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'Valentine's Day? My wife is on a dream holiday with her friends, but it's perfectly fine with me'

Vincent O'Rourke, from Portadown, is senior therapist at relationship counselling service Relate NI. He's been married to Eileen for over 30 years and speaks to Claire O'Boyle.

Q. Vincent, tell us a bit about yourself.

A. Well, what is interesting about me? I'm a psychotherapist, a family therapist and I work with individuals and couples to work through issues they're having in their relationships, and to help get things back on an even keel for them. I've been working at Relate NI for about 18 years now, and I love my job.

Q. So you're a bit of a relationship expert then - are you married?

A. Yes, I've been married to my wife Eileen for over 30 years. She was a health services manager, but she retired from her trust. She still continues to be involved in some aspects of work though, with interviewing and that kind of thing.

Q. With Valentine's Day just 24 hours away, you must have some pretty amazing romantic plans underway then?

A. Not exactly - Eileen headed off at 5.15am last Tuesday with her friends for a dream holiday for six weeks. They're visiting Australia, New Zealand and Singapore over the next few weeks. It's a trip they've been talking about for some time.

We will hopefully be on Skype on Valentine's Day, but if not, we'll certainly try to be in touch somehow.

Q. Didn't you fancy it?

A. Well, I wasn't invited for a start, but it's three women, three very good friends, and they've planned it for a long time. I'm coping quite well for the time being.

It's not actually the first time Eileen has gone away for quite a long trip. In 2011 she went to the South Atlantic for six months to work and she did the same in 2013 for another six months. And then she had a six week working trip to Kenya where she joined a project providing services to people living in the bush. She got a lot out of it and I wouldn't dream of holding her back from such wonderful opportunities.

In a partner relationship, which a marriage is, it's about letting each other have your own individual experiences, as well as coming together to enjoy things as a couple.

We do a lot together, but it really is important to do your own thing too. We do a lot of walking together, we love our city breaks. But you've got to have that time to do your own thing too. I'm a sports fan, so I'll watch sport on TV and I'm very involved in study and my work.

You've got to enjoy and experience things together - but being apart is valuable too.

Q.That makes sense. Did you always have an instinct for this stuff, and how did you get into this line of work?

A. My background is in psychology and social work. Psychotherapy was a natural extension for me, because that was the end of things I was always interested in. The couples therapy is a very enjoyable and rewarding part of my job, because although people do come in when they're struggling, the fact in most cases is they still want to find a way of getting things sorted out.

There may be a lot of conflict, and even emotional distress and pain, but they want to find a way out of that conflict. Helping them find a way to clarify what has happened, what has caused it and to figure out how they can move on and do things differently, can be really rewarding.

Q. What about in your own relationship - do you ever try to 'counsel' your wife ... and has that ever landed you into hot water?

A. Absolutely not - I wouldn't dream of it! When I - very occasionally - get into therapist speak, Eileen and my son Adrian take me down to earth with a bump and remind me that they're not my clients.

Therapists and counsellors have their own issues and no matter how experienced or well qualified you are, you just can't see your own issues. If you've got some, you should see your own therapist or speak to another party to see things differently. I've never actually seen a therapist, but I am aware I'm not totally impartial about my own situation.

If I was ever to start analysing a particular situation with Eileen if we were having a dispute - which admittedly has happened very occasionally over the past 40 years - then what I've actually been doing is trying to justify my position. That's what everyone does in an argument, that's what they're about. You want to convince the other person, and yourself, that you're in the right.

Q. So you're a parent too ... how old is your son, and how much does having a family impact on couples? Is there any advice you'd give to mums and dads about how to keep their relationship full of passion, once kids are in the mix?

A. Adrian's 26. He's a site engineer and he works in London, but he's back home every fortnight. He still sees himself as living here, but working there. He has a lot of friends at home and a big interest in motorsports, so he comes home for that.

And even though he's older now, I'm very conscious of the fact having children is probably the biggest change a couple will ever go through.

The secret is, both parents have to talk about how things are going to change and how they're going to cope with the new situation.

And of course, you've got to have an awareness of yourself as a couple and not just as a pair of parents bringing up children. Very often when young kids arrive, the couple's own relationship goes on the back burner - and sadly, it stays there. It's up to both people in the couple to make an effort to be together as a couple.

Even if it's just half an hour in the evening when the children are in bed, have a conversation, have a coffee. And occasionally, get out of the house together - and be guilt-free. A meal, the cinema, a drink with your friends.

Step away from being a parent and take on that identity that you used to know so well - as one part of a romantic couple.

Q. When Adrian was little, did you follow your own advice?

A. Oh, absolutely. Very often Adrian would be with us when we went out, but family would take him for a few hours so we could get out for a meal or to the cinema or out with our friends for a night out.

It didn't always have to be a date, we'd go out as a group of six with other friends - but suddenly we wouldn't be talking about children. We were back in the adult world, with romance. We'd been together 14 years before Adrian arrived, so we'd had a lot of time enjoying life as a couple.

Q. What is the most romantic gesture you've ever made - and what was your biggest flop?

A. Many years ago, I got it in my head that I'd like Eileen to have a pearl necklace. I thought it was very romantic. We'd been together 10 years and we spent weeks going looking for a pearl necklace until we got the absolutely perfect one at a jeweller in an arcade in Belfast. We were so happy when we got the right one - it was as enjoyable for me I think as it was for her. On the flip side, I bought her a pen for Christmas one year. That wasn't great, and she was very quiet for quite a lot of the day.

Q. So that's your biggest romance fail covered ... but what are the most common mistakes men and women make in their relationships?

A. I don't love generalising, but you do see common things coming up again and again down the gender divide. Most often for women, it's taking on too much responsibility and not saying anything when they're struggling.

Many women think they're somehow failing if they're not doing all the traditional things - looking after the children, the food, the house.

But the difference is, while the traditional things have carried on, these same women are working in often very challenging jobs. A big part of it is how we are brought up as children, with women thinking they've got to keep up the old, while carrying on progressing.

And if the woman starts to struggle without asking for help, she becomes stressed. She then withdraws, complains and want controls of everything, because otherwise she can't manage. It has a big psychological effect, her confidence and self-esteem take a knock and naturally the relationship suffers.

Q. And meanwhile, are men just bumbling around not noticing things are going wrong?

A. Many of the men I see simply aren't attuned to what is happening within the home and relationship.

They need to be more sensitive and relationally aware. When they do certain things, when they walk away from a stressed-out partner, shut the door and go into their shed then it has an impact.

It says something about your lack of commitment, and gives the impression you're willing to take the benefits of a relationship, but you're not willing to give vital support when it's needed.

The longer these situations go on, the more damaging they can be.

Q. You've been with your wife for 40 years, and you're an expert in the field - so what's the secret to long term success?

A. Listening to each other and particularly for men, it's important to express thoughts and feelings about the partner and the relationship. Many men are conditioned to be reticent about what they're thinking and feeling; they expect women to guess.

And both partners must take an equal responsibility for the care of the relationship - that means organising things for you both to do that are enjoyable, but also the boring stuff that somehow mostly seems to end up with the women.

For myself and Eileen, we've always managed to navigate the troubled waters. Of course we all have our ups and downs, but we've always been able to take time to talk about issues.

We've gone silent on each other over the years, but we've never got into a screaming argument. I don't know how I'd respond to that, but Eileen doesn't go in for that either.

Q. How important is sex?

A. Sex is very important - and it's one of the first things that goes when things get difficult. And for parents again, it's tricky. With young kids around, fatigue kicks in, libido can be quite low. But partners need to support each other through that - and if necessary, timetable intimacy in. That doesn't have to mean sex every time, but physical contact and closeness, intimacy, is vital for a loving relationship.

Q. What about big days like Valentine's Day, birthdays, anniversaries ... do they really matter?

A. Yes. They're real opportunities to celebrate the relationship, to show and tell your partner you love them and you're interested.

We're all busy, we don't always have a chance to pause and make it clear how we feel, so these days are a great opportunity for that.

Q. Tuesday is not a great day for Valentine's Day ... any last minute romance suggestions for anyone who hasn't booked a candlelit dinner just yet? Will Rare Breed and a takeaway do the trick?

A. Just try to do something memorable, that you haven't done before.

If that means you booking a babysitter and some tickets to the cinema, do that.

It doesn't have to be a huge thing, but something thoughtful, out of character and something which your partner won't be able to predict will be really effective.

It's not as easy for me this year, as Eileen's eight hours ahead, but we'll hopefully catch up on Skype and I'll definitely be thinking of her.

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