, some 33% of men and 17% of women believed that if they had their time over, they may not have proceeded to separation. Relationship counselling has been found to be effective in certain circumstances.

Decreased couple conflict

Improved communication skills

Improved relationship knowledge

Agreed future pathway for relationship

As a result of the RRR

A brief and focused program that intervenes in the period when couples are confused or feeling ambivalent about the future of their relationship can assist them to determine whether their relationship requires defining, strengthening, or healing. Couples can be assisted to identify negative cycles and problematic issues, build skills for effective communication and conflict resolution, and shift their focus to what is working in the relationship. Alternatively, should a couple so decide, both parties can be supported on the pathway to separation.

Improved individual functioning

Improved family functioning

Improved family wellbeing Improved child wellbeing

Improved community connection

3-5 years later

More cohesive communities Increased economic engagement

5-10 years later

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Evaluation Methodology The RRR evaluation was led by Emeritus Professor Thea Brown from Monash University (Social Work Department) in partnership with the Family Life Research and Evaluation Unit. A mixed-method evaluation incorporating a follow-up component was utilised. Clients’ assessments and reports of their experiences of the program were gathered at several different points over a one-year period. The questions that the evaluation sought to answer were: 1.

What impact did the RRR program have for couples who were considering separation: on the couples’ relationship, on their family functioning (including any children), on their individual functioning, on their future action, and on their degree of agreement as to future action?

2. What other outcomes, if any, did the RRR program have? 3. Did demographic or any other factors influence the outcomes? Data for both process and outcome components was drawn from client and staff perspectives, agency data, and other stakeholder views. The evaluation proposal was submitted to the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee and was approved in November 2014.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

Data collection methods included: •

A pre and post questionnaire of program participants. The pre-survey was a hard copy questionnaire only and the post questionnaire included hard copy and online options for respondents to complete

• Telephone interviews with 20 individuals who were at varying stages of program completion • A focus group with the RRR counsellors to explore their views command and the processes and outcomes of the program The final evaluation report was completed in April 2016.


Reach of Program Overview of the numbers of clients in the pilot program

160

100

couples screened

88%

of individuals had children

20%

70%

of individuals were born in Australia

were in a de facto relationship and living with their partner

couples participated in program

47%

60%

were university were married educated and living with their partner

5%

were in a de facto relationship and separated from their partner

12%

were married and separated from their partner

3%

were in another relationship situation

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Outcome: Reduced couple conflict “It helped me by being able to use my voice about problems I see in the relationship” The issues couples explored in the sessions were much the same as they had nominated originally, indicating a strong continuity between the original issues of concern and the action taken. Most respondents (80%) felt that all issues were explored, but 20% thought there were further issues that needed exploration and which were not explored because of the number of sessions available or the length of sessions.

The majority of couples reported less conflict and/or being able to have difficult conversations during the RRR program.

“It helped me with my issues on anger and how my actions affect my partner” “We now treat each other with more respect” “It helped us by airing our issues and forcing discussions in a calm manner”

Significant issues impacting on couples that were explored during the RRR program sessions

80%

Not being able to talk together

51%

Not receiving enough attention from my partner

35%

How we divide household responsibilities

25%

63%

Growing apart

45%

Conflict over raising children

Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

22% 20%

Differences in our tastes and preferences

How my partner handles money

Alcohol or drug problems

23%

18%

17%

Infidelity

14

35%

My partner’s mental health issues

My partner’s personal habits

How we divide childcare responsibilities


Most Significant Change Vignette: Reduced couple conflict The couple • Married with two children • Live on a farm • Had been to couples counselling before • Blame and anger Mary and Bryan were clear at the onset of sessions that they did not wish to separate – but both felt unhappy about their relationship. Mary laid the blame for their problems solely onto Bryan. Mary treated Bryan like a child, and when confronted with issues, Bryan’s initial reaction was to lie to try and stop any conflict. Conflict styles were explored and Bryan realised he was a ‘teddy bear’ – highly relational and wanting to preserve harmony in the relationship. Because he wanted to avoid conflict, and did not like getting conflict out into the open, he would attempt to smooth over the conflict, or in his case, lie - just to make it all stop. Further exploration identified that Bryan had poor conflict management skills. When it was pointed out to Mary that when she treated Bryan like a child, she was adopting a mother/child scenario, she realised that she was contributing to their problems. Bryan identified that he needed to work on addressing conflict by problem solving with Mary, and talking openly and honestly. Mary realised that she was part of the problem and she stopped laying all of the blame of their problems on Bryan. The couple committed to attend ongoing individual counselling.

Reason this story was selected: Illustrates complex differences in conflict styles and how individuals can be supported to explore and reduce conflict in their relationship.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Outcome: Improved relationship knowledge “It forced us to take a really good and honest look at our relationship”

On average, individuals rated themselves moderately at the commencement of the program on these issues. Looking back, possibly as a result of what they learned and reflected on during the program, they rated themselves lower. On average individuals rated themselves highly at the end of the program.

“It made me realise how to make staying in the relationship work. Still a work in progress” Individuals were asked prior to their commencement in the program, how they would rate their understanding of the issues they were facing in their relationship and their ability to look at both views of problems. At the completion of the program, they were asked to think back to the start of the program and rate themselves again, as well as rate themselves now.

“My decision was to stay together and seek further help. My husband’s decision was to separate without seeking further help. It helped me clearly see that my husband was not willing to work on our relationship”

Understanding the issues you face in your relationship Individuals rated themselves from 1-10, where 1 = low and 10 = high. Aggregated average ratings below. (n = 107-170)

6.6 Before

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5.3 Looking back

Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

8

Now


Ability to look at both views of problems – yours and your partner’s Individuals rated themselves from 1-10, where 1 = low and 10 = high. Aggregated average ratings below. (n = 106-170)

6.5 Before

4.8 Looking back

7.9

Now

“It helped me realise that I want to stay in this relationship” “It didn’t help our relationship but it did help me better understand how relationships work and how to make relationships more successful in the future”

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Most Significant Change Vignette: Improved relationship knowledge The couple • Married for 8 years – two children • Husband travelled a lot with his work • Different upbringings • History of anxiety This couple presented with Nerida definitely leaning out of the relationship and Peter wanting to remain together. Nerida had low self-esteem and anxiety. Peter’s job required that he was often away, and his parents offered Nerida a lot of support through childcare in his absence. Nerida was very critical about Peter’s fathering – and constantly compared him to her friends’ husbands. Nerida said that she wished Peter enjoyed fatherhood more, and was more playful with their children. Nerida did not appear to appreciate that Peter was renovating their home himself, and wished that he spent more time with the children. Peter did enjoy being a father and especially showing their son how to build things. Peter was concerned about Nerida taking medication for her anxiety and wondered if she should stop the medication. Exploring families of origin revealed that Peter came from an intact nuclear family, while Nerida never had a relationship with her own father, and she said that her mother had ‘many’ boyfriends during her

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

childhood. Nerida was challenged to identify what a good father would look like, and she found this difficult without a strong father figure in her own life. Through the sessions Nerida learned that Peter showed his love for her through his loyalty and acts of service. Nerida’s low self-esteem was impacting on their relationship because of her criticism of Peter, and her constant need for affirmation and validation. Nerida decided to do some individual work with an individual counsellor. By gaining more respect for her own relationship and understanding that all relationships are unique, Nerida said that she no longer viewed their relationship through a negative lens. Reason this story was selected:

Illustrates how individuals can be supported to reflect on their own experiences and perspectives, and the impact of these on others, to improve the health of the relationship with their partner.


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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Outcome: Improved communication skills “Bridging a gap in communication and understanding. Greater awareness of partner’s inner feelings and attitude to undisclosed feelings” Couples reported that the program was made available to them at a critical time when their relationship was in serious difficulty. They reported that they had been given clarity about the issues they faced and had been assisted in deciding which were the most urgent issues to be worked on, that is setting a priority for action on issues. Women appeared to find this work easier than the men. A number of men commented that they did not have the language to express themselves and the counsellor helped with this. One man said, “she gave me the words to decide what the most urgent issues were that they should work on, and in setting priorities for action”. His account suggested the words were about more than this; it was about his understanding of a male partner’s role in a relationship and in the family. Men commented that they changed as a result of the program – “I got to change and I got better”. While women did not comment on having difficulty expressing themselves, they did say they learned how to carry out a more successful partnership; one women expressed it as, “I learned we had to have more respect for each other”.

“It helped us with communication and direction”

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

“It helped me understand my wife/ partner at a communication level, [her] cultural views, and [I] learn[ed] to listen to hear words” “It gave me another perspective. Lots of deep conversation and questions. Lots more thought provoking things I never thought about before”


Most Significant Change Vignette: Improved communication skills The couple • Married with one child • Husband had been unfaithful • Health issues • Poor communication JT and Laura were both very polite and soft spoken during sessions. It became apparent that they had never fully explored or addressed JT’s infidelity. Laura was suffering from a medical condition and was often in pain. JT felt powerless to know how to help her. JT described his father as being ‘remote’ and difficult to talk to. Within an individual session, Laura said that she felt that JT was like his father, and didn’t like to open up about his feelings. Laura made many assumptions about her relationship with JT, and she began to realise that she should not assume she knew what he was thinking but should ask. Although Laura thought she was a good communicator, she didn’t ask open ended questions to encourage open discussion. Laura also revealed that she was fearful of what he might say – because she didn’t want to get hurt again. Within sessions, Laura realised that in order to improve communication, she would need to ask clear open ended questions, and not skirt around issues. JT was encouraged to be a better listener, and not offer advice, but rather acknowledge Laura’s thoughts and feelings. The couple felt that they would need to work on their communication, to develop deeper emotional intimacy. They decided to continue with couples counselling.

Reason this story was selected:

Illustrates how poor communication can impact on a relationship and how individuals can be supported with skills and strategies to improve their communication with their partner.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Outcome: Mutually agreed future pathway for relationship “Helped us to conclude we do want to stay together and hope given that there are tools to help us resolve some of our differences”

On average, individuals rated themselves moderately at the commencement of the program on these issues. Looking back, possibly as a result of what they learned and reflected on during the program, they rated themselves lower. On average individuals rated themselves highly at the end of the program.

Individuals were asked prior to their commencement in the program, how they would rate their understanding of the future options available to them in their relationship, their clarity about the direction they should take in their relationship, and their confidence to make decisions about their relationship. At the completion of the program, they were asked to think back to the start of the program and rate themselves again, as well as rate themselves now.

“The timing was perfect in making a decision on the importance to end our marriage” “Separation was my worst fear but I realise its best for the children and tha we need to put them first”

Confidence to make decisions about your relationship Individuals rated themselves from 1-10, where 1 = low and 10 = high. Aggregated average ratings below. (n = 106-170)

5.7

22

Before

4.3 Looking back

Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

7.6

Now


Understanding the future options available to you in your relationship Individuals rated themselves from 1-10, where 1 = low and 10 = high. Aggregated average ratings below. (n = 106-170)

6.6 Before

5.3 Looking back

8

Now

Clarity about the direction you should take in your relationship Individuals rated themselves from 1-10, where 1 = low and 10 = high. Aggregated average ratings below. (n = 105-170)

5.6 Before

4.3 Looking back

7.9

Now

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


At the start of program:

At the end of the program:

6%

85%

were leaning out of the relationship

52%

were ambivalent about the relationship

42%

were leaning in to the relationship n = 170

“We were considering breaking up before the program but are now looking at repairing our relationship and staying together” “It got us talking and understanding”

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

came to a conclusion regarding next steps in relationship and of these

17%

60%

stayed together without seeking further help

stayed together and seek further help

separate without seeking further help

separate and seek further help

9%

n = 95

14%


Most Significant Change Vignette: Mutually agreed future pathway for relationship The couple • De facto relationship for 5 years • Online gaming addiction - him • Chronic health issues – her • Differences on starting a family • Lack of common interests

together. The couple did decide to separate, as they both understood that their relationship was no longer satisfying. Although Sarah was very disappointed, they were able to sort out the timing of living separately and separating finances without animosity.

Corey and Sarah had been through a lot of issues over their five years. Sarah had been unemployed for over two years after a work cover claim, which left her with PTSD and depression. Corey had become addicted to online gaming, which Sarah resented and felt that their lives revolved around his game time. Sarah also believed that Corey lied to her about the amount of time spent gaming, and was distrustful of him. She felt that he no longer saw her as a priority. The couple were no longer physically intimate. In separate sessions, Corey revealed that he no longer was in love with Sarah, and did not see a future with her – but he did not wish to hurt her, and he was concerned that she would be very vulnerable, given her prior mental health issues. Sarah felt that she didn’t have the energy to ‘start over’ in another relationship, and felt angry that Corey had changed his mind about having a family. Over 5 sessions, the couple realised that they were more like roommates than partners, and Corey did reveal to Sarah that he did not wish to remain

Reason this story was selected:

Demonstrates the complexity of issues that some couples face and how, if so decided, that a couple can amicably separate once the decision has been made.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Conclusion The Relationship Review and Renew Program had a clear impact on the couples’ decision making in regard to the future of their partnership, on their partnership functioning, and on individual functioning. Most respondents (60%) decided to stay together and to seek further help, and a smaller number (18%) decided to stay together and not seek further help. Thus 78% decided to recommit. Some 13% decided they would separate and seek further help, and some 9% decided to separate without seeking further help. Thus 22% decided to separate. When the views of the respondents at the start of the program were compared with their views at the end, the comparison suggested almost all of those who were ambivalent decided to stay in the partnership, those who had not wanted to stay in the partnership remained in this position and were joined by a half of those who would stay only if the partner changed. This contrasts with only 47% of the couples in the USA Couples on the Brink program deciding to recommit. Of the respondents who decided they would seek further help, either to stay in the relationship or separate, some 70% decided they would like couples counselling. At the same time, 55% thought they would require individual counselling. Very few (5%) wanted to seek legal help or family dispute resolution help. The telephone interviews suggested that couples did follow up their intentions with subsequent counselling.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report

Those who decided to maintain their relationship did not report any disagreements with their partner on this matter. While they may have not been in agreement at the outset of the program, they moved to agreement during the program. Thus some 78% achieved agreement even though many had not been in agreement at the start. When respondents decided to separate they indicated ultimate agreement on this decision, although this may not have been their view when commencing the program. The program did not appear to impact on children directly, in that few respondents talked about their children or about parenting problems, except in the context of mental illness. Nevertheless, the program did impact children indirectly. Some 90% of the couples had children. As the program did strengthen the partnerships that continued, and those that did not, by working on the issues of the partnership and on the individuals within it, the improvements for partners were likely to bring benefits to the children. This was especially so in light of the partners speaking so frequently of the crisis point they believed the family had reached prior to joining the program. The study showed that the model as adapted by Family Life was an effective model in early intervention into partnership problems, whether the partnership was teetering on the brink of collapse or whether it was in less serious difficulty.


Brown, T., (2016). The Family Life Relationship Review and Renew Program, 2014-2016: An Evaluation. Melbourne: Monash University.

Wilde, J.L., & Doherty, W.J. (2013). Outcomes of an intensive couple relationship education program with fragile families. Family Process, 52, 455-464.

Doherty, W. J., Willoughby, B. J., & Peterson, B. (2011). Interest in reconciliation among divorcing parents. Family Court Review, 49, 313-321. Non-technical summary and update published in Family Law Forum, 19, 48-52.

Wolcott, I., & Hughes, J. (1999). Towards understanding the reasons for divorce (Working Paper No. 20). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report


Family Life is an independent, entrepreneurial community agency, working with vulnerable families, children and young people.

info@familylife.com.au

www.familylife.com.au Family Life Limited ABN: 37 712 782 209 ACN: 606 542 590 Copyright Š Family Life 2016

Family Life Relationship Review and Renew Pilot Program Performance Story Report  

Family Life's evaluation report of the Relationship Review and Renew Pilot.

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