Degrees of separation

The danger signs to watch out for when your relationship could be in trouble

Lisa O'Hara

Money, oddly enough, is not one of the major issues driving couples into relationship therapy. Bickering instead of talking, stress getting in the way of sex, addiction to porn or social networking are instead the problems for which Dublin couples are most frequently seeking help.

We asked Lisa O'Hara, a counsellor with Relationships Ireland, which has been offering couples counselling for 50 years, to reveal what young couples are talking about in the consultation room.

1 Communication Couples talk most frequently about struggling to communicate. When one half of a couple feels disappointed, hurt or blamed, their natural defences will be aroused and criticism, contempt (including name calling or facial expressions of disgust), defensiveness and stonewalling can become part of a relationship.When communication breaks down, so too does a sense of connection.

According to research, in 12 years' time the average length of marriages in the UK will be 10 years. Analysis of census data clearly indicates that statistics for relationship breakdown in Ireland are rapidly approaching international norms.

Listening with a view to understanding, as well as speaking to be understood is vital to every couple to avoid weakening a long-term relationship.

2sex What happens in the bedroom can be a barometer of what is going on in a relationship; when a couple is stressed, tired, are experiencing loss, or not getting on with each other, it's normal that it will affect how they are sexually. There is often awkwardness about talking about it.

Men will often focus in on their performance, while, for women, emotional intimacy is more important and that their partner finds them attractive. Even if there's a lack of sex, it's important to keep physical affection there, as touch is a simple way to stay connected.

Passion ebbs and flows in all relationships and the spontaneity that was there in the early years may disappear as a result of familiarity and habituation. This is why affairs can be appealing for someone, rather than addressing the lack of passion which can become evident in their own relationship.

3infidelity People are still having affairs, be they emotional or sexual or both. But what we are seeing is an increasing number of clients for whom the use of porn is becoming problematic. Four times as many men now view hardcore pornography than 10 years ago, as a result of easier access to images online.

Regardless of the type of betrayal, whether it is with another person or with porn, the essential element of trust, which is necessary for a happy relationship, will have disappeared. If a couple decides to stay together, it's unrealistic to say they'll recover from this quickly, and more realistic to say it will take time. The root of infidelity lies in a difficulty resolving fear, hurt and/or anger, and it's recommended that a couple seeks help as this is a particularly complex relationship issue.

technology The growth and development of technologies such as social networking and smart phones have provided an unwelcome distraction to intimate relationships. They can be seen as an avoidance of intimacy, and a general lack of paying attention to what is happening with the other partner.

If, for example, a person has been occupied all evening and then expects sex later on, they can find they get rejected pretty sharply on an increasingly regular basis.

5roles According to a recent survey by the ESRI, women aged between 26 and 40 who are in relationships are more likely to have higher educational qualifications than their male partners.

In 42pc of these cases, the woman has the higher occupational level. This can often cause problems, and men tell us they have become confused about their worth at home.

Women say they are often expected to play the traditional role of housewife after a long day at work. With no blueprint to follow, couples can find themselves at odds with each other as a result of having unrealistic and often unspoken expectations about their roles. This leads to increased stress between the couple and a growing sense of resentment.

6Children and parenting Probably one of the most, if not the most significant change to a relationship is when the couple start a family. A couple who co-parent well is largely determined by the degree to which they can negotiate conflict, fear, and primal anxiety that comes with the responsibility of having a child.

Living with the economic uncertainty in a recession can complicate parenting. One parent may be absent more while the other, and not necessarily the female, is 'left holding the baby' so to speak. Unless each appreciates the other's efforts, it can alienate a couple from each other.

It cannot be over emphasised how important it is to have a happy, healthy relationship before considering having children as it will test your bond with each other on every level.

It is also important that both prospective parents, specifically fathers, want a baby, as research tells us that otherwise, the risk of separation is high and likely to happen by the time the child is six years old.

Lisa O'Hara is the author of When a Relationship Ends -- Surviving the Emotional Roller-coaster of Separation, and is a counsellor with Relationships Ireland. For more information on Relationships Ireland's 50th anniversary celebrations, see