The trials of life with an agony aunt

If your partner is a marriage guidance counsellor, does it make for peace and harmony ... or is it just impossible to have a good row? Andrew G. Marshall reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You have bumped into your doctor in the supermarket and spotted that his trolley is full of booze and artery-hardening comfort foods. You have peered over the fence of the local gardening contractor and secretly felt pleased that he has moss in his lawn, too. But what's it like to be married to someone who is supposed to be an expert on relationships? Do the partners of agony aunts and marriage guidance counsellors always feel understood and valued, or, like other professionals, do they find it easier to know the answers than put them into practice?

The relationships of the people who help us with our problems is of crucial importance, because how they bond with the most significant people in their lives determines how comfortable they are in intimate situations like a counselling room.

"It's first of all in their romantic relationships that counsellors show the kinds of skills they ought to have," explains Bernard Lange, a counsellor, who is writing an MSC on the attachment patterns of counsellors. He believes that the more secure they are, the better they become at their job.

All prospective Relate counsellors are questioned about their own relationships. Clare is a Relate counsellor who recently completed her training. Ray, her husband of 10 years, has seen the difference. He says: "We still argue about the same old thing but at least the arguments are a bit shorter; we understand better what each other is on about."

Clare agrees: "We don't have to argue for three or four days. Arguments are shorter. It's not the end of the world every time we have a row. It doesn't have to mean suitcases!"

While doctors and landscape gardeners are encouraged to use their skills at home, the families of counsellors often become angry if they use the tricks of their trade. Ray says: "From time to time she puts her counsellor's hat on, she starts questioning, probing. I don't always realise it's being done but I can see it afterwards. I get browned off because I feel like a guinea pig. It seems an unfair advantage - knowing where an argument could go, how to manipulate."

Clare admits: "Of course I deny I'm acting like a counsellor, but it is a fair comment, it's a powerful thing to be able to do. It's one of the bag of tricks in a row when I'm really cross: what can I say now that's really hurtful and make me hurt you as much as you hurt me?"

Nancy Roberts is on Talk Radio UK every Saturday and Sunday evening discussing life, love and personal issues. Although she considers herself a performer rather than an agony aunt, she provides witty and down-to-earth advice to a growing band of avid listeners.

In contrast to counsellors who seldom reveals anything about themselves, Nancy is an open book: "I've even said on one occasion I'm so happy to be here in the studio because I'm so angry with my husband and it's nice to get away from him. Slit me down the middle and spill me out and you can know everything you want to know."

She has been married to Uwe for over 20 years, and he does not object to thousands of people knowing his private life. "She's shared with the nation our personal, medical and mental health history, breakdowns, depressions being made redundant. No holds barred - that's the way she is," he says.

"In the past, she did it with our friends and now it's on the radio. It's been happening for so long it doesn't seem unusual, it's just part of her work.

"The stories are always there to illustrate a point, a purpose, it's never just idle gossip. In that context I don't mind. She puts her guts on the table, so they can put their guts on the table. The callers respond because they sense here's somebody who talks openly and they feel they can also open up to Nancy."

Although the skills of dealing with problems on the radio and in a counselling room are very different, Nancy, too, has brought her work home with her. "I'll say: `OK, if we were a caller with this problem what would I say?' I've tried to apply the advice that I give to other people to myself."

Uwe feels he uses the work she does as a tool. "Instead of saying: I think you should look at it this way, which doesn't always get a favourable reaction, I try and get her to put herself in the position of listening to herself - then I can bring in my suggestions and points. It takes it on to more neutral ground."

Policemen often marry policewomen and teachers marry teachers, but counsellors seldom marry each other. Although the partners of counsellors are sympathetic and supportive, they are less interested in doing the job - two people always contemplating their navel leaves no time to live in the real world.

Clare is pleased that her husband is a carpenter. "Ray makes something that you can see and touch. I really like that - you can't do that with counselling. Although I believe you can measure the benefits, it's nothing like as tangible as a bit of furniture. There's a security in that down- to-earthness."

Nancy feels that if Uwe, who works in finance, wanted to follow in her counselling footsteps, it could damage their marriage.

"Uwe went through a period of being counselled himself a couple of years ago in this new cognitive behaviour therapy, and came out of it a disciple. From my 40 years of being in and out of more traditional Freudian psychoanalytical therapy - it drove me nuts.

"I would say: you're making me so angry and he would say: `I'm not making you angry, you're making yourself angry'. It was the only time that we came close to bloodshed. If he had gone on to be a cognitive behavioural therapist, we would have divorced!"