We can work it out. Or not; the HUMAN CONDITION

It's that romantic time of year, but what if you and your loved one's rows have gone nuclear? Lucy Banwell tried couples counselling

CUTLERY was always the acid test. I would just have to say something like: "What about that time when I gave you a spoon and fork to eat your spaghetti with..." and if Tim exploded into shouts then I knew that we were going to have a bad session. I try to explain the essence of this to the counsellor. She nods, with carefully tempered understanding, while Tim knots his fists against the sides of his chair and takes a deep breath. "But it was so selfish of you!" He blurts out. "Not to remember that I use a knife! And I don't want to be with someone that selfish."

If we were at home I would say: "So don't be with me then." And we would launch into a long argument that would quickly turn to shouting, and maybe throwing things, and would end with Tim leaving and slamming the door and not returning for a few days. But we're not at home. We're here. In this counsellor's suburban semi. And neither of us can walk out. So we sit, in silence, staring at the floor.

Seeing a couples counsellor is not an easy option. It's a last resort. It's an excruciating process to sit in a room listening to the person you love telling someone else all the things they hate about you. It is exhaustively demoralising to pick apart every aspect of your relationship. You might - with a bit of luck and an awful lot of hard work - begin to realise how a spoon or a knife can become bigger than love, but in the process you will feel that you have moved a mountain. And when the mountain is moved you might find that there's nothing much left.

It had all began about three and a half years before. Tim had told me, when we first started going out together, that he had been prone to bouts of depression in his past. "But nothing too serious," he assured me. I suppose I pictured him reclining on a sofa - hand clasped to forehead - in some sort of melancholia, or something. I certainly didn't imagine that, a few months later, he would be frantically hurling things out of my wardrobe searching for the clothes that he insisted I had been wearing the week before and that I insisted were in his head. That day, exhausted, he slumped onto my bed and asked me to help him. Several GP visits, psychiatric sessions and prettily-coloured pills later, episodes like this became less frequent. But, three years on, too many resentments had built up between us and I knew that we'd either split up, or get help. There were no children to compromise for, but both of us felt that our relationship was worth the effort. We didn't want to split up, so we got help. But it was months before we plucked up the courage to actually make an appointment with the counsellor.

And now we're here, we just don't know what to say. "How do you feel about this, Lucy?" the counsellor asks. I want to shout at Tim that he's the selfish one, not me. I've stood by him while he's helter-skeltered from one depression to the next, and now it all comes down to knives and spoons. I feel like crying because I'm embarrassed. I feel too hot. Too uncomfortable. Sick. I feel so many things that I know that if I start to say them then I may never stop. I might just sit here and pour out three years of stored up resentment, disappointment and despair. But I'm not used to talking about my feelings.

"I suppose I feel a bit hurt," I mutter.

"So do I," says Tim.

We sit and stare at the carpet again. After that first session, as we get back into the car, Tim reaches out and hugs me. "Are you OK?" It's the first time one of us has reached out to the other in weeks. But by the time we get home we're screaming at each other again. Each time, the sessions get a little easier. We start listening to each more and realising how our arguments happen and how, perhaps, we can discuss things at a more productive volume than a full-lung shout. After a couple of months we are given homework. We each have to talk, at home, for five minutes without being interrupted by the other.

"I feel silly."

Silence.

"Oh. Has my time started? I didn't know it had started."

Silence.

"This is silly."

But, gradually, it makes a difference. We begin to look forward to our five minute soap-boxes, and we begin to say important things during them. And we're actually listening to each other.

Some weeks later we're at the stage when we've been given permission to make up our own rules for the talking sessions.

"I don't think we should be allowed to answer back in the second five minutes."

"Why not?"

"Because you'll just be defensive and disagree with everything I've said. You always do."

"No, I won't. But I think we need a chance to put our own views across. Otherwise you'll just attack me and never hear my side of it. Like you always do."

Five minutes later we've got hoarse throats and Tim's just slammed the front door as he leaves.

But I know that - even if I don't see him before - we have a weekly rendezvous in two separate armchairs by a flickering Seventies gas fire, and our counsellor is there to remind us just how far we've come. Slowly, I begin to count days between shout bouts. Rather than hours.

Six or seven months pass, and we've become better at communicating. Things aren't great but I can see happiness with Tim, just a breath away. I feel that we will solve the insurmountable problem of the cutlery (and the hairy toes, the weight gain, the bathroom window and all the other stupid, stupid things) and be miraculously "happy". We often manage to talk about things without arguing, now, and Tim understands my pain and I understand his, and all the understanding makes things calmer, somehow. We begin to think that we might even have a future together.

Then it all goes wrong again. It finally ends, horribly, in a cross-channel ferry cabin with Tim on the bottom bunk shouting up, and me on the top bunk sobbing. With both of us remembering the time - in an almost identical cabin - when I held his hand while he was seasick for hours and we'd never been closer. And with both of us knowing that we could be that close again if we really wanted to.

In fact, even now, we're communicating. With brilliant clarity and great understanding. Tim has just given me a minute-by-minute account of everything I've done that's annoyed him over the past week. And I, with my new-found sensitivity, can understand that he's really voicing a lifetime's worth of hurt, not a week's. Quite suddenly, I realise that Tim's problems go much deeper than just me. Deeper than couples counselling can reach. I can see the angry little boy, red-faced and frustrated, raging against the world. I love him, but that doesn't change the fact that we've hurt each other irreparably. And no amount of 10 out of 10, A+ communicating and understanding is going to bring back our respect for one another. All at once I know that there is nothing more to say. There never will be.

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