‘If you’re in it for the long haul, it’s naive to think there won’t be cracks in your relationship from time to time,’ says Rachel Griffiths, who has been married to husband Andy for 20 years. ‘We’re both busy, we have lots of friends and as a result we’re really bad at focusing on our relationship.’It’s a situation many will recognise: two busy parents of teenagers, coming out of the frenzy of the early childhood years but whose lives run in parallel rather than together. For Rachel, 50, a freelance theatre practitioner, and Andy, also 50 and chief executive of a sports charity, this resulted in day-to-day issues getting blown out of proportion.‘I’m quite tidy and can’t relax until things are put away, but Rachel tends to work at our dining-room table and leaves things piled up,’ explains Andy. ‘I’d come back from work trips and the first thing I’d do would be clear up. It all became symbolic, and I started to feel, “If you cared about me, I wouldn’t be coming home to this”.
Determined to get back on track, the couple signed up for an Alt-Date Night course in London run by Devon-based organisation One:Retreat. This involved a day-long session of talks, private discussions and exercises with a relationship coach before going on a date together. ‘Sometimes you just need a different language or lens through which to look at something,’ says Andy.
Couples’ counselling has come a long way since clergyman Dr Herbert Gray set up the Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate) 80 years ago. Once seen as a last-ditch recourse, it’s no longer uncommon for couples to use counselling to check how their relationship is doing, even when there are no major problems. Hence the rise of so-called ‘Marriage MOT’ courses.
Most courses involve a series of exercises based around one principle: that a healthy marriage requires genuine communication, and acceptance that you might have different but equally valid points of view.It might sound a bit, well, American to the average buttoned-up Brit, but, says Marian O’Connor of Tavistock Relationships, ‘People feel they fell in love and got married and that’s it. But I use the analogy of a garden: you can’t just turn your back on it, you have to keep weeding it, working at it.’
By the end of the sessions, their relationship had changed. ‘One of the things I learnt is that it’s not a personal affront if the other person doesn’t react in exactly the same way as you,’ Sarah says. ‘It doesn’t mean we’re falling apart. We’re just different. We need to respect those differences and be a bit more creative in the way we deal with each other.’ The couple are now planning their first holiday without their children in 22 years. ‘I do think we’re making efforts to stay a lot closer,’ says Joe.
Ammanda Major of Relate says that many of her clients sign up for an MOT around the time of a major life milestone. ‘Sometimes birthdays or anniversaries can suddenly make us start to think, “I’m not very happy”, as can things like the death of a parent or kids moving out.’Retirement is another trigger – and not just because the couple see more of each other. ‘It can be a disappointment if one partner is expecting more sex than the other,’ explains O’Connor. ‘You’ve finally got time for it but bodies have often changed, which can get in the way of enjoying life in and out of bed. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to have sensual enjoyment, but it may be different.’
Many couples find it toe-curlingly embarrassing to discuss issues like this at first, but they soon get used to it. ‘There are some areas I find quite difficult to talk about,’ says Andy Griffiths. ‘But I knew it was important to be there.’Chris Hunt, 54, a construction manager who completed the same One:Retreat course, admits that he was initially reluctant to sign up as he dislikes speaking about his feelings – but agreed after his wife, Annie, also 54, persuaded him. ‘I hadn’t realised some bits would be difficult for her, too,’ he says. Annie adds: ‘Chris doesn’t like me to be uncomfortable talking about things but he learnt that I don’t actually mind being uncomfortable in front of him – it’s worth it to get a resolution.’
However, some marriages reach a rather more serious point before a couple realises that an MOT is needed. Take Tom*, 53, and Georgia*, 54, who were on the verge of separation. ‘He didn’t want to do anything – or at least, not anything with me,’ Georgia says.
‘We’d got well beyond the stage of date nights because even if I could force him out of the door we’d just end up arguing. I’d given up on the idea that we might enjoy each others’ company again and Tom now admits he felt the same.’ It took weeks of digging to remind them what drew them to each other in the first place. ‘It wasn’t easy, but we’ve mapped out a path of how to move forward,’ says Tom. ‘We have something we don’t want to throw away.’Looking back, Rachel and Andy agree that the course was worth it. ‘My Saturdays are quite precious. But deep down I knew it was important,’ says Andy.
So what of the cluttered dining table? ‘Rachel has started to keep it tidier,’ says Andy. ‘And I make an effort not to make it my first point of engagement when I get in. It wouldn’t have worked if we’d just been confrontational.’ Rachel adds: ‘We needed a solution – and now we both think about what makes the other person happy.’