A marriage of minds

Financial woes and changing responsibilities are putting pressure on Irish couples, says Áilín Quinlan

FINANCIAL woes, difficult teenagers and conflict over housework — a few problems facing Irish couples. This week, two relationship experts are jetting in to help.

The workshops by Dr Bob Navarra and therapist Sinead Smyth, both attached to the renowned Gottman Institute, are hosted by the counselling agency Relationship Ireland, to help couples in crisis.

The weekend workshops, in Ireland for the first time, won’t “make the problems go away,” Relationship Ireland says, but will give couples the tools to resolve conflict and avoid relationship breakdown.

“We’re seeking to bring in expertise, so that we, as an organisation, are best-placed to address the issues and concerns people have,” says Brendan Madden, CEO of Relationships Ireland.

Mr Madden says the two main factors affecting Irish relationships are the recession and the division of domestic and parenting duties.

The recession has impacted families via unemployment, pay cuts, benefit cutbacks and mortgage worries.

“This creates stress, which some couples can deal with and some cannot,” says Mr Madden. How couples respond to conflict is crucial. “The way some people respond makes the problem worse,” he says.

Relationships are also under intense pressure from “extraordinary changes” in women’s participation in the workforce, he says — 40% of women in couples under the age of 40 are more qualified and earn more money than their partners.

“This is a significant shift compared to 10 years ago, when men were predominantly the breadwinners and highest earners,” says Mr Madden. This has led to radical changes in housework and parenting duties.

“There is more expectation for men to participate in the home — and they’re not living up to those expectations, which causes tension and conflict,” he says. “Couples have been slow to adjust to these changes.

“In many cases, couples are not negotiating the sharing of household tasks and child-rearing. Some couples manage to negotiate the problems, but some don’t, and this causes conflict.”

Adolescence, with its many complexities, is affecting parents’ relationships. “The impact of social media on modern teenagers, for example, is a major issue for parents, if there are disagreements over how to handle it. The challenge of parenting teenagers today is a major one for many couples,” Mr Madden says.

Relationship breakdown is common — the number of people who are divorced has risen 150% in the last ten years, from 35,059 to 87,770.

A divorce typically costs €20,00 to €25,000, says Mr Madden, and this can rise above €50,000, if proceedings are protracted.

So it’s worth avoiding the pitfalls that lead to relationship breakdown, and repairing the damage done by stress or poor communication.

Hence, the one-day Gottman workshop — Relationships Ireland points to a 2001 study that showed 84% of couples who did a Gottman couples’ weekend reported significant relationship enhancement. “A lot of couples are not responding to change,” says Mr Madden, “and the Gottman approach is very relevant to helping Irish couples address the problems they face today.

“We cannot make problems go away, but we can help couples to respond much more effectively to problems.”

Mr Navarra and Ms Smyth, who co-present the seminar, have both been trained by Dr John Gottman, who was recently voted one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century. Gottman is author of 190 academic articles, and author and co-author of 40 books, including his New York Times bestseller, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

On Friday and Saturday next, a two-day workshop for professionals, such as therapists, counsellors and psychologists, will take place, followed, on Sunday, by the first Gottman couples’ workshop to be held in this country.

Mr Navarra and Ms Smyth will outline the big relationship pitfalls — dubbed the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ by Gottman — and provide exercises in better communication, empathy and conflict resolution.

‘The Four Horsemen,’ Mr Navarra says, are criticism, defensiveness — which is the refusal to accept responsibility — contempt, and stonewalling, in which one partner withdraws from the conversation.

The workshop, based on 30 years of research with couples and on Dr Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, will identify the signposts to marriage breakdown and the ways to avoid them.

Couples need to nurture friendship, be aware of their partner’s internal world, express appreciation, fondness and respect, and respond to bids for attention and connection, says Mr Navarra.

Managing conflict well is crucial, while partners must be prepared to support each others’ dreams.

During the workshop, there will be no public “sharing” by couples of their experiences or individual problems, he says — it is about the presentation of material and exercises designed to help support relationships.

“What we are also hoping to do is prevention, as well as repair for couples who are struggling.

“US couples generally wait for up to six years to get help. I imagine the same is true of Ireland and this is way too long,” he says.

It’s a practical workshop that does not indulge “hippy-dippy therapy-speak,” says Mr Navarra’s co-presenter, Ms Smyth, a native of Dundalk who has worked in California for years.

“There are practical and concrete tools to talk about stresses and help manage conflict.

“A big part is about helping couples stay connected under pressure, because, in the current economic climate in Ireland, there is a lot of extra pressure on relationships — these are the skills that can save a relationship,” she says.

The couples workshop takes place on Sunday Sept 9, 9.30am to 5pm, in Dublin’s Alexander Hotel. Contact info@relationshipsireland.com or visit www.ow.ly/dqnDV

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