On course for a hap­pier mar­riage

Even the bliss­fully bonded can perk up their part­ner­ship, finds Katie Tait

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Wellbeing -

It’s 7pm on a rainy Tues­day and my hus­band and I are head­ing to a mar­riage course. To say that Alex isn’t keen is a mild un­der­state­ment. Not only has he had to rush home from work, but he hasn’t had a drink yet, he’s very happy with our mar­riage and, worst of all, the whole thing’s be­ing held in a church, some­where he only goes on Christ­mas Day.

To try to as­suage his fears, I’m read­ing to him from The Mar­riage Course News­let­ter. This tells us that there are more than 600 mar­riage cour­ses be­ing run in Bri­tain and 40,000 cou­ples have com­pleted one. The eightweek course “is de­signed to help any mar­ried cou­ple build a healthy mar­riage that lasts a life­time”. While the cour­ses are or­gan­ised through the Lon­don church that started the Al­pha course, only half of those who at­tend are church­go­ers.

The cour­ses have grown from word of mouth rec­om­men­da­tion. Friends of ours, Chris­tine and Mag­nus, com­pleted one last year. They have two chil­dren (aged five and seven) and highly suc­cess­ful ca­reers. “We had be­come so wrapped up in run­ning our lives that we had stopped com­mu­ni­cat­ing,” ex­plains Chris­tine. “We’d put our re­la­tion­ship on hold and all our ‘nice­ness’ was go­ing to the chil­dren.”

Af­ter ini­tial mis­giv­ings, they started look­ing for­ward to the weekly ses­sions. As Chris­tine says: “We’d turn up and have this lovely meal cooked for us. It felt very nur­tur­ing.”

This evening’s event is be­ing run by Jenny and Tony East­wood, who them­selves did the course and were so im­pressed they vol­un­teered to run one. They’re not paid to be here (the course costs £47 per cou­ple, which cov­ers the book­lets and the food), but do it sim­ply be­cause they be­lieve in what it achieves. “We get amaz­ing feed­back af­ter­wards from cou­ples who have been re­ally helped by the process,” says Tony.

The East­woods have laid out six sep­a­rate ta­bles for the six cou­ples here tonight, with two chairs at each. The light­ing is low and each ta­ble is scat­tered with rose petals. What would be toe-curl­ing in a restau­rant is rather en­dear­ing here. Af­ter a short in­tro­duc­tion, we are served homemade chicken pie and salad and then left to chat.

Tonight we are look­ing at “mar­riage time”, a con­cept that is key to the course. In later weeks will come “com­mu­ni­ca­tion”, “par­ents and in-laws” and fi­nally “good sex”.

Meal over, we watch a DVD pre­sented by Nicky and Sila Lee, the cou­ple who started the whole con­cept. This feels slightly like a party po­lit­i­cal broad­cast. They are filmed talk­ing to a con­gre­ga­tion of young, good-look­ing cou­ples who stare up ador­ingly. Af­ter hear­ing about how im­por­tant it is to put aside time for each other ev­ery week, the pre­sen­ta­tion ends and we tackle ex­er­cises in our book­lets. The East­woods bring around warm choco­late brown­ies and Al and I re­alise we are en­joy­ing our­selves. We bicker con­tent­edly over his scor­ing me low over not lis­ten­ing to him prop­erly and me scor­ing him low for not ever say­ing sorry.

The East­woods are not there to give coun­selling. They are there to give cou­ples the space they need to com­mu­ni­cate, while the DVD gives tips and ideas. Chris­tine feels she and Mag­nus were most helped by the sec­tion on com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Mag­nus is from Nor­way and tends to put things bluntly, which I can take as a crit­i­cism. He’s now learnt not to say: ‘Why haven’t you phoned the builders?’ Rather: ‘Did you man­age to phone the builders?’ It sounds so small, but things like that have re­ally changed our re­la­tion­ship.”

Tak­ing your mar­riage se­ri­ously is a key Lee tenet. “There’s an aw­ful lot avail­able if your mar­riage is in trou­ble, but noth­ing to help you keep your mar­riage strong be­fore that point,” says Nicky. But there is a stigma at­tached to mar­riage cour­ses. “We need a change in our cul­ture so that it be­comes as nor­mal as go­ing to par­ent­ing classes,” he says.

Alex and I fi­nally leave at 10pm and, to my amaze­ment, I hear him say­ing we’ll be back next week. He tells me that it’s only be­cause of the brown­ies. I think it’s be­cause next week is all about lis­ten­ing – and he’s got quite a bit to say.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion: 0845 644 7544; www. the­mar­riage­course.org.

Petal power: flow­ers and can­dles for Katie Tait and hus­band Alex

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