What to do when a marriage can’t go on

Christmas is supposed to be all about family, but the fall-out from the festive season catapults many couples into crisis. January is peak season for relationship counsellors and legal mediators. Áilín Quinlan looks at what’s going behind closed doors

As one of the country’s longest serving mediators — she’s been in the business more than 15 years — Ber Barry-Murray observes a sharp ‘spike’ each January in the number of couples seeking her services. In UK, they even call the first Monday back to work after Christmas, D Day or Divorce day.

It comes down to the pressure cooker that is Christmas — which, although perceived as the traditional time to celebrate family, is also a time when relationship problems come to a head.

Although official figures are not available, after many years spent working in both the public and private sector, Barry-Murphy maintains that the number of couples seeking mediation in January is up by about a third on the rest of the year.

Bernadette Ryan, relationships therapist (below right ) with Relationships Ireland, said therapists similarly experience an annual January ‘peak’ in the number of clients seeking help — either in terms of relationship counselling or, if they have decided to break up, with separation counselling.

“Things will often come to a head over Christmas, particularly in the family cauldron that is Christmas.

“Christmas tends to increase everything anyway, so if there is conflict, it can increase to the extent where it can feel almost intolerable,” she explains.

What to do when a marriage can’t go on

Relationship experts advise always trying counselling before you spilt but if you have done this and it’s hasn’t worked out or if you are 100% certain it’s over, mediation is an increasingly popular option for conflict resolution between warring couples says Barry-Murray (above) , now the managing director of Roundtable Mediation, which has offices in Cork and Dublin.

In January, she explains,different people seek mediation for different reasons. Generally, most clients who make a move in January to seek help do so because they had wanted to give their children one last family Christmas. “Some people will have decided prior to Christmas that they will separate in January. I currently have several couples who have the framework of their mediation completed for the separation. Although they will not be telling the children about it until January, they have done the work and are as ready as they can be. The objective is to protect their children.”

In other cases, one partner in a relationship may have been unhappy for some time but may not yet have discussed it with his other half — even though he or she has decided privately to leave in the new year.

“In such a case, the person who has already decided is emotionally ready, but the person who only hears in the new year for the first time is devastated,” says Barry-Murray.

A third group will be those who decide they can’t carry on after an unbearable Christmas. A trigger, she says, can be the unacceptable behaviour of a partner or spouse such as excessive drinking, gambling or violence. The disrespect or carping of in-laws may be another trigger. “There can be significant triggers around Christmas,” she says.

What to do when a marriage can’t go on

So if you’re in one of these situations, where to next? It’s a good idea to check with the Mediator’s Institute of Ireland or to get a recommendation from your solicitor — and remember, Barry-Murray says, the mediator must be trained in family law. A mediator will meet with the couple together, usually for three half-day sessions.

Although the Family Mediation service (www.legalaidboard.ie) is free, there can be delays in getting help — depending where you live in the country you can expect a waiting list.

Otherwise expect to pay €1,500 — €2,500 for a private mediation service — but it’s still far cheaper than going through a solicitor, which can cost from €10,000— €20,000 per partner.

The mediator will take a history of what has been happening, and together with the couple will instigate a process which is as far from adversarial as possible.

During this process they will decide how they will live into the future,discuss financial planning and what arrangements will be made for how each partner will share their lives with their children.

“Most couples will make an agreement and bring it to their solicitor to be formalised,” she explains.

Although counselling can be expensive, at up to €70 a session, Relationships Ireland (www.relationshipsireland.com) will negotiate a sliding scale of fee to couples in financial difficulties or with a low income, to make sure they get the care they require.

Mymind (www.mymind.org), which has branches in Cork, Dublin, and Limerick offers reduced counselling fees for people who are unemployed or who work part-time.


What to do when a marriage can’t go on

Bernadette Ryan’s ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for couples who have just separated, or are considering it:


  • Give your relationship a fair chance, says Ryan. Consider undergoing relationship counselling before deciding on separation and heading for mediation, she advises.
  • Consider separation counselling — it will help with the emotional fall-out of break-up, suggests Ryan.
  • Understand that separation is akin to entering a grieving process. Be aware that you are grieving your lost hopes, lost dreams, and lost relationships. “If it has been a recent decision you may be in shock. You may not feel like getting out of bed in the morning but if you have children you must continue caring for them as best you can, and you do have to get out of bed to do that,” she explains.
  • Recognise that separation is a process and not a single event and that it is going to continue for a while. Seek out professional support or look for support to friends and family — and lean on them.
  • Allow yourself to feel the inevitable gamut of emotions that follow a separation. “If you need to go back to bed for a few hours after the kids have left for school, because you cannot face the world, that’s okay,” says Ryan.
  • Remember that this will get better. “Separation can also offer the opportunity to start a new life if you let it,” says Ryan.


  • Shut out people who can help or support you
  • Shut yourself down.
  • Neglect your health — an emotional shock like this places huge stress on the body and there may have been months of rows, arguments, and stand-offs by the time the separation comes. “Self-care is crucial — because stress can make you ill and something that comes out of left field that you are not expecting is like an emotional kick in the head.”
  • Put your children in the middle. “Don’t use them the children as a form of emotional blackmail — remember that your relationship with your partner may be over but for the children both of you are still their parents,” says Ryan. Research shows that putting your child first can lessen the impact on them of separation or divorce. In other words, says Ryan, when you’re at your most vulnerable emotionally, you must be strong for your child. This is not easy to do.
  • Feel you have failed — sometimes relationships simply don’t work out.


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