Behind Closed Doors: Ode to Relate Lady

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This time last year, I was unhappy.

I can put it down to a lot of things.  None of them are the whole reason; one factor rarely is.  I’d moved jobs twice in the space of five months.  I’d moved house, a move which, for many reasons, nearly put us out of our minds with anxiety.  My grandmother died.  Other things were going on under the surface.  When one thing goes wrong, you can often cope because the rest of your life  is in order.  But nothing was the same in my world and I had nothing to hold on to.

I was stressed, the kind of stress that you can’t see an end to and that inhabits your every waking moment, until you learn to live with it, you operate at a level  where that stress becomes a part of you and how you interact.  My husband and I weren’t friends like we used to be, we’d stopped talking about the important stuff, we were arranging flooring and assembling furniture and snapping at each other and I was trying to prove myself in a new job, then two new jobs, and  I couldn’t even work the shower or turn on the oven and I just couldn’t cope.

I was unhappy, and I knew something had to change, but when you’re in it, when you’re living it, you can’t see what that thing is.   I hated not being able to just get on with it.  I felt like a failure.

I tried talking about it to people.  My family told me to deal with the stress, so I started going to bed earlier, I listened to a relaxation CD, I took baths, I read books, I had me-time.  Those things made me feel more calm, more ready to take on the world, but they didn’t change the fundamental problem.  Stress is more than being tense and tired.  Sleeping better doesn’t change the underlying factors.  And the thing that worried me the most was that I’d married one of my best friends in the world and I couldn’t even ask for the simplest things or make the most innocuous comment without ending up arguing about it.

There are lots of reasons marriages, or any relationship, go through difficult patches.  You say you’re ready to take the rough with the smooth, but there’s nothing like the quiet, lonely desperation of not being able to communicate with the one person you said you’d be with your whole life.  I knew one of us was going to have to give the other a hand out of that situation.  The problem was, neither of us knew how to do it.  You can’t help someone else, even someone you love who’s become a stranger, if you can’t even see where you yourself are going.

So, you choose.  You think about how important the marriage is to you.  You think about what you could be together, what you are, and whether that gap is too wide to try to jump.  You think about the effort and time and love it will take to get you back on track.  And you decide whether it’s worth trying.

To me, it was worth trying.  I’d always said I would try.

So, I started trying.  I went to Relate.

Let me clarify, I did not want to go to Relate.  I was mortified that I even made the initial phone call.  People like me just battle through, I kept telling myself.  It’s always alright in the end.  I always harboured a healthy (and unfounded) suspicion of counselling and therapy, preferring to believe that people could resolve their own problems with enough focus and dedication.  That’s painfully short-sighted.  I see that now.   Yes, I do want to give the former me a good slap.

When I first met Relate lady, I was five minutes late for our appointment.  I sprinted through the doors, babbling something about the traffic and a red light and and how sorry I was and my name’s Melanie*, and I don’t really have a problem I don’t even know why I’m here really, sorry for wasting your time.  She took a measured look at me and promptly ignored everything I’d said.

I came to begrudgingly enjoy the first few sessions. I’d stand there in the lift up to Relate lady’s flat dreading the upcoming hour, how I was going to have to talk about myself, asking myself why was I doing this, it wasn’t making any difference, it cost too much for too little return, she wasn’t asking me relevant things anyway, grumble grumble.  And I’d get in there, and I’d sit down, and I’d take a deep breath and face her, and she’d ask me a question, and I’d take another deep breath and I’d answer, and the hour would go past, and I’d stand in that lift on the way down feeling like she’d reached into me and unknotted a little bit more of what lay there in the darkness.

She had the measure of me from the beginning.  I know I was lucky.  It takes some people a very long time to find the right counsellor for them.  She never let me evade a question, she never took my first response as fact.  She knew when to press, she knew when to push me, she knew my limits and she moved them.  She was impenetrable.  Talking about yourself for an hour is really, bloody hard work.  I simply wasn’t accustomed to it, and the urge to ask Relate lady things about her own life got the better of me every time.  We ask people questions as a way of deflecting attention onto ourselves.  She was having none of it, and deftly shone the spotlight back on me, time and time again.

After five or six sessions she stepped up a gear.  I really did not enjoy it.  I’d been cruising along quite happily and she went and made me work harder, made me reach deeper, against my will and without even asking.  Throughout the week, I’d think of clever questions to ask to try to outfox her, to make clear that what she was asking was of no relevance to my current situation.  She batted them back to me with a perfect, sincere answer, every time. She exhausted me, but in a good way, in an empowering way, like a really good run does, but for the mind.  She was my adversary, and I hated it, but I was paying her to do it.  And I was going back for it, every week.

That’s the strange thing about counselling.

You can ask your friends and family to help you out in a situation.  And in many cases, they’ll be all the help you need.  They know you, they know your limits, and they’ll give you an answer that takes all you are to them into account.  But that can work against you, sometimes.  There are some problems that need professional help.  That need someone who’s never met you, and who owes you nothing, to unpick your issue and have the courage to show you what you’ve become, and what you need to be, in order to resolve it, in order to be happy again.

Without going into the details, what Relate lady had the courage to show me went beyond whose fault was what, and forced me to look at myself, without flinching, without compromising.  She forced me to understand what our past makes me and my husband do, the assumptions that we make about each other, why we are shaped as we are and what that makes us, together.

I’d come home every week, and I’d talk to my husband about what we’d discussed in that session. Sometime he’d agree, sometimes he’d disagree, sometimes he’d challenge, sometimes he’d quietly sit there and take it in.  Sometimes I’d ask him a question, and then two days later he’d come to me with his answer.  I will always be grateful that he never tried to stop me going to Relate, even though he must have been scared about what I might eventually figure out.

I stopped going at the start of this year.  I felt I’d learnt enough to try and fix things on my own, and to recognise the signs of things going badly again.  It’s easy enough putting into practice what you’ve learned when you have your crutch there every week, with whom to talk things through.  The real test comes when you have to rely on yourself, your wits, each other.

We did fine.

If I’m honest, I thought I’d be much better at counselling than I actually was.  (I do realise how ridiculous that sentence sounds).  I like talking, I like feelings, I’m mostly a happy camper, ergo I’m an ideal therapy candidate.  Surprise surprise, it doesn’t work like that.   What I got from Relate lady was not tips and techniques for the perfect marriage (far from it), but an image of myself in the mirror viewed from every angle, including the deeply unflattering ones, that has made me better equipped to deal with a whole host of situations that friends, work, writing, family and life have thrown at me.

I’m not ashamed anymore to have asked for help, and I would recommend Relate without hesitation. You don’t have to be on the brink of divorce to go, but you do have to recognise which problems aren’t going to fix themselves.

I sometimes think about what Relate lady would say in a certain situation.  In my head, I always win the exchange.  But I nearly always do what I think she’d say.

Categories: Behind Closed Doors, Life Experience, Marriage
14 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Alison
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    This is a really interesting post. I’ve had friends go for counselling and have seen and heard how much it’s helped them. My husband and I haven’t needed anything like this but we agree if the day comes that we’re struggling, we’d definitely consider counselling.

    Good on you for recognising you needed an bit of extra help and for sticking with it. Sounds like you and your husband have a stronger relationship as a result and that can only be a good thing. Wishing you all the best for the future.

  2. Katielase
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this, it’s a brilliant, brave post. I’m so glad Relate helped you when you needed support.

    I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’ve been through counselling. I’ve suffered from anxiety my whole life. As it happens, one of the many things my Mum is and has been is a counsellor, so I’ve been lucky enough to grow up seeing it as a fairly normal thing to do. I know that most people don’t necessarily have this though, and to me this makes them even braver for deciding to go and get help despite the stigma or the fear.

    I’ve actually tried counselling several times, and I do firmly believe you need to find the right counsellor at the right time. Sometimes you just aren’t in the right place to accept the help you need, or you don’t find the right person. At the end of my second year at Uni though, I was going under. Literally crumbling under the pressure of my own expectations. I remember standing outside my counsellor’s house for the first time, shaking and weeping, feeling like I was cracking open and falling apart. The thing about counselling is that I don’t feel that M put me back together, I know that I did it, I just did it with her guidance, and strength and support behind me, to help me face the things I’d been frightened of my whole life. It wasn’t easy, but it made me stronger in the end.

    Even if you aren’t suffering from stress or anxiety or depression, I think there is something empowering and brave in really knowing yourself.

    KL x

  3. deltafoxtrotcharlie
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Great post, I love Relate (is it weird to say that??)

    I went with my ex and even though our marriage didn’t work out, a) it was nothing to do with our counsellor and b) it gave me some fantastic insight into how to communicate more effectively when things are hard. Most of all, it gave my ex and me a neutral space to talk to each other which we just couldn’t achieve at home.

    I would definitely go again if I felt like I needed some help.

  4. Fee
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    This is a wonderful post and I’m so glad you’ve shared it. I’m also so glad it helped.

    I too am a big believer in counselling. I think you’re absolutely right that sometimes, you just need help. I think we’re all guilty of thinking we can just push on through and deal with things, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but there is no shame in asking for help. As you say, sometimes you just need someone to help you unpick it.

    This is a very timely post – I have a situation going on at the moment that is leaving me drowning in anxiety. I’ve been trying to style it out for weeks but this very morning have called the people who are there to help. This post has definitely reinforced that I am doing the right thing. Thank you and I hope everything carries on getting better x

  5. RJ
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I’ve had counselling in the past and found it hugely helpful; without the counselling I think I would have succeeded in destroying my relationship with my wonderful now-husband. I had suspected for years that counselling might help me deal with some childhood baggage but it took me getting to a very unhappy place to get me to be willing to pay for the counselling and go – it is expensive but I chose to look at it as an investment in my happiness.

  6. Posted September 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad you wrote this and that you had such a positive experience.

    Counselling is amazing. It completely and utterly changed my life. But it is all about the right counsellor at the right time. I had someone who was a terrible fit the first time I went and the second, but my third counsellor was AMAZING and I really think I owe my life to her.

    I started training to be a counsellor last year, but for a number of reasons was not able to keep going at that time, but I really do want to go into it. Thank you for sharing this post, I really hope it helps more people find out that counselling is something for them not for other people. x

  7. Amanda M
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    What an amazing post.

    I hate the thought of counselling as I am a champion bottler-upper – I might even say world class! But I can see how useful it is, possibly especially for a bottler-upper!

  8. Posted September 9, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Going to counselling is hands down one of the best things I ever did!

  9. Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    It’s not just the therapist but the style of therapy that needs to fit, but when it works it truly is life changing. I had counselling for a year in my mid-twenties and I believe it saved my life. I have a very close friend who is on the same journey at the moment and it reminds me actually how gruelling it was. Always so inspiring to read of others who found their way. Love a happy ending!


  10. Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m yet another one who went through counselling to help me come to terms with the end of my marriage and the death of my mum. I’d have loved nothing more than to go to counselling with my ex but he flat out refused. The safe space to say the things buried deep in my head was amazing. I might well do it again sometime. I really think it should be a better accepted thing.

  11. Posted September 10, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    This is my favourite AOW post.


  12. Alex
    Posted September 10, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Anita, I hope you don’t mind me asking this, did you find counselling helped you with losing your mum (so sorry about your loss)? We lost our dad earlier in the year and whilst I am dealing with it I feel my sister is not. It is 6 months down the line which may not sound a lot but she is still really struggling to sleep, she drinks to help her sleep and then can’t stop talking about him and she says she talks to him every night. She doesn’t tell me this stuff, she knows I couldn’t deal with it, but she tells my mum and rings my mum up late at night and rambles on about him. I just think it’s more than just grief at this point and that perhaps she needs something more and someone to talk to about her feelings. I just wondered if you would recommend it, though I don’t know how I would bring this up with her.

    So sorry to post about something else, this post is really timely as I am looking into having some cognitive behaviour therapy to get to the bottom of my terrible mood swings and low moods. I don’t know how to deal with them and someone recommended it to me saying it was the best thing they did and made them look at the real reasons behind their behaviour. This post makes me even more sure I need to look into it. Thank you for posting this!

    Alex xx

  13. Posted September 10, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex and I’m so sorry for yours and your sister’s loss too. While I wouldn’t necessarily say counselling helped me completely come to terms with the loss of my mum it definitely helped me deal with the other associated issues -I had a lot of guilt around not being there more for her etc etc. Also my counsellor wasn’t a specialised bereavement counsellor which it sounds as though your sister might need (sorry to make assumptions but as well as my own personal experience I also happen to be a GP). CRUSE the bereavement/grief charity are really good (not used them myself but have heard many positive reports) if you can persuade your sister to look into them. Good luck x

    • Alex
      Posted September 12, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much Anita for your reply, my husband had mentioned a grief counsellor too which might be best like you say. Sorry for the delay, I had gone to work and then not looked back until just now.
      Thank you again, I may see if she will talk to her GP who is very good and has already offered her own ear if she needs to chat….she is just very stubborn about people helping her in any capacity xx

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