Look before you leap

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Posted on: 5th September, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

A practical and fun relationship show ‘Then Comes Marriage’ airing on RTÉ2 this autumn offers a unique opportunity for couples thinking of taking the plunge to gain valuable insight into their relationship. Under the guidance of leading relationship experts, psychoanalytic psychotherapist Dr. Ray O’Neill and psychologist Allison Keating, three couples have the chance to prepare for their future life together on the ultimate relationship skills crash course, which tackles everything from personal finances to family planning. Ray speaks to Mary O’Brien.

“Getting married is easy, being married is really really challenging,” says O’Neill, who divides his time between his practice in Dublin and Eyeries in rural West Cork, where his family roots go back 350 years.

As Ireland’s only male agony aunt, Ray writes about love, relationships, and desire in the 21st century. He works mainly, but not exclusively, within the LGBT community, where he has acted as a director of Gay Switchboard Dublin, and is an LGBT and mental health advocate.

Ray o'Neill

Dr. Ray O’Neill

“The point of this show is to make couples at home think about the commitment involved in marriage. It’s not a gameshow or a voyeuristic reality TV show – it’s about relationships, with real couples and real therapists.

“A lot of people marry because they don’t want to be single, rather than marrying because they’ve actually met someone that they want to spend the rest of their lives with.

“‘An Irish Marriage’ is a phrase used in the US to describe a husband and wife who have been together for a number of years but have no relationship. They don’t sleep together and they don’t talk to each other. Because of the Catholic legacy there’s this overriding idea that we have to stay together just for the children. And yet I’m now working with the children of such marriages who have no idea how to form a relationship because they’re terrified of ending up in something like their mother and father. People need to realise that it’s ok for relationships to end. It’s not always best for people to stay together, particularly when there is addiction or abuse involved.”

O’Neill believes there are three core issues that cause problems in relationships – sex, money and housework. “We’re still so private and anxious around sexuality and money. And housework is a problem because we still work under really ridiculous antiquated gender presumptions.

“It’s never happened that a couple has come to see me because they’re arguing about housework. What it comes down to is somebody feeling or being taken for granted, someone in the relationship feeling stressed and poor communication, which are always indicative of something else.”

One of the things O’Neill emphasises to the couples he counsels is that a relationship is not about equality, it’s about equity. “Equity tells us if you’re better at cooking and I’m better at ironing, we should divide the work that way. The key is never to presume things but engage in conversations about it.”

According to O’Neill, a challenge faced by every couple in a long-term relationship, whether same-sex or straight, is something known as ‘Lesbian bed death’. This is a term that was coined to describe familiarity killing desire. “A very real issue for all couples is the misconception that ‘same is boring and different is exciting’. But the level of sexuality that can only happen with someone you’re familiar with can be incredibly powerful. Couples need to be honest with each other and communicate their desires.”

Describing himself as a ridiculous optimist, but very much a realist, O’Neill holds mixed views on marriage, believing the main problem is that it’s held in too high esteem. “It’s seen as the pinnacle of a relationship; once you’re married, you’ve gone to the Olympic Games, when actually you’ve maybe only just started training for them.

“There really isn’t enough exploration and conversation around the challenges of being married. It’s far too easy to get into and way too costly on an emotional, financial and legal basis to get out of.

“Falling in love is easy. I know it’s heartbreaking, I know it’s troublesome but keeping love and respect alive, and communication going between the two of you – that’s where the real challenge is. A marriage demands and requires more of two human beings than just love or sexual attraction.

“There are people you love and there are people you marry and these aren’t necessarily the same.

“I’m not suggesting this is the way it should be today, but in the old days, which isn’t so long ago in Ireland, and also for example in Jewish tradition, you have the official matchmaker who looks for compatibility in terms of socio economics, political or even ethical outlook. Nowadays, lust and love are confused way too often.”

O’Neill’s advice for couples is to have “a real relationship rather than a successful relationship”. “I’m always wary as to how success is measured. Ask yourself, do you actually like this person, do you love this person, do you feel loved, respected, do you have a voice and is it listened to? The best relationships are relationships where two individuals form a couple and yet stay individuals. If you lose your individual identity to the couple, you end up paying the price somewhere because you’ve sacrificed and surrendered too much of yourself. We will all have to face being on our own again at some stage, whether that’s through separation, illness or death.”

On the other hand, If you’re too much of an individual within a couple then the relationship will suffer too. “It’s important to get that balance,” says O’Neill. “Compromise, but also be aware of and respect the things you can’t compromise on. Oftentimes that only emerges when people have already made a commitment.

“You know that Meatloaf song ‘I would do anything for love but I won’t do that’…I always ask couples ‘What is the one thing you wouldn’t do?’. That’s where honesty starts emerging. For example, if your partner had bowel cancer would you willingly change their colostomy bag every day? That’s never in the fairytale.”

Arguing is an important part of a relationship but it’s how you argue that matters according to O’Neill. “Couples have to learn how to argue well, which means you speak, and you listen. Communication is at the heart of a successful relationship.”

“One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about this new RTE show is its honesty and authenticity and getting involved with the couples and seeing them develop their communication with each other. It’s not an easy thing to go on national telly but it’s a unique opportunity for them to learn something about themselves, and to share what they learn with viewers at home. In many ways our couples are pioneers taking the stigma out of relationship therapy, they are the ones that offer opportunities for us all to learn.”

Ray can be reached through his website www.machna.ie or on 086 8280033.

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