The "secret society" that saves marriages

Anonymous as secret agents, the one thousand unpaid counselors of Britain’s National Marriage Guidance Council have a solid record of pulling marriages back from the brink of divorce, How do they do it? Strangely enough, by rarely doing anything

McKENZIE PORTER November 21 1959

The "secret society" that saves marriages

Anonymous as secret agents, the one thousand unpaid counselors of Britain’s National Marriage Guidance Council have a solid record of pulling marriages back from the brink of divorce, How do they do it? Strangely enough, by rarely doing anything

McKENZIE PORTER November 21 1959

The "secret society" that saves marriages

Anonymous as secret agents, the one thousand unpaid counselors of Britain’s National Marriage Guidance Council have a solid record of pulling marriages back from the brink of divorce, How do they do it? Strangely enough, by rarely doing anything


FOR EVERY hundred marriages that end in the divorce courts of Great Britain sixteen are rescued from disaster by a shoestring organization that operates as secretly as an intelligence agency. Its name is the National Marriage Guidance Council. While it cuts the prevailing divorce rate by sixteen percent it costs the U. K. government only one percent of the money spent on subsidized divorces for needy petitioners. Recently Viscount Kilmuir, Britain’s Lord Chancellor, described NMGC’s influence as “immensely important.” Three of the society’s booklets on the subject of happy wedlock are best sellers. Every week thousands of engaged couples take NMGC lectures on the sexual, financial, spiritual and psychological aspects of successful matrimony.

NMGC counselors — the one thousand happily married men and women who dedicate their spare time to bettering the un-

happy marriages of others — have been disparaged in press and parliament as “snoopers,” “humbugs” and “quacks.” Two years ago, however, The Times said that they are “more rigorously selected and trained than any other unpaid welfare workers in the world.”

A. Joseph Brayshaw, a middle-aged Quaker who gave up a prosperous engineering business to become general secretary of the NMGC, calls the counselors “a band of intimate strangers.” Much of their success as peacemakers lies in their ability to listen silently as distressed husbands and wives pour out their woes, or “get it off their chests.”

Unlike many do-gooders the counselors never enjoy public recognition while serving. It is to protect the problems of their clients from exposure by association that they operate so anonymously and inconspicuously.

Five years ago an NMGC woman counselor was called as a witness in a Midlands divorce court. A lawyer wanted her to admit that one of her clients had confessed, during a marriage-guidance interview, to adultery. The counselor answered the subpoena with a packed bag. She was prepared to go to prison for contempt of court rather than betray the confidences of her client. A sympathetic judge excused her from testifying.

Such courage is only one of many virtues required by NMGC counselors. Their duties are so exacting that more than forty percent of those who volunteer for the job are rejected after two days of examination.

Most of the people w'ho seek the help of the marriage counselors are sent by doctors, lawyers, clergymen and police officers. They come from all groups except the very rich. who. according to NMGC. “shrink from wei-

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“The biggest singie threat to marriage is personal defect — jealousy, nagging, gambling, drinking“

fare agencies,” and the very poor who “traditionally keep their troubles to themselves.”

A statistical analysis of the council’s accomplishments, published last year by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, shows that counselors are now attempting to repair twelve thousand unhappy marriages annually. In thirty-three percent of the cases they fail. In twenty-six percent the outcome is unknown. But in forty-one percent the couples are substantially helped in surmounting their problems or in learning to live with them.”

While far from sensational, the figures, by normal social science criteria, are impressive, especially for an outfit that must count its pennies. NMGC depends on private donations and bequests and on grants from municipal councils and the national government. Its income totals less than sixty thousand dollars annually. Last year NMGC’s biggest single grant was thirty thousand dollars from the U. K. government, or one hundredth of the three million dollars the same government spent on subsidized divorces. NMGC funds are sufficient to pay only half a dozen full - time staff members who work in the pokey, shabby headquarters on Duke Street, Mayfair, a once fashionable but now rapidly declining residential district of London. Ninety NMGC branches throughout the British Isles are manned by volunteers.

Their policy is to reduce the social pressures which are responsible in the U. K. today for thirty thousand divorces a year, or four times the 1939 rate. Each year one in every sixteen hundred Britons gets divorced. In Canada the rate is one in every three thousand.

The NMGC deplores particularly the sense of insecurity implanted in the children affected and adds that “the relationship between the divorce rate and juvenile delinquency is unquestionable.” More British children now lose their homes through divorce than through the death of either parent.

"High divorce rates,” says secretarygeneral Brayshaw, “are not so much an indication of declining morals as a reflection of the social upheaval that followed female emancipation. Equality of pay and rights have placed men and women in relationships that differ radically from those of Edwardian days while moral principles remain largely unchanged. Emotionally we have not yet fully adapted ourselves to the new position of women and the resulting confusion is at the root of many marital troubles.”

Brayshaw says that a simple illustration of his point is the anticipation by most modern brides of sexual satisfaction as a matter of right, a sentiment unheard of fifty years ago and a situa-


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tion to which many modern grooms are not yet adjusted.

Sex, however, is only the second major factor in marital rifts. According to the Carnegie analysis the biggest single threat to wedlock is a personal defect

in one or both partners. Personal defects, which include dullness, jealousy, anger, nagging, gambling, drinking, violence and infidelity, account for forty percent of all cases handled. Sexual dissatisfactions bring only seventeen percent

of the cases to NMGC’s doors. The remaining factors leading to broken homes are, in order of importance: ill-health, mental or physical (eleven percent); parental influence (ten); bad living conditions (nine); incompatibility of tern-

pcrament (eight); involuntary separation by military service or out-of-town work (three); and insufficient income (two).

The relationship between social backgrounds and the major marriage problems indicate that high and low income groups have some failings in common. Personal defects, especially infidelity, are more marked at the two extremes of the income scale than in the middle. On the other hand the middle income groups, especially couples with good education, encounter more sexual problems than the other two. This is truer among religious couples than among those without a creed. Within the religious groups Catholics are the least afllicted by sex problems, Anglicans the next least, and NonConformists the most.

Age also affects the graphs of matrimonial discord. Living conditions, parental influence and sex difficulties are more marked among the recently married. Those who have been married longer than fifteen years show the highest incidence of infidelity.

Every case different

Large families, understandably enough, top the list in insufficient income cases but the presence of many children in the home has compensations. Couples with four or more children have the lowest sex difficulty rate and the lowest personal defect rate. Childless couples are by far the most heavily cursed with sex difficulties but they have one of the lowest rates of personal defects.

From these broad outlines of marital strife the counselors derive much wisdom. “But.” says NMGC training officer J. H. Wallis, “there’s no such thing as a typical case. Every counselor must approach each case with an open mind.”

The volunteer counselors are rarely less than thirty-five and rarely more than fifty years old. All must be happily married since clients would hesitate to accept help from single persons.

One of the counselor selectors is Mrs. Fred L. Attenborough, mother of British movie star Richard Attenborough and wife of a retired university professor. “Generally speaking,” she says, "coun-

selors are people who’ve done fairly well in life and have a little spare time because their children are growing up. They must be agreeable, good humored, sympathetic, broadminded and able to understand other people's problems without getting emotionally involved in them. Above all they must be imbued with a genuine desire to serve and with an unshakeable conviction in the spiritual, emotional and physical harmony of married life as a basis for a sound society.”

From the moment they are first recommended for the job the counselors enter a sort of underground movement. The candidates gather, in groups of fifteen, at periodic two-day residential selection conferences in university hostels, diocesan retreat houses, and adult education centres. Residential life, plus organized discussion, give the five selectors, one of whom is always a professional psychiatrist, a good insight into their characters.

One organized discussion revolves around a fictitious family argument between two parents and an uncle about what form of higher education an adolescent son and daughter should follow. In proposing possible solutions and reacting to other possible solutions the candidates reveal much about their own personalities to the selectors. During the selection conference each candidate is interviewed privately by each selector and assessed according to the known average capacity of counselors already in service. They are marked as well above average, above average, average, below average and fail. The forty percent who fail are sometimes mollified with the offer of work in the administrative divisions of NMGC.

The successful candidates undergo twelve months of training. This includes weekly discussions based upon acted tape-recorded interviews. The acted interviews are made by one counselor who plays himself and another who plays a client. The fictitious client, a counselor with a known talent for acting, impersonates the character and voices the problems of actual clients he’s encountered. Tape recordings of genuine interviews are never made as these might

“The counselor turns himself into a receptacle for grief; the client gets it off his chest“

betray the identity of the client, especially in small communities.

In addition to the clinical case discussions, counselors-in-training attend four two-day residential courses at which they take lectures in Development of the Personality, Sociology and the Social Services, the Physiology of Sex, Legal Aspects of Marriage Guidance. Psychiatry and Counseling, and Ethical and Spiritual Aspects of Marriage Guidance.

They then become serving counselors with the following injunctions: never

reveal the name of a client even to another NMGC official; never give up a case-history notebook to anybody; never give your name to the press: and never discuss the nature of your work with anybody outside your immediate family.

If the names and activities ot counselors were well-known in their communities clients would hesitate to approach them, or to be seen in their company, lest family secrets should be exposed to neighbors. For this reason counselors visit clients’ homes only in cases of extreme emergency. They know that neighbors, peeking through the curtains, would soon distinguish them from regular callers and set up a chain of inquisitive gossip that might lead to a public revelation of the trouble.

Although clients are sometimes interviewed on a park bench, in a quiet tea room, on top of a bus or in a friendly pub, most of them tell their troubles in NMGC clinics. The clinics are always in obscure buildings housing the offices of diverse small tenants. If a client is spotted by a neighbor in the act of leaving the building he might have been on any one of many mundane errands and little curiosity is aroused.

They even bring dogs

At the clinic in the London headquarters of NMGC and in the ninety provincial branches troubled husbands and wives are directed to a suitable counselor. Generally speaking, though not always, they are directed to a counselor of the same sex. The waiting counselors, who give up at least one afternoon and one evening to the work every week, never know' what to expect next. Clients may be furious, sullen, frightened, shy. boastful, argumentative or indifferent. Occasionally a client turns up with a dog, a child, a parent or a neighbor who is all loo ready to “corroborate” the complaint. Husbands and wives often arrive together and in front of the counselor resume the quarrel which brought them. Once an entire family of six turned up, plus an uncle, a caged parrot, a cat and a village policeman who'd been dragged into an enormously confused domestic donnybrook.

Wives complain of husbands boasting in their presence of mistresses; siding with in-laws against them; belittling their own children in company; ridiculing the w-ife’s taste in dress; denouncing the wife’s cooking; and a thousand other minor cruelties which add up in total to an intolerable existence. Husbands complain of wives who sulk all night because they are five minutes late getting home; w'ho fly into a fury at the sight of a long hair on their lapel; who begrudge them the price of a nightly pint at the local pub; and who accompany them to parties sloppily dressed.

The duplicity of one woman almost led to a divorce. She quarreled furiously with her husband because she didn’t

w’ant him to buy a house he desired. An NMGC counselor listened to her angry denunciations of the house’s age. shape, plumbing style and price. A few slips of the tongue revealed the real reasons for the woman’s objections. “Could it be.” said the counselor gently, “that you don’t want this house because it will mean living too far away from your parents?" The client was stmined by

the counselor’s perspicacity and admitted that she hadn't wished to give her true reasons for fear of precipitating an even worse quarrel. The counselor said: "Do you think your husband would be better pleased if you were frank with him?" That counselor brought about a successful outcome.

The interrogatory manner is an important part of the counselor's strategy.

A courteous “Yes?" or "Would you care to tell me a bit about yourself?" usually sets the client talking. The counselor speaks only to stimulate the flow of information. He turns himself into a receptacle for grief and affords the client that sense of relief and relaxation that follows "getting it off his chest.” At this point the client usually says: "Well, what are you going to do?" Counselors, how-

ever, rarely do anything. They ask questions and nod sympathetically. I'hcy never say "Tut, tut." If the client shocks or offends them they disguise their feelings. Eventually, if they are skilful, they convince the client that he is in the presence of an intimate, sympathetic stranger who secs the case from a detached point of view and can help him.

When he has pieced together the picture of the basic trouble the counselor makes hints, or drops suggestions, or makes vague allusions as to how other people have overcome similar problems.

His aim is to impress upon the client that domestic troubles are rarely onesided and that the complainant might well be partly responsible for them. He may end up by saying: "Do you feel this is all quite hopeless and that there is nothing else you can do about it?" Then the counselor tries to get the client to take action himself.

"The point,” says NMGC training officer J. H. Wallis, “is to bring clients face to face with facts from which they might have been blinded by emotion, to make clients understand the reasons behind

their trouble. When these reasons are fully understood clients often are able to help themselves.”

The most commonly cured cases are sex problems. In discussing them counselors use plain words. Dr. Elizabeth West, an NMGC consultant on psychological problems, says: “Many books on sex do more harm than good because they are couched in a cold scientific style that is alien to reality.” She believes that sex problems stem from a sense of shame induced in the client during childhood by prudish parents.

No matter how hopeless the case, counselors never recommend divorce. When clients ask them to help them get a divorce counselors reply: “I’m not here for that purpose. If you are determined to get a divorce you’ll have to find a lawyer.”

When counselors find cases beyond their own competence, separation or divorce is not inevitable. Behind NMGC stands four advisory boards—legal, educational. medical and ecclesiastical. Each offers to clients the services of distinguished lawyers, professors, psychiatrists, doctors and clergymen for specialized consultation. A lawyer might help them to get legal restraints imposed on interfering in-laws; a professor might help settle an argument about the children's schooling; a clergyman might help clients to see that spiritual attitudes are inseparable from happy marriage. Doctors and psychiatrists attend to physical and mental ailments which many clients do not wish to take to their family physician.

NMGC also offers further practical help in a wide range of books and pamphlets dealing with sexual techniques, childbirth, contraception, baby care, the menopause, cooking, domestic economy, entertaining, and personal health and hygiene. Two of its recent booklets, one on domestic budgeting and the other on how to arrange a wedding, became, at thirty cents each, national best sellers.

Throughout the country NMGC also organizes weekly discussion groups for engaged couples and encourages them to lie frank about the problems that worry them most. “Eventually,” says Brayshaw, “this preventive program may become bigger than our remedial program.”

The remedial program began in 1938 under the auspices of a special committee set up by the British Social Hygiene Council. Later the committee became the independent NMGC. The war hampered NMGC’s progress but by 1946 branches had been established in every major U. K. city. In that year NMGC published its first pamphlet. “Sex In Marriage,” and sold over a hundred and seventy-five thousand copies. One thousand letters a week from spouses seeking help began pouring into the Mayfair headquarters. Radio and press comments, both favorable and hostile, focused national attention on the movement and rallied supporters. Branches sprang up in many smaller towns. Every year their number increases.

Today the National Marriage Guidance Council of Great Britain leads the world in this form of social service. "1 don’t think it will be long," says general secretary Brayshaw, "before a similar movement gets going in Canada.” ★