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And they'll put you together again

Maria and Paul went out together for eight years and lived with each other for three of them so that by the time they got married in 1991 they felt they knew each other. "We did, but not quite as well as we thought," says Paul.

He is 37, and a graphic designer, she is 34 and works in the catering business. A year after they were married, their son was born.

"There was a lot of pressure with both of us working full-time," remembers Maria. "Up, childminder, work, home, dinner, bed, just getting on with it, not a lot of time to be together."

"We never sat down and asked how are we doing, what's our marriage like, you don't," agrees Paul.

In 1994 they both became self-employed. In reality this meant that he was at home for some months while she became the breadwinner.

"I kept the show on the road, leaving Paul to chase jobs," she says. "He didn't do so well at the beginning, which I used to throw up in his face later in rows. Still, we didn't think we were unhappy, we met friends at the weekend, everyone was busy."

"When we had rows, it was always the same row, the same underlying issue," said Paul. "I felt like the second class person in the marriage. She made all the decisions, took all the responsibility, and while I was willing to have some of it taken away from me, it made me feel guilty."

"I took over everything," agrees Maria. "I'd ask Paul to do something, but it wasn't quick enough for me. I'm used to doing it all. My father died when I was four, and I've always had responsibility. In the marriage I was proud of myself doing everything, I was superwoman, I thought the sun shone out of my own backside."

A miscarriage at this time was more alienating than unifying because their response to it differed widely. Gradually, Paul's business picked up, and in 1997 their daughter was born. Now working flat out and with two children under five, life became even more frenetic, and role separation more acute.

"There was a lot of strain, I had the kids, work, charging home, collecting them, dinner," says Maria. "I was mother, manager, chef. Paul would be coming in quite late when everything was done. I had wanted this, but now I was beginning to resent it."

"Sometimes I would delay in order come home to a warm house with kids fed and dinner ready", says Paul. "Maria was doing everything, but my attitude was, 'she asked for it, now she's got it.'"

A live-in flirty au-pair did nothing to improve marital harmony. "By this stage I was going out without Maria with a single friend," says Paul. "We were into music, gigs, and I was doing some E and later cocaine. I began staying out late, and in some ways recapturing the teenage years I never had."

"We had big rows," says Maria. "He would say 'I can do what I want.'"

They went to marriage counselling, and while Maria left because she didn't think Paul's drug use was being addressed, he continued with therapy. "I found it very helpful. It gave me a chance to talk about my feelings," he said, "something I had never done before."

One morning Paul announced he was leaving, and in spite of her tears and pleading, he packed his bags and left.

"I felt we had no hope," he said. "The arguments were getting worse and worse and it always seemed to be something I had done. I felt I can't make it work, and was at the end of my tether."

He stayed away for six months. "I believed that all sorts of things were now available but really I felt an emptiness all the time," he says. The children were missing him, his son particularly acting up in school. "I tried not to think of that," he said.

Maria was distraught. "The heart of my existence was ripped out," she said. "Then Paul had a brief affair and that gutted me, I said 'that's it, I'll never get him back now'."

The turning point for her came through a magazine article about a couple in a troubled marriage who were helped through an organisation called Retrouvaille.

"She sounded just like me," says Maria. "I phoned the number and there was this man who just listened. He was the first one who never blamed Paul, I talked and cried for two and a half hours and afterwards I felt calm for the first time in ages."

Maria continued to stay in touch with Retrouvaille and Paul noticed the change in her. "When I phoned, she was different," he said. It was he who suggested he return home and she accepted. Back under one roof, though in separate bedrooms, they walked on eggshells and avoided conflict.

Then she asked him would he do a Retrouvaille weekend, and he dubiously agreed: "I worried that it was a religious thing," he remembers, "and I said at the first Hail Mary, I'm outa' there."

They joined over a dozen other couples, with three couples and a priest acting as presenters/facilitators. The weekend progressed through a series of short presentations, which acted as a discussion trigger. So a talk on communication within marriage could produce the question 'when am I least open to listening to you?' Each couple went away to respond individually through writing to each other, working privately on their own issues with no need to discuss these with anyone else.

"We began on Friday night, writing and talking," says Maria. "At the start we were strained but as we moved through Saturday, things began loosening up. The subjects were stuff like love in the relationship, honesty, sharing, sex, money. We were asked to read what our partner had written, read what we read, then read it again. It really had an impact."

"As a couple you often don't listen to what's said, you're just waiting for the other person to stop so you can get in with your say," says Paul.

"Writing it down changed all that. We began to hear each other differently."

On Saturday afternoon they hit the wall. "We had to write about where we contributed to things going wrong," says Maria. "I wrote honestly, but when I got Paul's letter I freaked. He didn't mention the affair or the drugs; I felt he just wasn't being honest and wanted to go home."

Noting her graphic body language, Maria and Paul received discreet support from the team leaders. She stayed and grew calm again, and later was able to listen to Paul when he suggested that the drugs and affair was a symptom, not a cause of their problem. More fundamental for him were the roles (passive him, aggressive her), each adopted early in the marriage.

Before going home each couple was asked to consider if they had a future together. Paul and Maria found that each was looking forward hopefully. They stopped for a drink on the way home, began talking, and in some ways they haven't stopped.

The weekend offered a six week once a week follow up to help them integrate what they had learnt, and subsequent regular get-togethers. They also learnt some practical skills about conflict resolution. "One of the things they said was that 'love is a decision', and that really struck a chord with me. I realised I had a choice" says Maria.

Their marriage today is very different from what it was. "I had to let go a lot of my power," she says. "These days we share the responsibility for looking after the children and running the household. We take trouble to spend time together, and we will turn off the television, open a bottle of wine and talk. I've a far better opinion of Paul, I've learnt to take a back seat and that I'm not so great either."

"We try and deal with things as they come up and not let them fester," says Paul. "We still have arguments, but we are able to stay focused and not bring in other stuff. I am not on my guard any more, I suppose it's a question of trust. If you ask me what I've learnt, I've learnt that we love each other," he said.

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