‘I was scared. Relate advertises to men at football grounds and, to be honest, it sounded like a tough away game’
In the families I know, it’s the men who organise the car’s MOT. Maybe even the combi boiler’s service. But it’s the women who are entrusted with the maintenance of the biggest, most crucial domestic machine: the relationship.
It’s as if the men have taken one look at the troubleshooting page at the back of the user manual and said: “You sort it out. I really don’t understand how this thing works.”
Walk into any Starbucks in the middle of the morning and I swear you will overhear a woman brainstorming solutions to a relationship malfunction. Why is it using up so much energy? Should I flush out that residue of bitterness? Maybe I should just get a new one off the internet? Invariably she’ll be telling a female friend because, inevitably, “he” will not talk about it.
When my relationship was on the rocks ten years ago my partner suggested we went for counselling with Relate. A recent report from the relationship service found that husbands often seek help only when “the ship is sinking”, blanking out problems until the relationship reaches crisis point. Their wives seek it when they want to “discuss change”. I’d have to agree that in my experience men won’t accept help with a relationship until it’s too late, any more than they will ask for directions until they are hopelessly lost.
It can’t be long before there is an Xbox game called “Call of Duty: Modern Wifey”, relating a woman’s mission to get her husband to communicate. We could follow her jerky progress on a marriage-cam as she stalks hubby through a virtual living room crying “Speak to me!” as he ducks behind a paper, a sofa or a can of lager. Then there’d be a big explosion.
The prospect of counselling scared me. Relate advertises to men at Premier League football grounds and, to be honest, it sounded like a tough away game. Also, counsellors are usually women. That’s an away game with a bent ref.
But I went, albeit with a bad attitude. The counsellor’s kitchen door had a double cat flap. There was a Guardian on her desk and ethnic pillows plumped on the armchair. Mantelpiece photos were of the counsellor and two children. But there was no car magazine, M&S Blue Harbour fleece or loose change lying on a table to suggest a man had ever been in here. Nothing to suggest this woman was relationship-hardened.
I recall looking at a box of tissues — clearly ransacked in a recent counselling meltdown — that had been placed next to my partner’s chair. And I thought: “She gets the tissues because she’s going to do the crying. This is a stitch-up.”
Not very adult, I admit. Of course, our counsellor was insightful, even-handed and quite brilliant. She explored our backgrounds and what our families were like. “Have you ever experienced a healthy, loving relationship?” she asked.
I got choked up talking about my mother and father and how they stuck at their marriage but seemed to stifle each other and kill one another’s happiness. I didn’t want to do that to someone else. I didn’t want that to happen to me. It was a huge relief to say that, after 15 years and three children, the inside of my head felt like a dystopia created by Radiohead.