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22 May 2021

Help! I’m married to a relationship expert

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When it comes to marriages and long-term relationships, it can be hard to anticipate the bumps in the road.

The past year has been a bump like no other, throwing unprecedented stress into our home lives. Small wonder that divorces are again on the rise: Stowe Family Law, a legal firm, has had a 95 per cent increase in queries about divorce, with about three-quarters of couples who separated or divorced saying they had no tensions before the pandemic began.

Those numbers may rise further, with evidence from the US showing people have been postponing not only weddings but also divorces due to lockdown. There could be a spike in splits this summer as unhappy couples make a post-pandemic bid for freedom.

Some of this may be down to a simple lack of conversation. Without offices to go to and social events to attend, couples have had less to talk about. That can make us careless, says Richard Acklam, a couples counsellor: “Long-term relationships, even those with a special connection, can flounder if key areas aren’t looked after. Even in a good relationship, communication can often be better.”

Acklam and his wife, Helen, are one of those rare couples where one half is actually in the business of sorting out love lives. But does helping other couples to mend their relationships make your own stronger? We asked Richard and Helen, and two similar couples. For all three, communication was key, but they also agreed that time spent apart pursuing your own interests was just as important.

“You are alert to warning signs because you see them in your day-to-day life,” says Katie O’Callaghan, 36, a divorce lawyer and mediator for Boodle Hatfield. “You are more conscious of where there might be issues. Most often it’s a lack of honesty. Although one of my colleagues swears by separate bathrooms!”

‘Being a divorce lawyer takes away the rose-tinted view of marriage’

Divorce lawyer and mediator Katie O’Callaghan, 36, is married to Tom, 41, a teacher. They live in Guildford with daughter Isabella, 5, and Rafe, 3

Katie says: Tom and I met in 2006 through his brother, who is now married to my best friend from school. We started dating in 2009 and married in 2014. Working as a divorce lawyer takes away a rose-tinted approach to marriage. It made me think very hard about whether he was the right person.

Tom is a very non-confrontational person. So much so that, before I did my mediator training, if there was an issue between us, I would end up arguing his point as well because he wouldn’t engage in an argument with me.

The mediation has taught me that I need to enable him to say what he needs to say. It’s also honed my listening skills. It’s the crucial element. It’s not just what partners say, but their body language and how they interact.

Now I acknowledge other people’s feelings and listen to what they’re really saying, rather than assuming. As a lawyer, you are often trying to fix the problem: if they’re sad, you try to make them happy. But it’s a powerful thing to acknowledge their feelings of sadness rather than trying to brush them away. Now, I try empowering them to find the solution, rather than trying to fix the problem. I see my job as a positive force in our relationship, because you are always aware of where you don’t want to end up.

Tom says: My friends have long taken the mick out of me and Katie. I’m well aware that if everything goes south I’ll end up with a sofa and a coffee table.

I’m not a very good arguer. I only push my side across if it’s absolutely necessary. Katie knows that and, since she trained in mediation two years ago, I’ve noticed a change in how she broaches questions with me. She seems to get stuff more easily out of me without any combative behaviour. I’ve noticed we have more conversations about deep things.

It’s made me confront things that I would previously have pushed down; family stuff, feelings. I think it is a positive thing for our relationship. It’s rubbed off on her dealing with the kids as well. I think she knows now how to take time out when kids are demanding everything at once. Katie’s job has made me deeply appreciative of the relationship I’ve got. I’m not suggesting that every divorce mediator is great to be with. But in my case it is, 100 per cent.

Katie’s top tips

  1. Marry your best friend
  2. Embrace transparency and honesty
  3. Be willing to compromise
  4. Devote time, effort, and energy to your relationship. Date nights, and varied ones, are key
  5. Don’t expect your spouse to be someone they are not. While they might change, an acceptance that you cannot change them is important

Click here to read about the other therapists and their partners’ perspectives on what makes a marriage last.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph on 22 May 2021.