How to survive a stormy marriage
Imagine you’re in a boat on a choppy sea. You can’t control the waves, just how you steer the craft.... If your marriage is heading for the rocks, Dr Colm O’Connor can guide you to calmer waters. By Nikki Walsh
I n the preface to Dr Colm O’Connor’s moving and inspirational book, The Courage To Love, he asks the reader to think of their relationship with their partner or spouse as a journey across the sea of life in a single boat. The horizon is their destiny and the weather is the force of life. He then lists the unavoidable conditions that go with this voyage. There is nothing you can do to control the ocean or the weather. You must work together to steer the boat and stay afloat. At some point later in the journey, one of you will be taken by the ocean or the storm. One of you will eventually be left alone in the boat.
This analogy is just one of many Dr O’Connor uses to get couples to see the journey they are making through a wide-angled lens. ‘It’s really the advice of all the great religions and philosophies down the ages,’ he explains. ‘Your life is not really about all your preoccupations and worries but about the greater life of which you are a part.’
This new perspective can be revealing. ‘There is so much more going on in your life than what I call the horizontal concerns of the four S’s of security, status, significance, and stability. The book is an attempt to illustrate how, when you take a wide-angled view of your life and your relationship, you can begin to see the things that remain hidden from view when we become caught up in a preoccupation with our self-importance and status. We all need to be able to pull back from ourselves, to see ourselves as if from above, and to see that the purpose and meaning and success of one’s life is ultimately measured in such familiar things as family, courage, and kindness.’
It’s a strong message and one that Dr O’Connor has been reflecting on as a clinical psychologist and marriage counsellor for more than 20 years. Born in Cork, he grew up with a love of the arts but studied applied psychology at UCC ‘because it suited my reflective personality’. He trained as a psychotherapist in Chicago Lutheran General Hospital and is now clinical director of the Cork Mar riage Counselling Centre, founder of Cork Domestic Violence Project and also a father of three.
Has his message been informed by the recession? ‘ We’ve seen a rise in the number of couples seeking help,’ he says. ‘Financial strain can put a terrible burden on couples, who may have been struggling enough up to that point. It can also create isolation within a relationship, where each party, in their attempts not to burden the other, seeks to carry their worry or depression on their own. For men who cannot provide for their family, it can erode their self- confidence and their sense of purpose in life, and when you lose meaning in life you are in danger of losing everything.’ He believes, however, that such traumatic events can be transformative. ‘It would be patronising or trivialising to suggest that there are non-stressful solutions to these problems,’ he says. ‘However, every couple does need to redefine and protect their identity as a couple by restructuring their values and priorities. One of the benefits of traumatic experience is that very often the consequence for someone is that they redefine who they are as a person and it awakens in them a realisation of what is really important in life. Every couple needs to begin and sustain that conversation. Do not let economists, accounts, bank officials define who you are as a person. Couples, within the safe walls of their own homes should, along with their children, fight back and define their values and what is important for them. This domestic revolution (with a small r) should, as I suggest in the book, define their marriage and family on the vertical place of values, virtues and dignity, and not on the horizontal plane of financial status, financial insecurity and a bank official’s classification.’
Such behaviour requires courage, hence the title of his book. Is it the quality we most need in order to love and be loved? For Dr O’Connor, the answer is yes. ‘The thing about life is that it places challenges before you that seem greater than your own resources and it would be so easy to shrink back from those challenges. But there is something wonderful about the human spirit: it strives to be better, to carry on, to overcome little obstacles placed before it. Think of the single mother in the housing estate, the bereaved father now living alone, the
little child struggling at school. To live one’s life, and to survive at all, is to be willing to be heroic in living.’ Having the courage to be vulnerable is a big theme of the book. ‘Love demands vulnerability and the willingness to be hurt,’ he says, ‘to not win the argument, to forgive, to apologise, to reach out.’ In the book he describes the importance of working with couples at the ‘tear-point’, the moment in a therapy situation when someone is brought close to tears, not by self-pity but by a sudden awareness of the meaning of something. ‘In that moment the curtains part and I am moved by the integrity of the person’s disclosure.’ It’s when couples reach this point that the healing work can really begin.
So are relationships fixable? Or are there basic incompatibilities between people that cannot be ignored? ‘People in relationships have two needs: the need for loving connection and the need for control,’ Dr O’Connor says. ‘For some people, the need for control and significance overrides the need for love. Their need to dominate and control someone else in the service of their own needs floods everything else. We see this with abusive men and women and particularly with violent men. However, where there is a respect for the dignity and separateness of another person most people can improve their relationships, survive difficult times, and thrive.
‘Skill deficits can be improved, miscommunication rectified, but where there is a deep-seated lack of respect for the freedom and integrity of the other, abuse takes root and violence often erupts.’ I read the preface of the book to my father, who is a widower, and to a number of my friends. ‘No truer words spoken,’ said my father. My friends blanched. ‘Don’t say that!’ said one. Another grimaced. ‘Why don’t they tell you that? Why doesn’t anyone tell you that?’ I put this to Dr O’Connor. Why aren’t we prepared for the seriousness of a long-term relationship? ‘I have always believed communication skills and emotional happiness skills should be taught to children at school,’ he says. ‘The psychology of family life is to me of far greater importance than some of what is on the curricula at national and secondary schools. When it comes to marriage preparation, the Church does require that couples prepare for marriage. They are ahead of the State on this one as there are no preparatory courses required for civil marriages. A basic preparatory course on communication and personality types is of great help to couples as a practical aid and a simple ritual to remind them that what they are entering into requires emotional preparation.’
So, if readers were to take just one piece of advice from his book, what would that be? ‘To realise that their arguments and fights aren’t what they think they are about,’ says Dr O’Connor. ‘They’re just symbols. What we ultimately fight about are such essential issues as the need for respect and recognition. When we don’t get these things, we feel we are not being taken seriously. These big needs for respect and recognition are communicated in small ways. Therefore small issues cause big arguments.’
Sometimes it’s the small changes that make the biggest difference. In his therapy room, Dr O’Connor asks couples to tell each other the three things their partner could do for them on a regular basis that would be a sign to them they were cared for and loved. These things must be small, specific, and easy to do. Then he asks couples to write them out on a sheet of paper, stick it to the fridge and then JUST DO THEM. ‘It’s almost child-like in its simplicity but can be substantive in the changes it triggers.’
This brings us back to that wide-angled lens. ‘If we can pull back, we can see our life in terms of its brevity and fragility and this awakens us to the reality we seek to repress on a daily basis,’ he says. ‘To worry about trivial things is to avoid the essential things.’
And what is essential? ‘That your life here is brief, that those you love are with you for a short while, and the beauty of the world is only available to you for this visit. When you are on your deathbed in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time, I guarantee you will regret how you let financial issues distract you from the gift of your children and the people who love you.’
Power play People in relationships have two needs: the need for loving connection and the need for control. When a desire to control outweighs the loving impulse, the relationship becomes toxic