First-Hand: 'We saw three therapists . . . and then my wife decided she'd file for divorce': Ian, a 41-year-old trade union official, tells of his dismal experiences at the hands of the professional marriage counsellors

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I HAVE serious misgivings about the Government's reasons for compelling people to have counselling before they're allowed to divorce. It's my belief that they're just trying to save money - there are so many couples claiming for legal aid nowadays, that it's probably cheaper to encourage them to stay together. That said, I do believe that if you're going to divorce, a conciliation process is better than an adversarial one. I know what an acrimonious divorce does to children. We've had a lot of homilies from the Government about family values, discipline and that old crap - but it offers nothing to the kids. Any system that sets itself up now cannot ignore children. If they're going to insist on counselling they should include children in on it.

I went with my wife to three different kinds of counsellors before we finally broke up. We'd been married for 18 years; but we'd married young and the bond between us didn't last. Sally was adamant she didn't want to go to counselling - she hated the idea of being on someone's file. But the situation was so bad that I said 'look, we need to do something about it'. I reckoned there were two possible outcomes - either counselling would patch up our marriage, or it it would stop our break-up becoming embroiled in revenge.

In the end we went to family therapy for 18 months, Relate for three months and psycho-sexual counselling for four. All the counsellors were middle-aged to elderly ladies. I found it embarrassing when they said things like 'thank you for sharing that with me', or started talking about 'quality-time' or other silly jargon. The trained voice modulation was particularly nauseating. But on the whole it was an enormous help. It didn't save my marriage but it put my behaviour into context. They delve into your family - that kind of thing. Our emotions were so highly charged that it was helpful to have someone to bounce them off. One of them said they liked to get people to bury their differences by taking a spade and digging a hole together outside. 'You must be bloody mad,' I said, so we didn't do that.

I thought the biggest problem was my wife's relationship with our eldest son, Sammy. He was having severe problems at school and Sally was suffering from post-natal depression after having the second child. I tried to talk about the children at the counselling sessions but they only seemed interested in our sex life. We did have problems on the sex front. I'm a hopeless romantic and I believe sex is the most intimate and powerful expression of love. But sex had become a system of reward. I'd get it on my birthday or if I'd been good, but most of the time not at all. In the psycho-sexual sessions we were like two small kids squabbling and asking Mum to sort it out. We were told not to have sex until given permission - that took the pressure off both of us. Then we were allowed to touch each other on the arms, legs and face - staying away from the obvious erogenous zones. Then they gave Sally some kind of drug which made her completely relaxed while the doctor just talked her through the different stages of an imaginary love-making session with me. She seemed to respond quite well to that - not that the effects lasted for long.

I can see that counselling would help couples who just can't talk to each other, but in my case I felt that our marriage was doomed anyway; we hit the rocks with such frequency that it made an eventual break-up inevitable. I had started to treat work as a refuge, and eventually began an affair with a girl there. As soon as my wife discovered this she shoved all my clothes into black bin-liners and my son was put into the hands of the local authority - it was horrendous. She sued me for adultery - rather ironic given that she'd had five lovers herself while we'd been married. She wanted to shock me out of my complacency, she said. After this we stopped going to Relate. The situation was so upsetting and outrageous I couldn't discuss it.

I'm not marrying again. People can make commitments to each other in a variety of ways. I think the commitment to bring up children together is infinitely more profound than any religious ceremony. Thanks to the counselling I'll know better next time. I'll know when a relationship's not working and not worth pursuing.