Marriage counselling, it's tough

THE COUCH-CONFESSION PROCESS: "She takes to his heart like a carcinogenic solvent, stripping away at the hard areas until he is contrite."
THE COUCH-CONFESSION PROCESS: "She takes to his heart like a carcinogenic solvent, stripping away at the hard areas until he is contrite."

I sit across from him like an opponent in a boxing match. The marriage counsellor is a plain, grandmotherly woman with a pair of hideous orthopaedic-style shoes. An abundance of inspirational posters - baskets of kittens, a frog clutching a branch, waves engulfing a lighthouse - cover the walls, giving the room an ambience of clichéd desperation.

"So, you're here for marriage counselling?" she asks. That must have taken three semesters at Sunshine TAFE to figure out.

"Makes sense," my husband, Patrick, replies. "Having problems with plumbing, see a plumber. Need marital advice, come to an expert such as yourself." The counsellor laughs and Patrick looks like he is about to receive a certificate for Husband of the Year.

Sycophant. Counselling was my idea.

"Are you both committed to making this marriage work?" asks the so-called expert, with no trace of a wedding band.

"Yes," we chorus in a rare bout of unity.

"In my experience, many couples go to counselling as a formality, to tick the box, when in their hearts they have already given up."

We are distant, but I haven't given up yet.

"I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we are committed to making it work," Patrick says warmly.

"Counselling, true counselling, is not for the faint-hearted. Ever renovated before?" she asks.

What the hell does that have to do with it?

"Funny you should say that, our kitchen was ripped out last weekend, along with the plumbing and half the floor," says Patrick.

"I like to use this analogy for a number of reasons. Firstly, in order to rebuild, you must tear down; and you have no idea of the problems and the costs you will encounter. Are you committed to rebuilding, whatever the cost?" she asks. We nod. "So, let's establish the lay of the land. What percentage rating would you give to the happiness of your marriage?" the counsellor asks, smoothing her nun-like fawn skirt.

He's a great dad. We share the same humour, same taste in films. We still laugh... sometimes.

"Seventy five per cent," I say.

"Patrick?" she probes.

"Twenty per cent."

Twenty per cent! Twenty percent? Why did I have to go first? He says it as though he is the victim here, but I know his weaknesses: his deceit, his workaholism, his inability to communicate. She looks at him with maternal concern, they share a knowing look, and I think about all the places I'd rather be: prison, an active volcano ...

"Patrick, would you like to explain how you arrived at that figure?" she asks. He begins his litany of complaints while I fantasise about having a molar removed sans anaesthetic. Soon it's my turn to vent. But their shared glances and laughter have increased exponentially and I want to tell both of them to go to a nunnery.

Then the counsellor stuns us both. "Patrick, what does it mean to you, as a man and as a husband, that your wife says all she wants is for someone to hold her, to listen and consider her thoughts?" He squirms.

For the next three sessions, she takes to his heart like a carcinogenic solvent, stripping away at the hard areas until he is contrite. And when these raw and beautiful areas are exposed, she helps us see that he isn't able to connect with me because he isn't fluent in my love language of "words of affirmation". He can mow the lawn and bring home a hefty pay cheque, but neither speaks to me the way his praise does. This is a revelation to him. At the end of each session, I say, "Don't you think she's insightful? Don't you think she's incredible?" I am willing to overlook the footwear; this woman is a bloody genius.

At the fifth session, the dynamic changes. Apparently, I am illiterate in his love language of "acts of service". I can write him a sonnet and lavish him with praise, but nothing speaks more powerfully than filing my tax receipts or cleaning the house. He also claims I don't fight fairly with him. I rehash his past mistakes, and when he tries to talk to me, I overreact. I DON'T OVERREACT!!! She's taking his side. She doesn't know the first thing about me. She's spent far too much time in pharmacies buying footwear to understand the intricacies of our marriage.

We drive home in silence. Our house is in total disarray. What started as a simple renovation has uncovered problems with rising damp, rotten floorboards and illegal wiring.

"I told Tracey we're having counselling ..."

"TRACEY!" I say. "Tracey from work? Tracey you avoid? You deleted your birthday from the online calendar so you didn't have to endure the misery of the office birthday party with Tracey!"

"Know what she said? 'I've been married three times and I've never needed counselling.'"

We sit on the partial floor. A series of thin copper pipes twist out of the wall like branches and we laugh.