Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the category “Marriage”

Good Times For A Change…

Some bits of really good news this week.

First, my nephew, H. This is a young man with a very tough home life. His mum has advanced MS. His little brother has quite pronounced physical challenges, and although he’s an exceptionally cute little lad, is very demanding of his parents’ time. H gets lots and lots of love from his family, but they don’t have much money and live in a council house in an inner city.

H is just coming up to the end of primary school, and the thought of him trying to survive in one of the inner city comprehensive schools for which he was bound was not a happy one. But this week we heard that he has won a full, seven year scholarship to the very prestigious private school which was the port in a storm for my eldest son when he was driven out of our local school by homophobic bullying. H did this all by himself – no coaching, no tutoring – and if there is a prouder, happier uncle anywhere in the world right now, I would very much like to meet him. If ever a family deserved a bit of good fortune, H’s family is that family.

It’s disappointing that the state system couldn’t offer H or my son any more support, but that seems to be the way of the world.

Next, my dad. He’s been discharged from the care of his psychiatrist. Whilst he’s still something of a shadow of the man he was before depression put him in hospital two years ago, he’s much recovered, and we do seem to have avoided a double-dip depression (I wish I could claim credit for that phrase but have to tip my hat to my mum).

Finally, my wife, the Beautiful Armenian. After weeks and weeks of frustration and set-back she has finally been given the go-ahead to start writing up the transcript of a counselling session that is one of the requirements of the final year of her course. That’s a bit of a two-sided coin. The frustration of waiting is over. Now comes the joy of living with her in writing mode.

Back on the subject of depression, but to end on a lighter note, I was watching England play rugby on Saturday and moaning mildly about the dark nature of Brian Moore’s (ex-England player) TV commentary. But, I explained to the Beautiful A as she passed through the room, he was abused in childhood, has suffered from depression and has had the courage to write a book about it all.

Her response was priceless. She did check herself towards the end of her question, but she definitely said it and I definitely heard it:

“Oh,” she said, looking at the television. “Is he the one who committed suicide?”

She isn’t blonde, but I do wonder occasionally if I ought to get her a wig.


Top Tips For Dealing With Marital Tension

Dear Dr Toby,

You seem to have a few things to say for yourself about family matters.  Do you have any tips for a completely (ahem) imaginary situation in which you find a little bit of tension appearing in your relationship with your wife?  Perhaps you’ve felt over a recent holiday season that she’s been a little bit shorter with you than normal, a little less patient.  Any advice very welcome.

Yours etc

You have so come to the right place.  Some words to the wise…

One:  Be Open About Your Feelings. 

Let’s deal with this one straight away.  You’d probably expect me to say this.  But no.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s much better to skulk round the subject for a few days.  In this way, your good lady can pick up on the fact that something’s not quite right, misinterpret it, and then become more negative in her own behaviour.  Happy days.

Two:  Keep Yourselves Busy. 

You really don’t want to be spending time together on your own when there’s any tension between you.  You’re far better off putting all your efforts into keeping other people happy – your parents, your children, your whole wider family in fact.  You’ll find this helps a lot, particularly if your minor marital misunderstandings coincide with a nice relaxing time of the year like Christmas.

Three: Make Some Me Time.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time thinking about others.  Don’t.  You need space.  Space to connect with your inner child.  Space to indulge in a little honest-to-god, cathartic self-pity.  Because you’re worth it.

Four:  Pick Your Moment.

Timing is everything.  You may need to be patient.  Wait for that special moment to bring things to a head.  2.00 a.m on New Years Day when you’ve spent the last seven hours feeding, watering and entertaining six other families, for instance.  Even better if you add that little dash of something else – several glasses of red wine too many, perhaps.

Five:  Get Her In The Right Mood By Being Nice About Her Friends.

A woman always appreciates it when you reaffirm her friendship choices.  Be as positive as you can.  Something like, “I thought Julia looked really good tonight.  Don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking hotter, to be honest.  And Emma – wow!”  A tip for the advanced student here – it’s even better if she doesn’t really like Emma.  It takes a special kind of husband to show that kind of consideration.

Six:  Choose Your Words With Care.

When the time comes, don’t open up with something pathetic like: “I’ve been a bit worried that you may be finding me boring or irritating, and I think we should talk about it.”  Take a bolder line.  Suggest that she’s not been paying you enough attention.  It’s bound to get things off to a good start.

Our fears are never very far away.

And my biggest fear with being alongside my wife as she goes through the profound experience of becoming a psychotherapist is that she may one day outgrow me, outgrow us.  Over Christmas this bubbled to the surface.

Nothing major.  Just a nagging feeling that she was finding me tiresome.  And that this was a cause for concern.

It’s quite a demanding time of year for us – lots of other people to keep happy – and not one she particularly enjoys.  And maybe she does move a little too quickly to putting on an air of martyrdom.

But she is a wonderful, wonderful wife.  And we have a wonderful, wonderful marriage.  And although I made every one of the mistakes described above, it wasn’t a big deal.  We talked.  And when I finally said what I felt, she said:  “Oh, so that’s it.  Your behaving like that made me feel exactly the same.”

Captain Cock-Up’s Contribution to Christmas (Part 1)

It’s with great sadness that I report that my Christmas present to my wife (aka The Beautiful Armenian) has gone tits up.  I love the phrase “tits up”, but I use it here with heavy heart.

She is a MASSIVE fan of Strictly. Sorry for the shouty capitals, but it is the only way to describe just what a MASSIVE fan she is. I’m quite happy to go along with this, because for me the show is pure, unadulterated sex. Has a more lust-fuelling creature than Kristina Rihanoff ever graced our living-room screens? I would suggest not.  The verdict of my female colleagues that she is little more than a “Russian tart?” How wrong. How very, very wrong.

Gorgeous, pouting Kristina

And so, in a moment of rare and recent inspiration, I asked myself when considering things festive, “Toby, could there be any better way of showing that wonderful woman who is your wife just how much you love her than to surprise her on Christmas morning with a pair of tickets for Strictly Live in Birmingham in January and a booking for a night in a fancy hotel?” I didn’t have to think for very long before answering with a resounding No.

I feared I may have left things a little late, but all went well. The tickets were booked. A room reserved in the same hotel we stayed at for TBA’s 40th. My parents put on notice to look after the Small Boy Wonder on the night in question. Perfect. Realising that the tickets would be delivered by post, I even had the foresight to instruct The Beautiful Armenian in the following terms: “If anything arrives which is addressed to me, you must promise me  – you must absolutely promise me – that you will not under any circumstances open it.  Do I make myself clear?” I could see that her curiosity was aroused (it’s my finely tuned perception), but the promise was made.

So what could possibly go wrong? Let me tell you what went wrong.

I came home from work one day this week to find TBA in high heels and low-cut top. Before I’d really had chance to reflect on this being unusual – for a weekday at least –  she took me to another room. “I have to tell you this,” she said. “I’ve thought about trying to hide it, but I can’t.”

I really am not joking when I tell you that the look on her face was such that I did think, this is where she tells me that it’s all been a sham, that we’ve been living a lie; she’s been shagging Brendan Cole, and the children aren’t mine.

In fact it was worse.


She’d opened the envelope with the tickets in.

Why? A schoolboy error, I’m afraid. The initials of our first names are the same. The ticket company had just used initial and surname.  No Mr or Mrs.  She thought the letter was addressed to her.

The saddest bit was that it had made her so happy she’d cried. And I wasn’t there to see it.  It would have been such a lovely moment on Christmas day.  The kids and her mother would probably have joined in the weeping as well.

But never mind.  We’ve still got the night itself to look forward to.

And in this house, in case you’re wondering, tomorrow we will be rooting for Chelsee.  Big time.

Come on, Chelsee!


La Vie Parisienne

Your correspondent has had the good fortune to spend part of this week in Paris, pretending to be important by attending a conference.  The subject matter would have bored most people rigid, but in my little world was actually quite interesting.  A few thoughts and observations.

1.  I kept to the straight and narrow

One of the many blessings of my life is that I am responsible for a small team of extremely dedicated and hard-working people.  When I say people, I mostly mean women, each one gorgeous in her own way.   I really have tried to be less discriminating towards men, but every time we recruit, the stand-out candidate is a woman.    So it is my very good fortune to have to go to work each day to be surrounded by these wonderful creatures.  And here’s the really good bit – they have to be nice to me, and seek my approval.  It’s not like being at home, where I have to earn it.  Yes, I am the world’s shallowest man.   But, let me tell you, that man is very happy in his work.

I’m also something of a world expert on managing multiple maternity leaves in a small and under-resourced team.  This pregnancy thing has turned out to be the one flaw in my single-sex staffing strategy.  You may think it’s obvious, but I didn’t see it coming.  A word of advice though, the married ones seem especially prone to the baby event.  But I have to say that the headaches and hassle of managing without them melt away to nothing when they bring their new off-spring in for show and tell.  It’s not that I’m soppy about babies – I’m not.  It’s the way each one of them has walked beaming towards me ignoring all their other friends and colleagues until they have presented to me for my approval the fruits of their labour.   I don’t know why they do it, but it’s very touching.

This week I travelled with one of these lovelies.  As you can imagine, The Beautiful Armenian was less than entirely impressed.  Her killer point when we discuss anything like this (and I have learned long ago not to try to win the debate) is that I wouldn’t like it if it were the other way round.  She’s also very sweet in that she seems to think that I am totally irresistible to any one in female form.  Before you get any idea that I may be George Clooney in disguise, you need to know that this is the woman whose ideal man would be a cross between Michael Palin and Alan Titchmarsh.

But she really needn’t worry.  Not these days.  Let’s leave aside the fact that my travelling companion is a very happily married young mother who I am sure has no interest whatever in inappropriate behaviour with a man nearly twenty years her senior.  Let’s also disregard the fact that my sexual and romantic ambitions begin and end with The Beautiful Armenian.  I just have this feeling that if ever I were to get into any sort of compromising situation with a young and modern woman, I wouldn’t know what to do.  Some of them intimidate the hell out me.  I would be like my parents with something new and electrical – frightened I might break it, phoning my kids to ask for instructions, and bemoaning the fact that nothing comes with an instruction manual these days.

2.  A tale of two cities

It’s been some time since I’ve been in Paris.  It really is a beautiful city.  We were lucky enough to be near the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees.  Gorgeous at street level.  But underground in the Metro it is as if you are suddenly somewhere else – dirty, shabby, dingy, edgy.  So unpleasant that I found myself in wistful reminiscence about the tranquillity and aesthetic beauty of the London underground.

3.  Man (or woman) cannot live on canapes alone.

For two days I ate nothing but freakin’ finger food.  I had every manner of tiny delicacy brought to me on silver trays.  Lunch at the conference would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so stressful.  Hundreds of hungry delegates descending on a room in which there were a very limited number of exquisite prawn concoctions in tiny bowls and beautifully made, but miniscule, sandwiches.  Such was the competition for this very limited sustenance that the UN were on standby with a peace-keeping force.   But once the fighting had subsided the waiters reappeared with a selection of equally microscopic sweets (minced pineapple, for goodness sake).  And then, just as everyone had given up and was heading back to the breakout sessions, they wheel in a cheeseboard.

In the evening there was more of the same.  We were invited to “dinner” by a company who want our business.  Now I really do not want to sound ungrateful.  This was in an extremely upmarket hotel in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world (if my overcoat had seen the look the doorman gave it when I handed it over on arrival, it would have been entirely within its rights immediately to have joined the Euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative party).  I had a fond idea that I would save myself for the meal and go easy on the canapes, but there was something rather suspicious about the way the waiters pressed the larks-tongue profiteroles (or whatever they were) on us – these guys were simply not taking non pour un reponse.  When “dinner” arrived it became clear why – it was wonderfully cooked and presented, it was a sublime combination of textures and flavours, it was entirely befitting for the establishment and the city in which it was served.  But it was gone in two mouthfuls.  I swear it was smaller than the some of the goujons of smoked stickleback we’d had earlier.

You can eat your body-weight in this sort of food and still feel hungry.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

4.  People in glass houses

Our flight back was clearly the Disneyland special.  Completely full, and mainly of large family groups with children.  Some of these “little” ones were obviously of school age, and I’m not aware of any local authorities who have half term in December.  They were also, how shall we say, of a certain social type.  They’d “Clearly Had A Very” good time – they were “Coming Home At Velocity.”  I felt the snob within me rise.

However, I had to have a very quick and sharp word with myself.  Whatever I might think, these families had at least managed to do one thing that had very nearly defeated yours truly and his highly educated travelling companion.  They had managed to get on the flight.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, but with an over-whelming desire to banish memories of  buffet food and eat a proper meal.  This being France, we did of course have to go through the full rigmarole of all those things we tend to consider unnecessary in the UK in these situations – waitress service, studying the wine list, having the food prepared properly.  But still we had time.  So some shopping took place.  Then we approached the security clearance, with a sign saying very prominently and proudly that the waiting time was 3 minutes.

As they say, they must have missed off un zero.  And then some.  We inched forwards. Sorry, we were in France – we millimetred forwards.  We were still putting laptops and belts in plastic trays when they announced our names over the tannoy for the second time.  The conveyor belt stopped working.  I set the alarm off and had to wait whilst two completely unoccupied guys with magic searchy things decided which one could be bothered to move three steps forward and wave it vaguely in my general direction.  Then I was running through the terminal, clutching bag and jacket and coat and computer, trying to make sure my trousers didn’t fall down (no time to put the belt back on), spurred on only by the thought that if I didn’t get to the gate it could mean another 12 hours of finger food.  There was a problem with my boarding pass.  Then my colleague caught me up with her duty-free bag very visible.

Now this made the day of the woman from the airline.  She must come to work each morning desperately hoping for moments like this.  She looked at the bag and then with highly practised and supremely Gallic disdain, tossed back her head and sneered, no spat out, one word:  “Shopping!”

But despite all these schoolboy errors we made it.  Yes, we were surrounded by some of England’s finest.  But they had managed to get on the plane with slightly less drama.  And, as somebody I know has so memorably put it this week, there’s a little bit of chav in all of us.

5.  Patience is a virtue

Well before the problems with security, the journey back had had its little ups and downs.  We couldn’t find the Metro.  We had ticketing issues.  The trains were too full to get on.  My colleague got caught the wrong side of a broken exit barrier.

But we didn’t let any of this ruffle us at all.  There wasn’t a single sharp word.  I pointed out to my companion that this would have been rather different if we had been married.  There is no way that we would have been presented with these various minor challenges without one of us blaming the other for something, or getting rather too dramatic about a tiny little problem, or putting on our best martyred face as a response to insignificant irritation.  This is so very odd.  We behave  worse when we are with the ones we love.  I really am going to try to remember this, and try to do something about it, when next we are travelling en famille.

Anyway, back in Blighty now.  I have colleagues who spend half their time away on business.  Believe me, that’s not the life for me.  But the occasional jaunt is undeniably a very pleasant distraction.

Changes: What Your Wife Becoming a Psychotherapist Really Means

The Small Boy Wonder said something the other day which we felt showed a maturity well beyond his years.  We were talking about the shifting sands of friendship groups.  He said he had realised that change was interesting.  “It’s like reading a story.  You want to see where it leads to, what happens next.”

I share his view.  I think change is interesting.   I also think that is a view you need to have if your wife is going to undertake something so loaded with and precipitous of change as a masters degree in psychotherapy at the age of 45.  From where I sit now, I can see that it was rather like pressing the gamble button on a very successful marriage.  One which had already seen its fair share of stress and testing.  I read a magazine piece recently about a woman who had redefined herself completely in early middle age – lost a lot of weight and changed career.  This had all gone well, but it had also lead to divorce.   I was no longer the person my husband had fallen in love with, she said.

This could have happened to me and The Beautiful Armenian.  But looking back, I say with some conviction that taking this risk was inherently the right thing to do.  It would have been even if the end result had been less happy.   I’m not saying you should go out of your way to take risks with your marriage.  But this new calling is so clearly one of the things C was put on this planet to do.  When I see the radiant way her flower has bloomed, I do conclude that even if our relationship had struggled more to accommodate it – or perhaps had failed to accommodate it at all – it would still have been the right thing to do.  It would have been our responsibility – my responsibility – to have found a way to have made it worked.

Easy for me to say when the effect on our marriage of all this change has in fact been almost entirely positive?   Perhaps, but there is no doubt that three years ago we let the cosy bus go past and hopped onto the less comfortable one behind.

So what was this change?

There was some fairly obvious practical change.  The time demands of the course are considerable.  TBA suddenly became far less available to run the house in the way she had done for years.  She wouldn’t deny that many meals have been much more hastily prepared, and far fewer hours spent on cleaning and gardening, than in the past.

Then there are the study weekends.   Every few weeks she disappears off for three or four days at a time, leaving me to keep the family going, and to entertain myself.   Sometimes she comes back from those days in pieces, wanting little more than to be on her own, and then to sleep.   On occasion, it has taken her several days to recover fully from a weekend.

On the upside, she does sometimes come back with a rampant sexuality needing attention!

This has had an effect on our social life (the pattern of the weekends, that is, not the rampant sexuality).  We have entertained less, and we have lost contact with a few people who perhaps hadn’t been that close as friends.  I am naturally very private, usually more than happy with a weekend in which large parts of it are spent by myself.  But as our social life has for many years been centred more on C’s friends than mine, I have had to make a bit more effort to make sure that I don’t become too cut off.

The academic side of the course has probably been the hardest change to cope with.  C has had to overcome her profound mistrust of technology, relearn some old study stuff and some new tricks as well.  She’s had to read a small library of books, acquire a new lexicon and squeeze her naturally free and engaging writing style into the strait jacket of word counts and formal referencing.

We’ve spent a lot of money.  The change in our bank balance has not, so far, been positive!  If you happen to be reading this and thinking about doing something similar to C, I would implore you to be realistic about the financial cost .  Course fees, the cost of therapy and supervision, travel, books, going to conferences, food and coffee on the study weekends.  It all adds up.  It really adds up.

I will write about all these things separately.

But by far the biggest change, and the most far-reaching in its consequences, has been the change within C.  She’s been through therapy.  This has meant many, many hours of thoroughly professional interaction with an experienced and highly trained specialist, a process of intense and sometimes painful reflection and self-analysis, and the subtle application of an impressive body of academic thought.  What’s the result been?   Easy.  My wife is no longer taking any sh*t.  From anyone.  Ever again.

Her fundamentally gentle nature hasn’t changed; she’s just as much a stranger to malice and spite as ever she was; and the process has accentuated not eroded the fact that her greatest gift, her most wondrous quality, is the ability to love – selflessly and profoundly to love.  But she has changed, and the change is irreversible.  She has developed a quiet, but very effective, assertiveness.  She now deals with life on terms.

And this, of course, has changed things between us.  How could it not have?  It’s not easy to describe what this has been, but our marriage is now a relationship of equals, a relationship between two adults.  There was nothing unhealthy about it before, and I certainly wasn’t amongst those from whom she was taking all the sh*t.  It was a deeply loving and very successful marriage.  However, my role in it (on the emotional side at least) was sometimes that of a parent, and I think C was driven quite significantly by the fear of it not lasting.   This led her to idealise it, and me, somewhat.

All of that is now gone.  For some people, that may have been too much, especially when coupled with all the other change.  But it has, in fact, been fantastic.  Who would have thought that coming down off a pedestal would be so much fun.  But I’ve come down into a relationship that is without any doubt even stronger than it was before.

The Beautiful Armenian is on her course today.  And I’m sitting here wondering what the chances are that it will be the sex-hungry version who comes rolling through the door this evening!

Psychotherapy Course

Some time ago my wife (known here as the Beautiful Armenian, or C) started a masters degree in psychotherapy, with the intention of qualifying and practising as a person-centred psychotherapist.  Before this she had been concentrating on bringing up our three children, supporting me in a demanding job, and running our home.

It had always been her heartfelt wish to devote her time and energy to home-making.  When the children were younger, she couldn’t.  Our eldest son was born at a time when I was going through a career change.  Money was tight, and things hadn’t improved a great deal when the Very Precious Daughter came along a few years later.  And so C kept her teaching career going for longer than she would have wanted.  However, when our third child was born, my work was going much better, and not long after that she was able to give up work completely.

I think she might have been quite happy to continue living the life she then carved out for herself indefinitely.  She did a great job overseeing some home-improvement projects, she played a big role in running a community initiative, and she ran the home.  From my point of view, I was largely freed from domestic tasks.  But as the children grew up I began to challenge C on what she saw herself doing once her role as a full-time mother diminished, and also asked her to consider whether having more than one source of income might have advantages for us later on.

She listened.  She went through a training course to become a counsellor for a charity.  Then she signed up for a full-on, masters degree in psychotherapy.  It’s described as part-time, but that’s about as an accurate a description as Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute recipes.  The course has certainly involved far more hours and and far more effort each week, than I had to put in to my first degree, many years ago.

And it has been one of our big life events.  It’s up there in the top five – top three maybe – alongside things like the birth of our children, my career change, and our decision to leave the heart of London’s commuter belt.

Occasionally somebody says something which surprises you so much that you have to stop and think before you answer.  One of these moments happened about a year into the course, when C said to me that she could see that she had become bored in what she was doing before.  A big, big admission.  What would have happened if she had just let things drift?

If we look back at our lives so far, we might say that certain things – certain major things – have happened to us without us asking for them to happen.  Having a gay son; an anorexic daughter; multiple interactions with depression; miscarriages.  And more.

But it’s also clear that we don’t like just to sit back and see what life has got to throw at us.  We also like to hand it a few slings and arrows to hurl in our direction, just to see how we get on.

C doing this course is one of those things, and I hope to share some of the experience, and more importantly some of the change, which this has created through this blog.

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