‘There is no perfect couple or relationship because there are no perfect people.”
This is one of relationship counsellor Tony Moore’s key messages to couples who come through the doors of Relationships Ireland for an “NCT” to review and reassess their relationship.
“We emphasise that this is not counselling and that’s why we call it a health check or an NCT,” says Moore.
“People who come for the health check have a good relationship and they have just hit this sort of wall . . . and that is often associated with children, work and money.”
Many couples – married and those in long-term relationships – are now choosing to take time out to invest in their relationships, while those experiencing problems are seeking to address them before they become major difficulties, he says.
Relationships Ireland has seen an increase in demand for its relationship “health check” service over the past four years.
Moore says a lot of couples who come for this service are in their 30s or early 40s, have been together for more than five years and are encountering a lot of change in their lives which they can find difficult to deal with. These can include job promotion or relocation due to work, children and ageing parents.
Others have moved in together or married in the past few years and simply want to take the time to reflect on their relationship.
“We would find that about 70-80 per cent of things are going very well, but there may be one or two issues,” says the relationships counsellor.
“They say ‘we get on really, really well . . . but we may have an issue in managing our finances’ or something like that or ‘our sex life seems to have gone off the boil a bit’.”
Sex can be an issue for people because, according to Moore, “the inference out there is if you’re not at it like rabbits, there is something wrong with you. And nothing could be further from the truth.
“Money is a major issue. They will come along and say everything is really great, but we can’t seem to agree or talk about money issues without it spinning out of control.”
Loss of focus
For Moore, it is important to take the chance to look at what is working in the relationship. “We forget and we lose focus about what’s good about being together,” he says. “It is also about helping this couple speak together, listen to each other and really see that what they are experiencing is normal . . . that they are not in any way unusual . . . that they are not doing anything particularly wrong. It is just often a stage in their life.”
Too often couples are striving for the “perfect” marriage or “perfect family”, he says. “Everyone wants perfection because that is what is portrayed out there. I can only repeat what I say ad nauseam to people; ‘Don’t be so hard on yourselves, be kind to each other and give each other a break . . . None of us is perfect . . and we get it wrong.”
Catholic organisation Marriage Encounter Ireland runs weekend sessions for married couples who want to take time out to "reconnect and to enrich their relationship".
The residential weekend, which begins on a Friday evening and finishes on a Sunday, is facilitated by three married couples and a priest and consists of a series of presentations about different aspects of relationships, from listening to prioritising your relationship, with the presenting couples sharing their own experiences with the group.
Couples intermittently work independently to address the subjects discussed by writing a “love letter” to their spouse, before allowing their other half read what they have written and discussing in a process known as “dialoguing”.
The weekend has a Catholic ethos, but is open to people of all faiths and none.
"The aim is to provide a positive and thought-provoking experience [and to] help the relationship to grow by helping you and your spouse to communicate better and to listen more deeply and effectively to each other," says Rose Curtin, from Kildorrery, Co Cork, who is a facilitator, along with her husband, Michael.
“We often take the time off to go on courses to enhance our capabilities at work or to better enjoy our leisure time . . . so why not [take] a refresher course that helps to do just that for your marriage and enhances your enjoyment of being together?”
Curtin stresses that the weekend is not for those who are having relationship difficulties. “The couples who come on our weekend are happily married couples [experiencing] the usual ups and downs of everyday life.”
They come because they feel “they are just floating along in parallel worlds”.
"They are talking about the weather, what's on Prime Time, how the kids are doing in school, but they are talking about nothing deep or personal. It can so easily happen."
Fiona and Ted Mahon from Clonsilla, in Dublin, who married in Italy in 2012, attended a Marriage Encounter weekend in Killarney last November after Fiona heard about it through a friend.
While the couple are happily married and spend plenty of time together, they both felt that taking time out to do the weekend and to focus on their relationship would be of benefit.
For primary school teacher Fiona, it was dialoguing that proved most valuable. Couples are given a book with about 90 questions to help them continue the dialogue after the weekend. The couple say they now set 15 minutes aside a few times a week to do this.
“It’s a forum for you to share and to be honest and to be totally exposed to your spouse,” says Ted. “If something comes up that you just want to talk about, it’s an open forum. It’s something we hadn’t ever done before and we are doing it and it’s definitely a positive,” he says.
“If you are doing the regular communication piece, you are not going to have the blow-up row or you’ll try not to be sharp with each other. It’s all about trying to be a better you.”