Juggling busy jobs with bringing up two children left Stephen and Joanne little time for each other? So, could a one-hour course help their relationship?
Two couples tell Stephanie Bell how the pressures of modern family life prompted them to take action
Even the strongest relationship can be pushed to its limit when a baby comes along. In fact, the pressures faced by new parents are so severe that half of those couples who separate do so within three years of their little ones' birth.
To try to reduce this tragic statistic the national charity Care for the Family has launched a one hour course for new parents across Northern Ireland aimed at helping them get through the tough times after the new baby comes along.
Let's Stick Together is being hailed as a ground-breaking relationship education programme which is free of charge for all first-time parents. It aims to lower the number of family breakdowns by reaching both married and non-married parents in the first years of a child's life when many breakdowns occur.
Research has shown that with early intervention and small changes in a couple's behaviour, family breakdown is avoidable and LST has already been successfully piloted in several areas of England including Bristol and Bedfordshire.
Launched by the charity last year, it involves a one-hour peer-led session that teaches three key principles to which all new parents can easily relate – bad habits to avoid; good habits to build; friendship and involvement.
Caroline Bradley, of Care for the Family, says: "The arrival of a baby for new parents can be a time of great excitement but also extreme exhaustion when the reality of caring for a new-born can become an overwhelming responsibility.
"When a family grows from two to three, relationships inevitably change. Let's Stick Together introduces simple, practical skills that really work within a relationship. Research has shown that successful couples have more good habits and fewer bad habits.
"Each session takes some of the mystery out of how relationships work, encouraging couples to stop their bad habits and move towards the good."
Current statistics show that 50% of parents who separate do so within three years of having a baby. Across Northern Ireland there are 63,900 lone parent households, a figure that has increased 27% in the decade 2001-2011.
Through a network of trained volunteers, it is hoped Let's Stick Together will increase the number of strong, stable families in Northern Ireland and enable more adults and children to thrive.
Two couples who have benefitted from the course tell us about the impact it has had on their relationships.
'You realise that other couples experience the exact same things'
Joanne Fleck (34), a children's physiotherapist, is married to Stephen (36), a computer analyst, and they have two children, Ethan (3) and Anna (11 months). They live in Newtownabbey and have been married for six years and are together eight years. Joanne says:
We heard about Let's Stick Together through our friends who are all in the same boat as us in that they work full time and have young children.
"Stephen and I both knew we weren't spending enough time working on our relationship because of the demands of a young family and work.
"We were spending less quality time together and were experiencing some communication problems since becoming parents. We both did the course and discovered our main challenge was finding the time to talk to each other.
"Usually our conversations were while getting the children ready for bed or feeding them. There wouldn't even have been eye contact between us.
"After working all day and seeing to the children we were so exhausted we didn't feel like talking about meaningful things. Now try to spend 10-15 minutes every day talking about non-children related things, which can be hard but we make a point of it.
"We also discovered we have different ways of feeling valued, loved and respected – something you can forget about in a relationship. It made us think about treating each other the way we want to be treated.
"We both did the language of love quiz on the website and we're trying to be conscious about making the other person's love language feelings a priority.
"Stephen discovered his was actions and I discovered mine was words.
"I thought I knew Stephen but the course was a bit of a reality check; it shows that you have to keep working at it.
"I have a day off during the week and when Stephen came home from work and said he had a tough day my response would have been 'Oh really, I've been looking after the kids all day and I'm exhausted'.
"I didn't consider his day and I think subconsciously when you are tired and exhausted you lash out at your nearest and dearest.
"The thing I also like about the course was that there was no pressure to say anything you didn't want to and it was all very informal. We're much happier because of it."
Stephen says: "One of the big things that came out of the course for me was the need for Joanne and I to spend time on our relationship.
"The kids will grow up and leave us one day and we need to ensure that we're still close and that our relationship is alive rather than find that it was all focused on the kids and when they go, we don't know each other anymore.
"They're small only for a short time and we both will change as we go through life. It's important we're aware of each other and those changes.
"The course showed us that we need to make more time for just the two of us. We've found that it's nice going out for a meal together and not having the kids crying beside us and getting the chance to talk to each other.
"You tend to think other families are perfect yet when you hearing other couples stories you realise they're experiencing the exact same things – the tiredness and communication issues. That was reassuring.
"We knew we needed to spend more time together and it just helps to have that reaffirmed for you.
"It was also great to see other people at different stages in their lives maybe with their first or third child and how they were coping.
"The course only took an hour and we found it very worthwhile."
'We used to point score but now we don't argue over every little thing'
Stephen Reynolds (30), a pentecostal minister with the Church of God in the Shankill, Belfast, is married to Tracy (29), a classroom assistant, and they have two children, Ellie (5) and Joshua (2). The couple has been married seven years and are together 11 years. Stephen says:
I heard about the course through Care for the Family which I have had lots of experience with through my work. I've always found them very helpful.
"Tracy and I have a great relationship but like everyone you can slip into bad habits and I liked the idea that the course was about how to strengthen your relationship and how to identify and change any bad habits.
"I did the course in March. I was aware that some bad habits were creeping into the relationship such as point scoring about things like who had emptied the dishwasher last. We all do things like that but maybe we don't realise how annoying they are to the other person.
"And, as in any good relationship, when children come along it adds a lot of different pressure and your focus is on the children rather than on each other. Children take up so much of your time you forget about your own relationship.
"The first part of the session dealt with bad habits and how to identify and stop them. As I suspected, we were point scoring without realising it – such as saying to each other 'I bathed the kids last time so it's your turn to do it'.
"Opting out of dealing with problems was another thing that was flagged, as well as not talking about things that annoy you, then forgetting about them because you are so busy.
"It taught me to think about things I do and say and the impact on the other person, and also how to develop good habits.
"We were shown how everyone has a language of love based on the book by psychologist Gary Chapman who wrote The Five Languages of Love.
"If we don't know how our partner likes to be loved then we can miss loving that person in a way they want. There's an online test which shows which type of love you like which we both did. Some people feel loved by spending quality time with their partner, others prefer words and like to be told in different ways, and others like to be shown it through actions or gifts. Doing the test was really interesting and insightful.
"It made me think whether what I'm doing makes my wife feel loved. We discovered my wife likes words and affirments while I like spending quality time together.
"Our relationship has been strengthened through the course. We are supporting one another more and I'm helping my wife out more with chores.
"I'm making more time to spend with family and quality time with just my wife as well. We laugh now at how we point scored."
Tracy says: "Stephen thinks if you can benefit from something then why not so I wasn't surprised when he said he was doing this course. I didn't really grasp what it was about until after he had done it. He's a very good husband and thinks there are always things he could do better. He has a busy job being a minister, but he's always there for me and the kids.
"I've just got to say what I need and he will do it, I like to think I'm a good wife, too. Both of us do give and take.
"There's a bit of point scoring and I probably am guilty of telling Stephen it's his turn to do something because I did it last. I still do it over wee things but the course has made me think about how the other person feels and I'm now trying not to do it as often.
"We now talk instead of arguing over silly things and we're more aware of what we say to each other.
"The love language aspect was interesting. When you think about it a bit deeper it makes sense. I found out that I appreciate things being done for me – and see that as a sign of feeling loved which is something I didn't realise.
"We're now aware of the need to make time just for us and not push it aside because of our busy lives. We're also talking more to each other about plans for the future and what we're going to do this summer.
"Initially I thought 'Do we need this course?' as we have a good marriage but it showed how it's the wee things that make a difference."
Could you help couples?
- Care for the Family is looking for volunteers to help deliver the sessions in Enniskillen, Irvinestown, Derrygonnelly and across Fermanagh
- They want people who enjoy interacting with others, and have experience of being a parent. Full training will be given
- Let's Stick Together is currently being run in north and west Belfast, Lagan Valley, north Antrim, south Down, Fermanagh and south Tyrone
- For details of a course near you, if would like to organise a session or to find out more about free training to become a volunteer presenter, contact Care for the Family, tel: 028 9262 8050
Why we don't always have to say I love you
There are many ways to show love for our partners, and words are only part of the story. Here are five of the main ways in which we can express affection:
1. Time – if you love someone, then you enjoy spending time with them above all else. This does not have to mean special activities or intimacy – just the act of being together is enough
2. Words – we need to be continually conversing with our partners. Communication is important and makes each of you feel connected and valued
3. Actions – doing something for your partner, such as a household chore or cooking a meal, shows love and caring
4. Gifts – use material gestures, not just an expensive gift but a note, to confirm you're thinking about your partner
5. Touch – more than anything, physical contact conveys love and affection, be it a hug or a hand being held