Marriage guidance destroys marriages: It’s the time of year when couples split. But one relationship expert has a warning.
By LAURA DOYLE
(c) Mail OnLine (Associated Newspapers Ltd, U.K.) 2013
Tills are ringing and Christmas is approaching, but there’s another industry, besides retail, eagerly rubbing its hands in glee. That’s marriage guidance.
It’s often said solicitors and relationship counsellors see a spike in business straight after Christmas, as enforced proximity, jollity, financial pressures — all mixed together with a potent slug of alcohol — push marriages to the brink.
And before they head to the solicitors, many couples will at least give counselling a go.
My advice to any couple is: don’t. This kind of ‘therapy’ causes rather than averts divorce. The only advice you should seek is that of women with long and successful marriages behind them. They’re the only ‘counsellors’ worth listening to. If this sounds harsh, I do speak from personal as well as professional experience, as an intimacy coach and relationship expert. I level no accusations at women that I don’t see in myself, either.
Nagging, for one, will get you nowhere. You might think telling your husband how to stack the dishwasher is harmless, but for ‘advice’ he reads ‘criticism’. He retreats into his shell and a wedge is created.
I harried my husband John into submission for years, then dragged him to marriage guidance when things started to fall apart, only for the counsellor to agree when I huffily said: ‘I’d be better off alone.’
Thankfully, I saw the light, ditched therapy and started listening to the advice of happily married women instead. John and I have now been married for 24 years and have never been happier.
We met when he moved in next door when I was studying journalism at college. I was 21; he was 32 and a videographer for a defence company.
John was so sweet, with an endearing, self-deprecating sense of humour. Things progressed quickly with declarations of love within a month; we moved in together after five months and were engaged within the year.
That was despite telling myself I would never marry. My parents had been through a brutal divorce when I was 17 so I thought the only way to avoid that myself was never to marry.
Then I fell madly in love with John and all that went out the window. As I suspected, though, I soon fell into the same trap as my parents. We had the big meringue wedding in September 1989 with 80 guests in the garden of a historic house. It was a truly magical occasion.
The first few years were pretty magical, but looking back, I was unwittingly drilling little holes in the boat, but not yet enough to sink it.
‘Hang up the bath mat!’, ‘You’re wearing that to the party?’ More disparaging remarks continued. I was following in my mother’s footsteps. I’d grown up believing my father was a bad person because he had a temper. In fact that was because Mum had been undermining him the whole time.
Dad worked the graveyard shift as an X-ray technician, while Mum stayed at home with me and my two younger sisters and younger brother.
Not wanting to repeat the chaos and drama of my childhood home, I opted not to become a mother — and John agreed.
Meanwhile my dad has been with my stepmother for over 25 years and he’s a totally different person with her. He’s relaxed and happy, so we have a good relationship. As for my mum, she still lives alone and seems more than a little lonely.
It was six years before John and I opted for marriage guidance. By then we rowed frequently and I was oblivious to the damage my constant belittling was doing. John spent so much time watching telly, he’d rather watch a repeat than make love.
We were in the car, bickering, when John suddenly turned and said: ‘All right, OK, we can go to counselling.’ I’d been on at him to ‘change’ — the classic wife’s mistake — and mentioned therapy as a way to do it.
That’s the problem: so entrenched has this become in our society it’s like reaching for an umbrella if it rains.
For more than two years we traded weekly insults, with the counsellor often on my side. She did nothing to disabuse me of my belief it was his job to make me happy, not mine. In front of her, I told John he had ‘no spine’ and that there was something wrong with him. It was at her behest that I persuaded him to be tested for attention deficiency disorder — thinking there must be some medical reason for his shortcomings. Quite how John didn’t run for the hills I’ll never know.
Rather than encouraging me to see all the brilliant things about my husband — why I fell in love with him in the first place — the counsellor merely highlighted the bad.
Within months whenever we rowed, I used divorce as a threat and John began to assent — although, thankfully, neither of us had acted on it.
When I sighed: ‘I’d be better off alone’, the counsellor said: ‘It sounds like you’re ready for a change’.
In the end our marriage was saved by the fact that we sometimes performed songs in a local coffee shop. We used to duet from time to time — John on the guitar, both of us singing. One night our counsellor came along with her husband. We were aghast to witness her haranguing him into taking the stage. ‘Go on, play Landslide by Fleetwood Mac,’ she nagged him. He kept saying ‘no’ but eventually crept on to the stage with great reluctance. He only got halfway through before saying: ‘Can I stop now?’
Talk about emasculation! How could she help us when her marriage was in a worse state than ours? John was only too pleased when I suggested giving up counselling. Even then I couldn’t admit to myself how damaging it had been — we’d spent more than £200 a month on it.
So instead I just started to listen to the advice of women who’d been married longer than me. One said: ‘I never criticise my husband no matter how much it seems he deserves it.’ Another said: ‘I handed all the finances to my husband — it prevents all sorts of rows.’
I was willing to try anything to save my marriage so I started to bite my tongue. The next time John asked: ‘What shall I wear?’ I got a perverse pleasure from his confusion when I replied: ‘Whatever you think, darling, you have good taste.’
Gradually the dynamic began to change; friends said: ‘What’s happened to John? He looks different.’ I noticed that he stood straighter and when I came in from work he got up from the sofa and smiled: he was happy to see me.
Over time I started to meet up with other wives who wanted to revitalise their flagging relationships and we traded advice. The result was not only happier marriages but my controversial book The Surrendered Wife — first published in 2001.
My recommendation — that women leave the control they exert at work or with their children at the front door when it comes to their marriage — was met by as much vitriol as praise. It was a bestseller, published in 16 languages and 27 countries — so it obviously struck a chord.
Even then I failed to recognise the major contributing factor to my marital strife: marriage counselling. But as I spoke to more and more women who’d had similar experiences, there was no hiding from it. One woman was told by her counsellor: ‘Don’t you see, your marriage is dead?’ Her husband wanted to work at it, but she listened to the ‘advice’ and sought a divorce — which she now deeply regrets. In another case it was only when her husband accepted the therapist’s proddings and said they should part that the wife realised it wasn’t what she wanted. By then it was too late.
My work as an intimacy coach couldn’t be more different. First, I work only with women on a one-to-one basis, so you’re not criticising your husband in front of him. Rather than delve into the past with Freudian psychoanalysis as favoured by marriage counsellors, I focus on practical approaches to deal with daily life.
Wives mostly swing between disrespecting their husband and playing the martyr. Marriage counselling re-enforces this, but I do the opposite by suggesting women rein in their negativity.
Essentially husbands just want to please their wives, but at times feel it’s hopeless. Marriage guidance promotes ‘talking about your feelings’ but men pick up the message that they’re not good enough and need to change. The fact is the only way to have a happy relationship is to make yourself happy. All that money you waste on marriage counselling would be better spent on spas, a hobby or whatever else gives you a boost.
These days I play volleyball three times a week, meet girlfriends for lunch and indulge in a cup of tea and a good book. And I don’t ask my husband to be someone he isn’t.
The result? I have the marriage I dreamed of when I stood at the altar and said ‘I do’. My husband is tender and playful, I find him as handsome as the day he first asked me out and our home is relaxed and peaceful.
I am now busy writing my fourth book — First, Kill All The Marriage Counsellors — about this topic. I’m wary of tackling the subject after all the flak I got with my first book, but I feel it’s my duty to expose this fraudulent industry once and for all.
Personally, I am furious that had I followed our counsellor’s advice I would have lost the love of my life. Please don’t make the same mistake.