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

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - BODY & SOUL - The Courage To Love: Sur­viv­ing And Thriv­ing In Your Re­la­tion­ship by Dr Colm O’Con­nor is pub­lished by Gill & Macmil­lan, €14.99

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

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