“We were together, but not together. We weren’t communicating. We weren’t spending any time together. We were resentful,” says Cathy of the rocky period in her marriage four years ago that finally drove her to broach the subject of couples counselling with her husband, Seán.
In the years leading up to the crisis, Seán says, “we literally fell from such a big height. We had been through bereavement, redundancies, IVF, miscarriages, before we finally had our kids, who were still babies. We were in trouble with the bank over our home. I knew something had to be done.”
His attitude was: “You’ve taken everything else from me. I’m not going to let you take my marriage.”
Conflict over money, parenting and infidelity are common reasons to seek counselling. “And then there are people who have just fallen out of love,” says counsellor Tony Moore.
In the first six months of 2016, 60 per cent of couples who came to Accord for counselling rated not listening and ignoring as a significant problem
Overall, communication is the single biggest issue, says Mary Johnston, a specialist in counselling at Accord, a Catholic marriage care service, which provided over 30,000 counselling sessions to couples last year.
“In the first six months of 2016, 60 per cent of couples who came to Accord for counselling rated not listening and ignoring as a significant problem in their relationship, and 54 per cent rated conflict as a significant problem,” she says.
Psychotherapist Helen Vaughan, who runs Maynooth Counselling in Co Kildare, says “how to communicate well” is one of the key skills she teaches couples. “You get each person to reflect back what the other said through ‘active listening’. Learning to communicate is the key.”
Cathy and Seán were among the lucky ones: they made life changes, went to counselling individually and together, and ultimately stayed married.
One frequently cited statistic says that 38 per cent of couples who embark on counselling are divorced four years later. But that's from a 1991 report – a more recent 2012 study from the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that "couple therapy positively impacts 70 per cent of couples".
Be clear about what you want to achieve and that you're attending in good faith
The success rate depends on many factors, say counsellors: the couple themselves, the counsellor, the problems they’re facing, the timing, the kind of counselling they undergo. One other important factor is the relationship between the counsellor and the couple, says Moore, who is based in Co Laois.
“I emphasise that I do not contact anybody outside the session, and I don’t take sides. That’s often a client’s biggest fear.”
Mary Johnston of Accord adds that a successful counselling experience “is where both partners feel safe, listened to and respected and where they each get a chance to express their feelings and views in a confidential setting”.
How should couples approach counselling? “Remember, the work you do between sessions is more important than the work you do in session. Be clear about what you want to achieve and that you’re attending in good faith,” says Moore.
Helen Vaughan asks her new clients to answer a number of questions during the first session, including: Do you want the relationship to work or to end? What do you think is unsatisfactory or good about the relationship now? Whose behaviour can you control or change?
For Luke, who attended counselling with his now-wife Danielle before getting married, deciding whether or not counselling is worth the expense (a session can cost €70 to €80) is about priorities. “We couldn’t really afford it, but we couldn’t afford not to.”
Here, two couples and two individuals share their perspectives on couples counselling. Names have been changed.
Cathy and Seán underwent marriage counselling in 2013, after a period of financial and personal strain. Four years later, their marriage is stronger than ever
The lead up: "We were married nine or 10 years by then. We had two very small children – one very planned and one, a year later, very unplanned. We had to have IVF to have our first child, which had taken a toll on us. I got postnatal depression, and suddenly I was pregnant again. It was a happy shock, but financially, it was very tough going. I ended up having to work part-time within four weeks of having the baby."
The decision: "I was the first to bring up separation. I'd had enough. The babies are looking for you 24/7, the bank is looking for you 24/7, and I just wanted a break. He was shocked when I said it. I didn't want to split up, but I couldn't see any other way. I felt like I needed a referee because I was in the right, so I suggested counselling."
The first session: "I remember feeling so fed up, but that we had nothing to lose. I remember walking into a church building and feeling very uncomfortable about that. I had a feeling that I knew what they were going to expect – I thought they were going to be very conservative, and that we couldn't talk about sex."
Subsequent sessions: "She was lovely, a genuinely nice person who cared about what she did. Every session would start with something like 'How have we been?' and my husband would generally be very silent. Eventually he might get coaxed to say something. After nine or 10 visits, it got to the point where instead of arguing about something, we'd wait until we got to the counsellor to talk about it calmly and respectfully. We had to learn to talk to each other once again and remember that we were friends before we ever got together."
The outcome: "We stayed together, and we ended up moving not long after it. Things got worse financially before they got better, but the initial counselling had set us up somewhat to be prepared for the storm that came. The counselling was a help but at the end of the day, that's all it ever can be. The only person who can help you is you."
The lead up: "A lot of it was on me. There was a lot of things going on, and I wasn't handling it well. I'd lost two close family members and then I was made redundant, went back to college, and was made redundant again. And Cathy was dealing with the miscarriages."
The decision: "I knew I was going to lose her too if things didn't change so I was prepared to give anything a go."
The first session: "I sat there in silence most of the time because I was agreeing with most of what was being said. The counsellor didn't do a whole lot really. I suppose there was one or two questions that got a line of conversation opened up."
Subsequent sessions: "As far as the strongest person in our relationship, it's Cathy – it's not me. It's not laziness, but I don't open up enough about my feelings. In the house I grew up in, I never heard my dad talk about feelings."
The outcome: "We're good now. A lot of what was going on was because of the financial strain we were under. We've moved sideways in a sense, but somehow we're in a better place. The kids are happier. After we moved, with the weight of what we had gone through on top of us, I ended up in a deep depression. I got counselling at Pieta House and that helped me to function, just to help me keep my head above water. I don't honestly know where it would have gone if we hadn't tried couples counselling, but I'd like to think we would have sorted it anyway in time."
Luke and Danielle, who are in their 30s, attended couples counselling for seven months before they got married in 2015. They have no children
The lead up: "We were at a point just after we got engaged, where we couldn't find a place where we could communicate that didn't end up in a fight. My instinct was to fix it, instead of listening to what she had to say. We were living like friends more than a couple, and our relationship was struggling ."
The decision: "It was her idea, but I was open to it because I had done my own counselling in the past."
The first session: "I was nervous. You're frightened of the unknown. We were both apprehensive that there might be something we hadn't anticipated – a big rock thrown into this pool, and we could end up being told we weren't compatible."
Subsequent sessions: "The first three or four sessions I found very hard, as I am so non-confrontational. My inability to speak my mind was the hardest thing for me to overcome. Listening to Danielle talking about our relationship – it was hard not to feel like you're being attacked. After two or three sessions, we got into it. Our counsellor said she was watching our body language, and she could see there was a bond between the two of us. It was good to hear that."
The outcome: "Did it work? It did. 100 per cent. It got the issues that we both carried from our previous relationships to the fore. It gave us a clean slate, like we were starting afresh."
The lead up: "We both had different reasons. I had been in a long-term relationship before which ended very abruptly with my ex-partner coming out as gay, so I was carrying a lot of anxiety. I didn't trust that people were always being true to themselves, let alone me."
The decision: "It just made sense to me that we would go to a few sessions and really be sure we were going into marriage with our eyes wide open. We had a good relationship before, but I think there were areas we were struggling with."
The first session: "I wanted our relationship to work and I wanted to build a life with this man. But here we were sitting beside each other, with very little knowledge of the inner workings of the other person. It was very emotional. We both cried for most of it."
Subsequent sessions: "The therapist gave us information sheets to fill out after the first session, about everything to do with a relationship, from cooking to sex. All the questions had two answers: your answer, and what you thought your partner would say. Over the space of seven months we worked through each of these questions. There was lots that was hard to hear, and lots that was hilarious too."
The outcome: "We finished up with counselling two months before we got married, with a very clear understanding of what each of us wanted from a relationship with regards to work, life, intimacy, children, housework and extended family. I think the biggest tool that I learned is to listen without my own agenda getting in the way."
Julie and her partner were together for 16 years and married for seven. In 2013, they started couples counselling, having completed three failed IVF cycles in a year. They have no children
The lead up: "We had been together for almost 15 years when we started counselling. We were living very separate lives, busy jobs, lots of travel. We were struggling to spend any time together, and practically every conversation was ending in an argument."
The decision: "I was already going to counselling to help me decide if I should continue with IVF. Although we had discussed going for counselling during IVF, we felt confident that we were managing okay. So for me, bringing it up again wasn't difficult – we both wanted things to get better."
The first session: "I felt relief, optimism, reassurance that we were going to be okay. We had been through a challenging time, but I felt we would come through it okay. We could see we had a lot of work to do, but there was hope."
Subsequent sessions: "It went downhill from there. My partner more or less disengaged. I think perhaps because we went to the counsellor I had gone to, he felt it was a bit one-sided. Later, we went to another counsellor. She was amazing – in that one session she managed to get right into the heart of the issues. At that first session with her, he said he didn't want to get back together."
The outcome: "We are now apart three years. We see each other from time to time, and get on great when we do hang out. There's still hurt and unanswered questions, but there is also respect. I really wish we had done the counselling earlier, during the IVF. I don't think we realised how much a strain it put on the relationship until it was too late."
Greg and his wife had been married for 17 years, and together for 27, before their separation last year. They have three children who now live most of the time with him
The lead up: "We were very young when we met, and it was all lovely and romantic. But then we had children, and financial problems started, and I was under stress trying to keep the show on the road. I felt she was quite happy to spend money and had no interest in contributing."
The decision: "Both of us were repeating ourselves – we were like broken records. I did still love her, and I wanted to stay together. I suggested we needed somebody to intervene. She would only agree if we went to one of the counsellors suggested by her friend."
The first session: "I was trying to recover or repair the marriage with whatever changes needed to be made, me included. I felt like, we've got this far: this is the bit where you knuckle down and you battle through. But she was going into counselling to show that we should separate."
Subsequent sessions: "We only went two or three times. It's quite strange hearing how she would have referred to some events which I would have seen completely differently. Some things were quite touching and some were shocking. Ultimately I felt the counsellor was very partisan – she kept saying 'Why won't you support her in leaving you?' It turned out that she was seeing my wife separately in another capacity."
The outcome: "The pity of it is that we didn't engage with it fully, and the counsellor didn't suggest we give it 10 or 15 weekly visits. But ultimately, it came down to this: she wanted out, I wanted in, and counselling is not going to save any marriage in that situation."