Counselling for Dummies

I am not sure if I will get summarily divorced if I say anything about the marriage counselling sessions we just had, but I would like to, and Mark doesn’t read anything I write, so just don’t tell him, ok? No sneaky little whatsapp messages or little texts on his phone to dob me in, because I always check his phone so I will know, and you will be a bit dead to me. Anyway, I don’t really know why it feels weirdly shameful to go to counselling – after all, you send your 25 year old Landrover in for a service with a mechanic at least once every year, and he fiddles with it and fixes up the rusted parts and gets it all nice and safe again, so really, what’s the difference?

So. We had six sessions with a volunteer counsellor at Marriage Care, which, importantly, costs whatever you can afford to pay. It was down the road in Notting Hill Gate, next to a bank and through some rickety wooden Doors Of Shame (as Mark liked to call them). We turned up the first time and went into a shabby but nice-smelling room with chairs and a tiny pencil print on the wall which I studied quite a lot and a big box of tissues. We told the lady right off that while we love each other and actually, crucially, still like each other, we had a big problem because we can’t agree on where to live. In fact, we told her, we couldn’t even mention the words ‘New Zealand’ without one of us getting constricted airwaves, red hivey skin and usually a nasty fight that might well send one of us running out into the night or into a silence that could last for days and days, one that left a kind of residual distance that makes it hard to trust each other. We said it was becoming hard to find the kindness, tolerance, patience, humour and companionship between us. Without those things, she said, you don’t really have a marriage that works anymore.

So we went into it all a bit, and she told us after the first session that one of us was holding all the nostalgia and the other was in a vacuum, and that our stubborn, desperate opposing stances were really a fight for our own mental health. She said we did have a good marriage, but a very serious problem, and so by looking into why the both of us held our positions so tightly she might be able to loosen them a bit so we could talk properly and fairly about it. Over the next five weeks she poked into our childhoods and looked at death, faith and the different kinds of love that you experience over a lifetime. She challenged us about the compromises we might each be able to make and forced Mark to weigh up the longing for extended family over the one that is right here, now.

There were some deeply awkward moments when she looked at why and how we were together in the first place and our age gap – I said I thought it had never really been a problem, but she said that actually, lady, it is now. She said that our roles have been of parent and adolescent and that if we couldn’t change that dynamic, the marriage wasn’t going to stand a chance. It was exposing and brutal, and she helped us see things in very different ways. She told us how to talk to each other better, and to recognise the patterns we keep slipping into, and she gave me ideas of how to start becoming an autonomous equal. She also kind of told me to grow up.

As for the New Zealand problem? Well, I would have liked her to sit us down and tell us what to do, but she didn’t. She said we had to consider everything, and think about who had what to lose, and how much of a sacrifice we could both stand. I like a clean ending, so I said we could go and I would give up my fight, but only if Mark would stop trying to drag me by the hair and instead start having a sensible conversation with me like I was an intelligent 40 year old woman with opinions that need to be considered fairly rather than someone who is a complete idiot with grandiose delusions of herself. Or, you know, I would happily decamp to Dollis Hill, but he wasn’t having any of that.

So it helped, it really did. I think the counsellor was brave and brilliant and even Mark said she was good, even though when she asked him scary questions he just got louder and laughed at the end of every sentence even though it wasn’t funny and he stuck his hands over his mouth as though he really just wanted to die. Awkward? Yes, but maybe you need that, you know? Poking under the bonnet, ripping out the spark plugs and changing the oil?


I went to Noah’s first parent teacher interview, and it was dire. That kid has somehow hoodwinked the school into thinking he is sickly, because he runs off to the sick bay as often as he can, citing ‘nausea’ and ‘stomach aches’. This means he misses schoolwork, and sometimes, for a few weeks there, he convinced them to send him home so he could show me his pained look for about seven minutes before declaring that a round of Minecraft would do his headache the world of good. This propensity to feign illness I was aware of and I told the school not to be swayed by his convincing and dramatic monologues of symptomless aches and pains, but I wasn’t aware that additionally he simply hasn’t been doing any work. So, I was getting more and more hatchet-faced as the interviews went on, with the same message (Lovely boy, bright, but won’t focus, is very slow, likes to spin his ruler around for the entire lesson, etc etc) until I was finally taken into the black-suited Head of Behaviour’s office with Noah, sat down, and was told the tale of that mornings’ Shoe Incident.

The Head addressed Noah and told him not to bother trying to explain to me what had happened, because when asked earlier that day to explain to the Senior Leadership Team he had apparently just lied. The Head said he wouldn’t want Noah lying again to his mother, so instead, he said, let’s just watch the CCTV footage, shall we?

So I was dying. Just dying. And we all had to endure the crystal-clear footage of Noah doing some clumsy mock-ninja fighting with another messy little chap at the top of the glass-interiored-very-seriously-architectured expensive school with Noah responding to a slow cartoon kick with his own balletic spin, which sent his untied shoe over the glass bannister and down four flights of stairs into the central atrium, narrowly missing the 70 year old SENCO teacher.

This kind of incident, the Head explained, was forbidden, even though it was clear that Noah hadn’t intended to hurt anyone or to cause an accident. Had he had his uniform on correctly, had he refrained from moronic Karate-Kidding, it wouldn’t have happened. So Noah was excluded for a day, and we took him home and went over his missed work and write a very solemn letter to the Senior Leadership Team which took seven drafts to get right, and he was allowed back a day later with promises that no longer would Noah be King Of Dangerously Flung Shoes And Under The Radar Shit Work Ethics And Fake Illnesses.

It has been tough. Here is me drinking my lunch on a Friday with Vicky while we both ran away for a day. Whatever gets you through, right?




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7 Responses to Counselling for Dummies

  1. textpatwives says:

    I love all of this (even if the bit about Shit Older Boys Do terrifies me somewhat) but especially the counselling part. You never read about what happens in these sessions, and if you do they’re never written with such honesty and candour. The part about Mark longing for his extended family over his existing one particularly resonated with me (I am Mark in my marriage). Also, SO INTERESTING. The counsellor sounds brilliantly clever, I want to sit in a pub with her and ask: Tell me how you know all these things (and then forget to take notes, and forget what she said, but know that it was BRILLIANT).
    And – not to tell you what to do or anything – but this would be such a perfect topic for a newspaper / magazine article, no? Guardian Family section or similar – would you consider pitching it? (Although raises likelihood of your husband actually reading it. Pseudonym? You could take one of those Facebook quizzes to see what your Guardian Writer’s Name would be. Your first dog’s name + the street you live on, etc?)

  2. theharridan says:

    I did think there was some value in giving a little account of what goes on in those rooms, in the sessions that we hear about, in whispered, shamed little confessions you might get even now and then from friends who admit to needing some help. So, I think – best to blow the top of that and share! Poor husband – but surely it’s for the greater good, etc etc. I will think on emailing that elusive Harriet Green at the Guardian. Why not – I’ve nothing left to lose now!
    PS great idea bout the pseudonym. Mine would be the glorious Tiffany Cleveland…

    • textpatwives says:

      Your glorious Tiffany Cleveland would be churning out breathless passion-fests (set against a backdrop of war, deceit and human endurance) while my Tinkle Holland is stuck producing train time-tables of 1970s Mainland Europe for geeks.

  3. raccontando says:

    That counsellor sounds wonderful. Coincidentally (or perhaps not actually) I was recently thinking along similar lines – that I really need to grow up and that my (older) husband tends to take on the grown up role for important decision making. Did she tell you HOW to grow up and be taken seriously though?!

  4. theharridan says:

    She didn’t tell me *how* as such but by being made aware of our adult/adolescent dynamic I feel like we can stop falling into it Quite so readily.. And there has to be an acknowledgement that I’m a proper grown woman and I need to believe in myself as much as Mark needs to listen and believe in me too. And I can’t be a brat just demanding my own way. Argh what a Pandora’s Box 😬

  5. jacks says:

    don’t come back to NZ. How will I see Europe vicariously through you?
    Although…it is the best. just saying.

  6. Pingback: Accidentally A Relationship Column | The Harridan

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