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Relationship Advice from an Expert on Divorce

New figures have revealed the number of couples getting divorced in England and Wales surged to its highest level in five years.

The Office for National Statistics data shows 107,599 opposite-sex divorces in 2019, an increase of 18.4%. There were also 822 same-sex divorces, nearly double the number in 2018.

I wonder, is anyone surprised by this news? Since the first national Covid restrictions in March, I’ve seen friends and neighbours struggle to get on as they lived through the ‘pressure cooker’ of a life in lockdown. Working from home, attempting to entertain and tutor children and the simple fact that we are all spending more time in each other’s company, has been trying for many of us. The nitty gritty of these sudden new arrangements meant cooking many more meals, more laundry, more mess, more cleaning and, for some, job insecurity and family finances being stretched to their limits.

Psychotherapists are not immune at times such as these. We’re humans first, and my own relationships have been pushed to capacity as I tried to mediate new caring responsibilities with my husband and deal with three children in the throes of the hormones that puberty brings. Gyms, the cinema, theatres, classes and cafes were closed, meaning none of my usual outlets for self-care were available.

Festivals, gigs, weekends away with friends and family holidays were cancelled. Respite was cancelled. At times, it feels like joy was cancelled! No counselling training could prepare me for the speed with which my routines and rhythms were up ended.

And, as the philosopher Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.”

As the months progress, the promised ‘new normal’ fails to materialise. What tier are we in? Is eating out with friends permitted this week? Can I travel from Wales to visit my elderly mother in England? Is that sore throat a cold, or something more ominous?

At an existential level: will someone we love fall ill…. die? The psychological impact of living with this grinding uncertainty has been profound.

Inevitably, I’ve had an increase in new enquiries to my couples and relationship counselling service. New parents who had struggled with the isolation of lockdown, and the lack of support systems they expected to rely on, from their extended family to baby groups. Couples married for years had reached the limits of their tolerance for each other. Those with younger children finding caring for them, and the conflict caused by negotiating who does what, more than they could deal with. Internet infidelities have caused ructions.

As a former solicitor, I’m well versed in just how badly marriages can go wrong. My experience means that nothing in the way of human behaviour surprises me.

I’ve seen couples spend thousands in legal fees arguing over who takes possession of the table linen or furniture, behaviour has deteriorated to the point where people don’t recognise themselves and injuries are sustained between what appeared to be reasonable parties - one of the most memorable being when a prim and controlled wife flew into a rage and stabbed her husband in the hand with a pencil. It’s not unusual for marital crises to cause major mental health issues. Emotions are derailed when our security is threatened. I came to expect a flurry of clients on my law office doorstep after the Christmas holidays. Being cooped up with a partner you can no longer bear comes to a head when you can’t escape them.

If Lockdown 1 was bad for our relationships, a Covid Christmas doesn’t bode well. So, might you need relationship counselling and how do you tell it apart from individual counselling?

There are some significant differences, the main one being that ‘the client’ is the relationship, not the individual parties. This means rules around confidentiality are different. Safeguarding issues aside, I tell clients that anything shared to me is out in the open and up for discussion. I see my role as helping two individuals (maybe more in a polyamorous relationship), improve their communication and transparency with the other.

I remain impartial, non-judgmental, compassionate and full of curiosity as to why things have gone awry.

Couples’ counselling is mostly a brief intervention, perhaps six to 12 sessions. Observing the relationship, I assess the dynamic and interrupt and redirect unhelpful patterns of communication. My main aim as a therapist is to help partners develop new response options to nurture greater connection, intimacy and understanding in the relationship. I help the parties try out new behaviours to realise how they can change.

I work to give to you both hope that the future can be brighter, whether you decide to remain together or part ways. If the latter, I offer support so you can behave towards each other in a civilised and reasonable manner. A ‘good divorce’ is possible and preferable for all concerned, especially when there are children of the family.

Folk enquire about couples counselling for a variety of reasons: most commonly being unable to resolve conflict, but also for lack of intimacy, sexual issues or affairs. If a couple waits until they have completely disconnected from each other, the counselling process may be harder. I often find we are firefighting at this stage and, whilst there is always the potential for repair, relationships can reach a ‘point of no return’. Sometimes, if for example there is domestic violence or trauma, individual counselling may be a better option. Safety is always paramount.

Good counselling is considerably less traumatic and expensive than a bad divorce. I suggest you seek support sooner rather than later. Love and connection can be rekindled. You can rediscover each other and the reasons you were attracted in the first place to find a healthier balance for yourselves and redefine your future years.

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