Helena and Nick found harmony in conflict and are now teaching others at their clinic to do the same. Rose Rouse reports
Psychotherapists Helena Sorensen and Nick Duffell are experts on arguing. Having both broken up marriages to be together, they then fought hammer and tongs - "God knows what the neighbours thought," says Helena - for four unrelenting years. "It was cruel," says Helena. "We used our therapeutic skills and our psychological knowledge to really hit at each other. It was pure destruction."

Before it got better, it got worse. In the summer of 1993, they went to the south of France for a romantic six-week holiday. Of course, it turned into a nightmare. "That horrendous summer in beautiful France," says Helena with a wry smile, "all our conflict came out. Nick had two boys who we prioritised and our relationship suffered. There was an unspoken conflict that there shouldn't be any conflict." Finally alone, they fought non-stop. Helena was crying. Nick was sulking. Helena reached the point of despair. "That's when we started to shift things. It wasn't the shouting that changed us, it was the despair," says Helena. "We started to share our grief together and that was a turning point. The relationship started to nurture us."

Being psychotherapists, they recognised the mechanisms of these arguments and decided to start workshops for couples in commitment and conflict. "This is not about saving people's marriages," says Nick. "They are couples who are already committed to their relationship. They are saying, 'We want this but it is difficult'."

One of their fundamental beliefs is that conflict, rather than better communication, can transform a relationship. "We could communicate perfectly, we're experts, it wasn't like the women's magazines say," says Nick. "It was about learning what was going on in that clash and collapsing our illusions of ourselves. From that place, we were able to be with each other more authentically. Then we had the theoretical idea that conflict can be a teacher."

At the first workshop in May, they worked with nine couples. "One couple didn't make it," says Nick, "they probably had an argument on the way." Rows about sex, rows about children, refusing to row - Nick and Helena deal with them through storytelling, poems, group exercises and physical movement.

"We're trying to get couples to reveal hidden sides of themselves," says Nick. "We realised a very simple truth. Most of us suffer because of what our parents left unresolved in their own relationship. Our work is about releasing that child."

One of their main discoveries is that the initial attracting qualities later turn into negative monsters. "I used to think Nick was sensitive and strong when I met him," says Helena, "later he turned into a grumpy tyrant."

For him, her optimism turned into childish naivety. "Her optimism began to drive me nuts," he says. "She could never see when people were trying to get the better of her. She would never assert herself in terms of putting down boundaries except to me. I was the only one in the world she could say no to."

One of the workshop's aims is to help people "disidentify" - recognise invisible parts of themselves - enough to stand back for a minute. "Recognition is a bit like working out," says Nick. "You have to practise it. It's like going to the gym, you have to learn how to use the equipment."

Their own rows are much shorter these days. "We're not so blaming," says Nick. "We even say sorry sometimes."

One of the first requirements, they say for learning from conflict is a no-exit clause. "The idea that you stay together as long as it feels good is a killer," says Nick. "You have to agree to stay when it gets tough as well as to listen and to learn."

Information on the workshops is available from 128a Northview Road, London N8 7LP. Tel 0181-341 4885.

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