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The Agony and Indecision of Reaching the Make-or-Break Stage in a Relationship
How we get there and what to do about it – 3 case vignettes
Couples spend an average of £20,000 on their wedding day in the UK and about 18 months planning it. It sometimes feels that most couples spend more time, energy and effort planning the wedding day than they do their marriage.
If they do talk about the important things like children, where they’ll live, how they’ll live etc, it often seems a one-sided conversation.
Kris and Charlie had been married for 8 years and he desperately wanted to start a family. He had always known that becoming a father was very important to him. Charlie had never wanted children and told him so from the very beginning.
I was a Relate counsellor for many years and we were trained to see the couple together for the first session, then have two individual sessions before coming back together as a couple, for the fourth session. In my experience this works beautifully and saves so much time in the long run, because each person can be honest, without fear of hurting the other person at a very vulnerable time.
Sometimes, by the time the couple get to me, one of them is already headed out the door, they just haven’t been totally honest with their partner yet. The individual session gives each person an opportunity to rehearse, sometimes for the first time, the words they might use to express where they are, how they are feeling and what they would like.
When couples are at the make-or-break stage, discernment counselling is needed. The objective is to gain confidence and clarity on the next step:
Path 1: to stay with the status quo
Path 2: to separate or divorce
Path 3: to enter couples therapy
Unlike couples counselling, the work is usually focused on the ‘leaning out’ partner. If that partner is halfway out the door, couples counselling won’t engage them.
When I asked Kris, “If you always knew that having a family was so important to you, what was your thinking when you proposed to Charlie?” He replied, “I thought she’d change her mind.” Here is an example of the complexity of relationships, even when couples try to communicate, they often don’t hear each other.
With their respective permissions, we did a few more individual sessions to make sure they were certain about their individual decisions. We looked at family scripts, values and pressures. We worked with techniques such as Timeline, Fork in the Road and Parts processes. We even considered them staying together and Kris having a child with another person. In the end, they decided to end their marriage.
I would call this a deal-breaker situation. It is one of those situations that can’t be resolved with compromise.
One of the hardest situations to work with is when I get a feeling of, ‘if only you’d come sooner.’ When a partner has repeatedly asked for their needs to be met and is ignored over many years, it’s often only a matter of time before a crisis point is reached. This crunch point can mean a partner going inward and withdrawing into illness or addiction or outward into affairs or personal freedom.
After a whirlwind romance in Italy, Isabella, 8 years older than 20 year old Enzo, fell pregnant. She returned to the UK and Enzo stayed at home in Italy until he could join her. Isabella, an established career woman, wasn’t sure about Enzo, he seemed eager and keen to be in a relationship with her and wanted the baby. She saw him as too young and unequal to her in finances and career.
Fast forward 10 years of marriage and another child later, Isabella called me, distraught. Enzo wanted to leave the relationship. He needed love and affection, not just sexual intimacy, but kisses, cuddles and hugs. He craved her admiration and respect. It wasn’t that Isabella couldn’t meet his needs, she just didn’t take him seriously. She had become complacent and thought he’d never leave her or the children.
I saw Enzo for just one individual session. He was now a very successful business owner and a very kind and loving man. He explained that he felt emasculated by her rejections and just couldn’t continue in the relationship. He felt that she often complained when things didn’t go her way and her approach was inflexible and unloving.
Enzo had already made his decision, he moved out soon after our session. He has a home large enough for the children to stay with him regularly. He and Isabella co-parent well, but it was difficult for Isabella as she was filled with regret and anger that he wouldn’t try again. The work with Isabella was centred around coming to terms with the loss and owning her part in the situation.
This feels like a sad story of Isabella not updating her view of her partner. She agreed that she had been stuck in seeing him as a younger, inferior person. She hadn’t embraced the changes and growth in him as a person. I think it is important to remember to see who is there in front of us in each moment and let go of the old narratives that keep us stuck in unhelpful patterns.
Sadly 42% of UK marriages end in divorce. The average cost of divorce is £14,000 and this doesn’t include splitting your home, pension and assets. One-third of people regret getting divorced and that’s why I trained as a mediator and developed Make or Break Coaching.
Ironically, affairs can offer a wonderful opportunity for growth and reconnection. Dave and Sue were in their late 50s. Both had been married before and each had adult children from their previous relationships. Dave was a very successful senior executive who travelled for work.
Sue was about to leave him when Dave begged her to go to couples counselling. In our first session, she sat with her arms folded and legs crossed away from both Dave and I. Part of me thought this could be the shortest session of my career!
She was furious and felt that his affair with a much younger work colleague had made a mockery of their marriage. She wanted dates and details and more than that she wanted out! I said, “I get it, your marriage is over. The question we are here to answer is whether you want your next relationship to be with each other or someone else.” (I borrowed this from Esther Perel.) It was definitely a pattern break and she began to unfold her arms and legs.
We worked together for about 3 months and revealed that he had been stressed at work and was unable to get an erection, so he withdrew into the spare room. She felt abandoned and unwanted and despite trying, she couldn’t reach him. He started taking Viagra, but it turned into routine sex once a week and no intimacy at other times. They had become totally disconnected.
We reached a turning point, which had me reaching for a tissue; she said that so many nights she would lie there hoping to hear the door open and see him walk in and he said that so many nights he’d wanted to knock on her door but was so scared in case he couldn’t get an erection and it would make things even worse.
Sue wrote to me a while later that they have never been happier, they saw the affair as a way back to connection and intimacy. They still send a Christmas card each year giving me little updates.
There is no magic formula, other than being fearless in make-or-break situations. The discernment model has a lot to offer in some situations. However, I often use the framework offered by Esther Perel: your first marriage is over, do you want your second one to be with the same person? This clears the way to designing their future relationship. It gives them permission to become new people or to see each other as they are today. We can look back and do the repair work, as necessary, from the vantage point of the future. This lens brings hope and a sense of creating a new inspiring future together.
Individuals who are separating or separated are designing a new single life, taking the important learning with them.
The message is that the relationship didn’t fail and nor did you, it worked while it worked, and then it stopped working, for either one or both of you; and now you find a way to move forward in a powerful and positive way.
I’m passionate about helping you make the right decision for the direction of your relationship. My mission is to help you avoid the misery of getting it wrong and throwing away a perfectly good relationship.
We need to take massive action to turn failing relationships around.
After a decade and a half of coaching and counselling people, a master’s degree in family and relationship therapy from The University of Hull and a 4 year tour of duty at the UK’s biggest relationship charity, Relate (formerly the Marriage Guidance Council) I knew I had to do something to make a bigger impact on the problem.
Things fell further into place in 2015 when I was introduced to Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapy. It was like couples counselling on steroids!
The vision of Make or Break Coaching became crystal clear when I completed my mediator training in 2021. In my mediation work I kept thinking, if only these people had found me first as a relationship therapist, it might have been different. I knew we needed a bridge between these two worlds to stop couples falling through the cracks.
I am trained in multiple psychotherapeutic disciplines and have many distinguished mentors and teachers such as Tony Robbins, Esther Perel and Terry Real. The fusion of this experience, knowledge and skill-set means that I can help you make the right decision for you, then guide you through the next steps toward your compelling future together or help you separate in a respectful and considerate way.
I am regulated by BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) and a trained mediator with FMA (Family Mediators Association), a member of QCHPA and NCH.
Names and details of each case vignette have been changed to protect confidentiality, but the essence of these stories is factual.
If you would like to contact Jayne or another QCH therapist, you can find them using our therapist finder here