The new head of Relate, NI woman Ruth Sutherland, tells Stephanie Bell how the charity transformed her life after a failed marriage
In many ways it is Ruth Sutherland’s own early life experiences as much as her impressive CV which makes her the ideal person to head up the UK’s top relationship counselling charity, Relate.
Even as a child, the newly-appointed Chief Executive of the organisation never followed the easy route which is probably why she has been able to slip with such ease into the unconventional routine of living in one country and working in another.
The commute from her home in Warrenpoint to work in London has been part of this very successful mum-of-three’s life for the past six years.
Ruth joined Relate from Scope where she was Executive Director of Services. Before that she was Chief Operating Officer and interim CEO at the Alzheimer’s Society and has served as Director of Services at Rethink, the severe mental illness charity.
It was while working with Rethink, based in Belfast, that she was asked to step in for a colleague in London and what should have been a temporary six month secondment became permanent.
Ruth originally qualified as a Registered General Nurse but has spent the majority of her career in public health roles, including being one of the founding directors of the Community Development and Health Network, a charitable membership network committed to addressing inequalities in health and wellbeing in Northern Ireland.
Her newest post with Relate sees her continue a now well established routine of leaving Northern Ireland on Monday until Thursday evening, with Fridays spent working from home in Warrenpoint catching up on paperwork.
Ruth, who was brought up in Essex, met her husband Ian Sutherland (director of Child Services in Co Down), who is from Newry, while they were both working in London.
The couple settled in Northern Ireland 22 years ago and have three children, Rebecca (24) who has just finished a Masters Degree in Translation in London, Daniel (21) who is studying English at Warwick University and Ben (18) who is still at home.
Coming to live in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles did give her some pause for thought.
“I had been on holiday here and had seen the attractions — the lovely countryside, the mountains and sea — but 22 years ago coming to live here was a bigger decision because of what we were seeing on the news.
“I think I was quite naive about what I was coming to although I knew the reality was different from what I had experienced on holiday and that it would not be without its challenges.
“Of course my mother worried and I remember on one of her first visits here she was walking with the pram in a lovely country area when she came across an army checkpoint which gave her a fright.
“On reflection it was a big, bold step but it has been very good for me. We have an excellent way of life and the education system is better than in England. It is a great place and has great people and I have so much good to say about it that my friends in England usually joke with me that I should be working for the Tourist Board.”
While her children have enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up beside the sea in Warrenpoint, Ruth’s own early years were not so easy.
She didn’t start school until she was seven and instantly hated it. She left at 18 with two A levels which she said were of such low grades she didn’t get into university.
She married at 19 and divorced at 21, a reaction she believes to experiencing the breakup of her parents’ marriage when she was a child.
Oddly enough it was counselling with Relate which helped her to turn her life around and she started university at 22, surprising herself at how much she was finally enjoying studying.
“I felt I missed out on being a young person. I lived quite a lot of life by the time I was 22.
“I wasn’t the type of child at school you would have looked at and said that she is going to be a success.
“I didn’t like school. My father was an artist and a great man for politics and was always following a cause or campaign of some kind and when I was the age to start school he was in dispute with the school, with the result that I didn’t start until I was seven.
“By that time I hated the whole idea of going to school and I didn’t do well. I only got a thirst for learning when I went to university. I wasn’t the sort of child who could learn things by rote and when I went to university I realised I loved the whole inquiry and achievement of learning.
“I had failed the 11 plus and didn’t get good A level grades and blagged my way into university and I loved it and got a double first in Sociology and Social Administration.”
She was 17 when she set up home with a boyfriend who she married at 19, divorcing just three years later, after a series of sessions with Relate helped her put her life in perspective.
“It was the classic thing of being too young. I think it was a hangover from my own parents’ divorce leaving me wanting my own home
“I had six sessions with Relate and everything was solved. I learnt that I wasn’t bringing myself with me to that marriage.
“Going to Relate was life transformational, it really helped me sort everything out and it energised me and made me a different person who learnt a lot about herself and what she wanted to be.”
From the young unsure woman who sought the charity’s advice to the successful career woman now heading it up, life has come full circle for Ruth and she knows from bitter personal experience the benefits of the organisation.
She is enthusiastic about what Relate has achieved and what can be done and talks with genuine enthusiasm — no doubt because of her personal experiences — about the difference it can make and how she hopes to make her mark.
“I want to make sure more and more services become available and that there is a greater awareness of the value of relationship support and that people don’t perceive Relate as a last resort.
“I want to make people more aware of the educational side of Relate. We do a lot of preventative education, working with schools and teaching children and young people the value and importance of investing in their relationships, not just romantic relationships but how they relate to people in the work place and within their own families.
“Looking back on my own childhood I can see how we as a family could have done with some help. It wasn’t an unhappy childhood just a difficult one. We have this idea where we think our parents know how to sort everything out and of course they don’t.
“Life is difficult anyway and there are transition points, sort of crunch points in your life such as your first relationship, first baby, other children coming along — all sorts of changes in our lives and if we prepare ourselves for those changes we can smooth them out and navigate the difficult challenges which life throws at us.”
She believes that the current economic climate which is putting families under increasing financial pressures, and many people facing job insecurity, all impacts on relationships.
And Ruth is keen to shed the common misconception that Relate deals solely with those going through marriage problems.
She say: “The charity provides relationship education and support for all types of relationships — married, not married, living together, not living together, same sex, families in all sorts of shapes and sizes — not necessarily nuclear families, step families, blended families, extended families etc.
“What Relate is concerned about is the nature and quality of the relationship rather than how people choose to live. Relate prides itself in being non-judgemental so I am keen to counter any myths or stereotypes which might work to seek to prevent someone from seeking help and support. “
In her own personal position she has had to work hard to make commuting to London work for her and her family.
She is conscious that while they have made it work, she doesn’t want to come across as smug and points out that all relationships take hard work and investment — an investment she says she is keen to make — and that she, her husband and family have had their ups and downs like everyone else and are committed to working it out, helping each other and getting help if they need it.
She describes her husband as “my biggest champion” and says of the lifestyle she leads: “Some
times I am sitting in the airport and I do think what on earth am I doing but then I come back home to the mountains and the sea and I realise I have such a satisfying life and I am lucky to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
Does she, as a mum, feel any guilt being separated from her children. It is something she has wrestled with and another of the many life experiences which have shaped her and will prove so useful in her new role with Relate.
“I can switch off when I need to and concentrate on family. Ben was 13 when I started to commute to London and we established early on a routine in which we chatted via Skype every night and we have done that for the past six years.
“I have friends who have told me that they live in the same house as their sons and don’t talk as much.
“I think you need to concentrate on the quality of the relationship and I am good friends with my children and I am immensely proud of them.
“Like all mothers I do ask myself am I doing the right thing and as time goes on the children have shown me that I have and my daughter especially says she is very proud of me and my achievements in terms of being a role model.
“I am struck by the number of regular commuters I see each week at the airport but invariably I am the only female commuter.
“Ian and I have always shared whatever we could and we always made sure we didn’t skimp on childcare so we felt our children had a whole bunch of caring adults around them who wanted them to do their best.
“When Ian was a young working dad he said he felt sexism in that it was OK for women to take time out for a children’s play at school or hospital appointment but not OK for an aspiring young male manager — so I think it cuts both ways.
“I started my Masters degree when our youngest child was 10 days old and he came with me and I fed him in the lectures!
“But I could only do this with a great team around me and I certainly felt guilty all the time — but now they are grown up and are great, happy, healthy and successful young people I think I should have given myself and our family a break and not given what was a pervasive sexism any headroom.
“So I like to tell other younger women my story and say, ‘it’s OK, do what you think is best for you.’
“A happy and fulfilled mum can be the best kind of mum and if being at home with your children makes you fulfilled then do that but if being at work makes you like that then do that.
“When you have time with your children make it the best time. Concentrate on what they are doing and telling you — mindful parenting is what I call it — and when you are not with them make sure they get this from their carer. The rest of the world should just support families, make it easier, in all the shapes and sizes that family now come in.”
What the charity does ...
- Relate is a national charity with 70 centres throughout the UK and a network of counsellors working at 600 locations
- Around 150,000 people a year use Relate’s services nationally
- In Northern Ireland Relate has centres in Belfast, Ballymena, Coleraine (2), Cookstown, Foyle, Irvinestown, Newry and Portadown
- The organisation offers counselling on relationships, family crisis, domestic violence and abuse, sexual problems, and separation. There is specific counselling for teenagers
- Counsellors undergo two to three years training before becoming fully qualified and then receive further on-going specialised training in other areas of the charity’s work
- Relate's profile was hugely increased after Princess Diana became its patron in 1989
- Danielle Lineker, wife of TV sports presenter Gary, is a Relate Ambassador for step-families, being a step mum and growing up in a step-family.
- For further information or to book a session (which involves a fee) tel: 028 9032 3454 or go to www.relateni.org.