Leading relationship expert and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Dr. Ray O’Neill shares some advice with West Cork couples who are about to tie the knot.
“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.
O’Neill believes there are three core issues that cause problems in relationships – sex, money and housework.
One of the things he 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.
“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.”
The main challenge for couples says O’Neill is recognising that you are two individuals.
“A good couple allows you to blossom as an individual within a couple. Losing yourself comes at a price. Find someone who encourages you to keep finding yourself, not someone who encourages you to leave yourself.
Although a prenuptial has no weight in Irish law as yet, O’Neill says it is worth having a conversation. “Perhaps you’ll be surprised at how different your approaches are to saving and common assets and the division of them if it comes to that. Only by having that conversation do we come to realise what those differences are.
“It’s too easy to get into the love and romance conversation, it’s the other ones that are difficult (sex, money, housework) but a good couple won’t be afraid of them.”
Inlaws are another challenge that most couples come up against. “It’s very important to prioritise your relationship and define that this is your primary ‘family’,” explains O’Neill. “I’m still surprised to meet couples married over 10 years and spending Christmases apart with their respective families of origin just because that’s the expectation or obligation or that’s how things are. The two people in the relationship are the two people who should make decisions about it, no one else. Other people have opinions, desires, wants and needs but the decisions ultimately belong to the couple.”
“Children of course create another sense of priorities, particularly when they’re little and so dependent on the parents but there still needs to be time and space for the couple.
“In many ways I think you’re better parents if you’re strong as a couple. It’s not a hierarchy. If you work together as a team, you’ll be better parents and the children’s lives will be more enjoyable as a result.”
While he counsels there is nothing wrong with couples having differences or disagreements, O’Neill emphasises that it is silence between a couple that can do the real damage to a relationship.
“I would say silence and not talking about things has traditionally been the main problem around mental health and wellbeing and around relationship health and wellbeing in Ireland.”
And whilst bad arguing is bad in a relationship, couples will be relieved to hear that good arguing is good!
“You argue well by recognising that it’s not about winning the argument, it’s about listening to the other person and them listening to you,” explains O’Neill. “If you want the other person to listen to you, then you need to take responsibility and listen to them. It’s like anything in the history of conflict – it’s only when you recognise differences that you can move forward.”
According to O’Neill, there is only one thing that kills love and that’s neglect. “Every couple can survive pretty much everything else except neglect. When we feel neglected or when we ourselves neglect our relationship, that’s when we’re moving into a more precarious and permanently damaging space.
“Creating the time and space and communication for each other is so important. Communication doesn’t always have to be verbal but watching Netflix together or sitting in a room looking at your phone isn’t spending time together. There are a lot of ways in which we think we’re connecting in the modern world and we’re really not.
“Something as simple as cleaning a room together or lying down together for 20 minutes can be worth the time and effort,” says O’Neill.
“When you’re planning a wedding or a holiday, or having a child, ask yourself how much am I including the other person in my life, in my evening, in my weekend, in my Christmases? You don’t have to do everything together but you can’t afford to neglect each other or be neglected.
“Falling in love is easy! 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.
“With marriage you’re building something together. It’s the process rather than the result that creates the joy. It’s not about getting married, which any two people can do, it’s about being in a relationship and the joy that comes from that.”
And you’re never too old to find that joy in a relationship.
“There was a great piece of research released last year, explains O’Neill “which stated that most couples in their 20s get married after knowing each other between five and seven years, couples in their 30s are together between two and three years, couples in their 40s are together a year, and in their 50s, it’s usually six months.
“When we get older most people know better what they want. You’ve lived a bit of life, you’ve been bruised a bit and you’re not naïve. Try to find someone who sees your baggage and values it.
“A good couple is better than being single but being single is better than being in a bad couple. Being lonely in a relationship means you have someone for weddings and Christmases and so on but you don’t really have someone at all. It’s all just a visual.
And regarding soul-mates O’Neill says “A true mate to your soul is someone who wants your dreams to come true. They cannot be your dream, that’s too much pressure, but they should be able to facilitate and listen and encourage your dreams…”
Dr Ray O’Neill can be reached through his website www.machna.ie or on 086 8280033.