Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.
Q: My wife and I have been married for nearly 20 years but we seem to be stuck in a rut. She is a great person, whom I love dearly, but she had a difficult childhood, which seems to be an increasing burden as time goes by. She has been seeing a counsellor for months, after several years of encouragement from me and I am really pleased that she is beginning to address her past.
I worry if my encouragement is helpful. Counselling has raised a series of historic issues and seems to have undermined my wife's long-standing coping mechanisms. She has become very fragile, and suffers from anxiety and depression.
Our relationship now seems to consist of me providing support and a "parental" overview interspersed with episodes when she reacts negatively and insists that she is an adult who is responsible for her own decisions. When I step back, she struggles to cope and frequently gets very anxious. She does not always take her prescribed medication and I am concerned that she is not fully engaged with her treatment, as past issues overwhelm her current thinking.
How do I find the right balance between caring for her in her current fragile situation and allowing her to work through a process (with the right amount of independence) to come out the other side? I know that there are no quick fixes but nothing I do seems "right" at the moment.
MARY: What a lovely caring letter you have written and your love for your wife comes shining through. You raise a very important issue - the role of the partner when a loved one is going through counselling.
It is indeed difficult to know what to do as a partner. Sometimes the person being counselled wants to talk about the session they have just had, but at other times - especially if it has been a particularly harrowing time - they won't want to discuss it any further. The partner, meanwhile, hasn't been with them and has no idea as to what went on. But they want to help, and particularly as you are a male you will want to come up with a solution. I know that at one time the Rape Crisis Centre ran a support group for partners of those attending the centre, but this was discontinued due to financial constraints - which was a great pity because people I spoke with had found it to be of enormous benefit in helping to understand what their partner was going through.
Your wife has embarked on a very powerful journey. It can be very difficult to come right out and tell a counsellor just how bad things were in the past, because verbalising events makes a reality of what was up until then only a memory. Once the reality is out in the open there is no going back, but it can be a tremendously wearing and traumatic exercise to re-visit the past in this way.
You are doing everything right by just being there and listening, and you will have to take your cue from your wife and be guided by what she wants. Sometimes she will just want you to listen, at other times she will need to tell you how things are going for her and will want you to discuss this with her.
It is, however, really important that she takes her prescribed medication - the decision to put her on it will not have been taken lightly by her doctor - as failure to take it even occasionally will jeopardise her progress. So that is something that you can help with, by reminding her to take the medication and giving her support if she feels that it is not helping her.
Emphasise that she is not going to be taking it forever, but that it will be particularly helpful while she is attending counselling.
It may also be helpful to you to have a meeting with her counsellor to explain things from your point of view and to find out from the counsellor if there is anything that you can do that would be particularly helpful. As your wife is the counsellor's client everything that has been discussed will be confidential between them but you may benefit from a one-off visit with him or her.