Tuesday 22 May 2018

Getting back together again -- just 'me' and 'him'

Team-building away days happen in a work scenario so why not in a marriage too?

Winning team: Maebh Coyle and her husband Charles spend the day kayaking in Dalkey in order to focus on their team-building skills
Winning team: Maebh Coyle and her husband Charles spend the day kayaking in Dalkey in order to focus on their team-building skills

You've heard of office away days, with team-building activities such as kayaking, orienteering, abseiling and other adventure sports. Research shows that they help to boost morale and improve communication, thereby making a company far more productive.

What about applying the very same principles to a couple scenario? Most people don't consider their relationship as being a team but, essentially, that is what it is.

It is a partnership, and often one that lasts an entire lifetime. Developing team-building skills between a husband and wife could make a lasting difference to how they approach problems and overcome issues within their marriage or with their children, particularly during stressful times where there are many obstacles to overcome. These can include a lack of sleep, a troublesome teenager, financial worries or perhaps caring for an elderly relative.

As part of my research, I decided to put the theory to the test by enrolling myself and my husband on a kayaking course in Dalkey, south Dublin. Kayaking represents team work at its very best, as we were reminded continually throughout the day to stay back and wait for our other team members or, when lagging behind, to speed up and stick with the group.

Like a brace of ducks, it was always crucial to stay in a bunch so that ferries or other boats could see us at a distance. Also, if anyone was to get into trouble, it was important to have other team members nearby, such as during the capsize drill at the end of the day, when myself and my husband took turns in 'rescuing' each other.

Although we realised that just one day was not going to be life-changing, we were still amazed at the effect the away day had on us. As we paddled voraciously toward our destination points, what seemed to emerge was our original identities -- the 'me' and 'him' that had started out so many years ago.

We spend so much of our free time together as a family with the children and, of course, we love it, but this time round I wasn't a mum and he wasn't a father. We weren't talking or worrying about work, money or the house. We were just a couple having fun, paddling about on the sea together, enjoying the seals, the birds and the dolphins in the distance.


According Dr Marie Keenan, chairperson of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland (FTAI), "an away day takes a couple away from their old roles and gives an expression to a part of their identity that was formerly marginalised or ignored.

"When they get to bring those parts alive again through group activities, they find that their problems can be dealt with in another way, as they now have access to a new part of 'self'; one that will help them navigate through any challenges facing them as a couple or as individuals."

So how did this differ from a weekend in a hotel? Well, firstly, we were doing something energetic and as a result, we didn't have time to think about home responsibilities -- the children, the mortgage, the endless tidying of our house.

We weren't doing this with some particular aim, it was purely for fun. And that fun carried on for the rest of the day. In fact, when we were getting dressed after the kayaking, we fell around giggling like teenagers. We had somehow slipped into our younger, lighter selves without being consciously aware of it.

This sort of 'play time' can benefit the entire family, not just the couple dynamic. Dr Keenan believes that a day like this also helps to renew a mother's or father's ability to play again with their children when they return home.

"If we have the ability to play, then that has multiple layers of meaning for the family dynamic. Children watch everything -- they know when mum and dad are in a good place. They want their parents to be happy more than anything and to love each other so they often buy into it wholeheartedly."

Lenore Terr, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, believes that the urge to play is a vital and healthy one, and should not just be limited to children.

In her book 'Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play', Terr maintains that play time is good for us because it allows us to completely lose ourselves in the moment.

It works as a productive distraction from our daily stresses and responsibilities, offering the opportunity to put aside our egos and focus on pleasure rather than the usual sense of duty or completing 'tasks' throughout our day.

Terr also claims that there is evidence that people who preserve their sense of fun are better equipped to solve problems, think creatively and manage stress.

So, will we continue the kayaking? Well, we borrowed a relative's tandem kayak a week later. Out at sea in Sutton, we asked each other, "How was your day?" It was remarkable how this had an entirely different ring to it when surrounded by lapping water and the setting sun on our faces.

But despite a wonderful evening, we still felt that perhaps the group dynamic had a more dramatic impact.

The group had put us on our best behaviour, and somehow forced us to relate to one another in a refreshing, new way.


"With couples, often a group context is better for an away day," says Dr Marie Keenan. "Otherwise, old patterns can emerge soon into the activity, which takes away any benefits that the day can have."

Barry Dillon, duty manager and team-building activities coordinator at Delphi Mountain Resort in Connemara, has observed this for himself.

"Some couples at Delphi don't engage in the activities and I can see a real difference in them -- they are just trying to enjoy a romantic weekend together and, although they could be rubbing shoulders with other couples during their stay, they never really engage or talk to anyone else.

"On the other hand, I see couples who have done the activities together and, by the Sunday afternoon, they've made friends and you can see how that really refreshes them as a couple."

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