via stuff : It’s the phrase beloved of agony aunts for every warring couple – “counselling would be helpful”.
The assumption is that anyone on the brink of divorce would benefit from sitting down together for a few sessions with a wise third party; someone who can make sense of dissent, and encourage two furious, hurt people to listen to each other. But does it always help?
There are currently an estimated three million people in the UK whose marriages are struggling. It’s estimated that a significant 18 per cent are in “distressed” relationships, while a recent survey by Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care found that the greatest problems were financial difficulties (26 per cent), lack of understanding (20 per cent) and differing libido (19 per cent).
A few years ago, suffering from all of the above, I went for counselling with my then-husband. We paid to go privately, to escape the enormous waiting lists – at that stage, we were openly hopeful that our floundering relationship of 10 years could be righted by a kindly stranger.
Secretly, I imagined she’d agree that I was right, and explain to Mark, my husband, why he was wrong. Mark almost certainly assumed she’d agree that he was right.
We were fighting constantly about money, and who was more exhausted. A wall of resentment had sprung up – I didn’t want to sleep with him anymore because I didn’t feel loving, and he thought my reluctance was “cold and punishing”. The idea that a couple of counselling sessions could sort out our long stand-off was, at best, hopeful.
He was initially reluctant to go at all, seeing intervention as “failure”, but I persuaded him. The first session with Angela was spent with me slumped on the sofa like an angry teenager, while Mark sat, alert and eager, in the armchair, answering all Angela’s questions like a good boy.
“And how do you feel about Emma’s anger, Mark?” she’d ask, and he’d look sorrowful and say: “I just feel so sad. I still love her.”
This was news to me – and all it did was intensify my rage at him currying favour with the counsellor. I didn’t feel I could tell the truth because Angela was nodding along with him so sorrowfully. I muttered that I was tired of always being “bad cop”, and she said: “Do you think there’s any part of you that enjoys that feeling?”
By the end, I was ready to leave them to it. We attended a couple more times, but my feeling of raging triumph when Angela said, “Let her finish, Mark”, was not a good sign that love remained. We broke up soon afterwards, and five years on, are both now much happier with other people.
Clearly, we had left counselling too late – we were already on the verge of a split, and talking to someone else only clarified our positions. But if marital difficulties are caught in time, thinks David James Lees, a relationship and couples therapist, there’s a good chance the relationship can be saved.
“In my experience, talking therapy can be highly effective in rescuing and resurrecting long-term relationships,” he says. “Over 60 per cent of the couples I’ve supported end up staying together. The process is about coming together and learning to co-operate, not compromise.”
Talking to a trained third party can, he says, “unlock the rigid and inflexible mindset that each partner may have. It facilitates a discussion that can remind partners of the positive reasons they first came together.”
Getting to the root of resentment is key, says Lees. “My mantra is ‘You can’t change what you don’t understand’, and the counselling process helps the couple unpick the origins of their problems. It then gives them the tools to build a new relationship.”
But when a bomb has exploded in the marriage – such as an affair – can discussion really cure the pain? A report from the Institute for Family Studies found that over-55s are more likely to have affairs, with 20 per cent admitting they or their partner had strayed, while the divorce rate for this age group has rocketed. Counselling can help, under any circumstances, but both partners have to be committed, says Lees.
“Without the full commitment of both, the relationship will fade and die, no matter how determined and positively committed one partner may be,” he says.
Jo Nicholl, a couples counsellor of 25 years, says: “It is very hard to know if a divorce is inevitable. Counselling offers the couple a chance to look at what has happened to their relationship and the reasons it has spiralled into crisis. Looking at the relationship through a different lens can enable the couple to move beyond issues that seemed terminal.”
Understanding the patterns that you’re stuck in – in my case, the blame-resentment, bad-cop-good-cop cycle – can be transforming, says Nicholl, as long as you still care enough to try to change.
“Couples in therapy learn about each other’s vulnerabilities and how to take responsibility for their part,” she explains. “Making unconscious behaviour conscious can be transformational to the relationship.”
David James Lees agrees that most couples are ready to agree on the issues that need to be addressed with four to six sessions, but some attend for much longer. In the case of couples who have genuinely decided they can’t limp on together, counselling can also mean the difference between a protracted, acrimonious divorce and a relatively smooth split.
“I am a strong supporter of professional help for couples going through relationship breakdown,” says family lawyer Marilyn Stowe.
“Being able to talk to a third party and be helped to either save a marriage or come to terms with what is happening is invaluable in my experience as a practitioner,” she adds. “It helps lead to clearer commercial decisions, saves on emotional trauma and cuts costs and time in a legal system which is still adversarial.”
The key to successful counselling is, it seems, for both parties to engage willingly – and to start in time. A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that couples are only half as likely to seek counselling if they are no longer living together.
In retrospect, I don’t know if my marriage would have survived if we’d identified the problems earlier and sought help – but I suspect it would have had a fighting chance.
HOW TO GET THE MOST FROM COUNSELLING
1. GO EARLY
The first signs of trouble are when counselling should begin, not after the trial separation. That way, you can quickly uncover resentment and unhappiness, before it takes hold.
2. BE WILLING TO LISTEN
Going with an agenda, particularly one involving “persuading” the counsellor to take your side, is unhelpful. They are trained to listen and ask questions, not to take sides.
3. GO WILLINGLY
If you’re only going resentfully, because your partner insists, you won’t get much from it. Be open minded about what you might gain – at the very least, a greater understanding of yourself and what you need.
4. BE HONEST
Lying to impress the counsellor, or agreeing with him/her purely to get “Brownie points” is utterly pointless, and will only serve to deepen the rifts. Be truthful, but don’t be deliberately hurtful.
5. GO FOR AS LONG AS YOU NEED
While some couples feel ready to move on in six sessions, others take longer – and some may only need a couple. Everyone’s issues are different, so avoid preconceived ideas of how long it takes to “sort things out”.