A mission to save marriages
Nicky and Sila Lee help couples to stay together by running marriage courses. There’s no counselling, no airing of dirty linen in public, no group therapy – and it seems to work
In 2006, Peter Drysdale decided that his 26-year marriage to Gill was over. He bought an Idiot's guide to divorce, consulted a lawyer, and even told their two adult children. "I guess the crisis was precipitated by the kids' empty nesting," says Peter, 57, a project manager with Barclays. "There'd been a couple of false starts, but now they'd settled and weren't coming back. That left Gill and I to face each other."
When they did, neither was surprised to find the connection was no longer there. They hadn't resolved their marital differences along the way, just buried them. Money was a key problem area (Peter was a spender, Gill a saver). Their communication styles were another (Peter shouted, Gill withdrew). They had survived by carving out separate spaces. For chunks of the marriage, Peter had worked long hours in London while Gill brought up the children in their Berkshire home. With the children gone, she spent more time at their house in France. "We'd had one preliminary session with Relate then stopped," says Peter. "We argued all the way through and the counsellor told us that unless we were positive about wanting to save the marriage, it probably wasn't worth coming back. Even our children agreed divorce was for the best."
The Drysdales looked destined to join the long line of couples who make January "divorce month". (Family solicitors and divorce websites point to it as their busiest time, a combination of couples deciding to get through Christmas before making a clean break for New Year and others discovering during the enforced family holiday that they can't take it, or fake it, any longer.) Then some friends announced they were going on a "marriage course" that spring and invited Gill and Peter along. It involved seven weekly sessions at a church in London's Kensington.
"I was gobsmacked because their relationship was great – but they said the course was for anyone, however long you've been married and whether you're happy or not," says Peter. "We weren't churchgoers and I didn't want to be preached at. I didn't like the idea of airing dirty linen in public either. I wasn't keen – but Gill wanted to give it a go. I thought, I'll go and prove it's over."
The course began in 2006 at the Holy Trinity Brompton, the church that is also home to the Anglican Christian Alpha course, known by members as HTB. It was devised by Nicky and Sila Lee – he is associate vicar there – largely as a resource for church members, but its appeal widened as word spread.
Then people who lived outside London asked if they could run it in their hometowns – sometimes in their homes, or a restaurant, a pub, a village hall. It has been introduced to UK prisons and is now being tried on military bases. It has been translated into 40 languages and is running in 109 countries. Now about half the couples who attend are not religious – writer and Guardian columnist Tim Lott is one atheist who went with his wife and left impressed (his wife is "evangelical" about it).
Sila, 58, and Nicky, 59, have been married for 37 years. They have four children, and five grandchildren – but are effortlessly attractive, youthful and vivacious. Their home next to the church in a Kensington square is crowded with books, clocks, cushions, lamps, Theirs seems a charmed life – you can't help wondering what they know of strife or struggle or debt or cruelty. They're just so nice!
They met as teenagers on Swansea dock, awaiting a ferry to Ireland. Sila was 17, an art student and Nicky was 18, studying English at Cambridge. They fell in love before they had even boarded the boat, married four years later and moved to Durham where Nicky studied theology. "We were the first of our age group to marry and it meant friends often came to us to talk about relationships, asking how you know whether to get married and so on," says Nicky.
When he joined HTB in 1985, part of his work involved speaking to couples about to get married. He and Sila then devised a marriage preparation course that took off. "The content was a combination of our own experience, what we'd found helpful, and advice we'd picked up from older married couples," says Nicky. "It was wonderful; we loved it. But having a room full of engaged couples who were in love and hopeful was one thing. We wanted to reach those a little further on, when the rose-tinted glasses had come off. That's how the marriage course came about."
There's no airing of dirty linen. It's set up as a kind of date night, one evening a week for seven weeks. (The suggested cost is a £95 donation – which barely covers the catering – though others who are running it may offer it for free.) You sit in a room full of couples, but at a table for two and dine together (cohabiting couples are also welcome).
Afterwards, you listen to presentations, issues are raised, then you and your partner discuss and complete the exercises at your table. "Privacy has always been important, there's no group sharing," says Sila.
"We have 100 couples on each course. We greet them at the door but know nothing about their situations or why they are here. All the issues discussed are pertinent to the couple and no one else." But the group setting creates a structured, safe environment in which to talk. "Even if their relationship is in quite a difficult place, people feel OK discussing things they wouldn't at home because there, it could escalate or get too emotional – one or both could shout and scream and storm out. That has never happened on the course," says Nicky.
There is a separate theme each week. The first is building strong foundations – that's prioritising one another, having special time together. Next is the art of communication, which focuses on learning to listen, followed by resolving conflict – how to argue effectively. Session four is the power of forgiveness, and the fifth explores the impact of family, past and present to understand how one other's backgrounds and extended family shape who and how they are.
Good sex is sixth. "We leave that second to last because people think that if they get the sex sorted out, everything will be fine," says Sila. "Actually, all the other issues need to be in place."
The last session is love in action. The premise here is that we all tend to have different "love languages"– we show love in different ways, so don't always recognise it when our partner shows it to us. It could be through words, time, gifts, touch, or putting up a shelf.
It could be argued that any couple willing to put themselves through all this must be pretty committed already. (For some, it must sound like torture, and attendance at all seven sessions is proof enough that they love their partners.) Yet it's hard to dismiss the number of glowing testimonials, of marital miracles offered up by loved-up happy graduates of the course.
Sila describes the forgiveness session as the heart of the course. "People who run it worry about this one as it's the most difficult," she says. "But it's often the really big turning point. If we don't heal hurt, we can't move forward in a healthy way."
Instead, couples are helped to recognise how they have hurt one another, to own it and apologise, not excuse it, then choose to forgive. The issues can be big and small. "For one couple, it was about the paternity leave he hadn't taken when their first child was born," says Nicky. "He thought they'd agreed that he would store it up for later, he had a deadline at work and her parents were there. He thought she'd said it was OK. They came on the course three years later – they'd had a second child by then – but to her, that choice he'd made signified that work was more important. She expressed what it felt like for her. He listened and got it, and said sorry. Once she knew he understood, it wasn't that hard to forgive."
For Peter Drysdale, the communication session was key. "Part of my job is to be a good communicator. I'd always thought that I was and Gill wasn't," he says. "I can get loud and argue a point. Then I realised it's about listening."
Gill found the impact of the family sessions helpful. "We'd met at university and come from very different families," she says. "I was from a southern family who weren't particularly good at talking. We tended to bury things. Peter is from the north – his family shouted at each other a lot, but no one listened. The more we talked, the more all our differences made sense – and when we understood all that, suddenly they didn't have to be a problem. We can compliment one another. Peter could encourage me to use money, to enjoy it. I could help him save it."
"One of the tasks was to write down some times we'd felt loved by our partners," says Peter. "I nearly ended up in tears. When I'd started the course, all I could see were our problems, the bad stuff. I realised there were times Gill had made me feel amazing – and some of them weren't even that long ago. That's when hope began."
"The popular understanding of marriage now is that you've got to find The One, the exact fit," says Nicky. "If you run into problems, it means you've married the wrong person. We're not saying marry anybody – you should choose carefully and wisely – but it's not hit and miss. If you have two people who are willing, you can build a long, healthy marriage. It's painful when couples come on the course and don't make it. But that's more than matched by those who come without much hope and go home a strong, happy couple."
Peter and Gill are part of the latter group. "Week by week, things were improving, we were getting closer, finding out about one another when, for years, we'd made assumptions about what the other was thinking and feeling," says Peter.
"We started date nights – jazz clubs, stuff we'd not done before. We'd stopped going on holidays when the kids had stopped coming. Our holidays turned into DIY in our house in France. Quite soon after the course, we had a mini-break to Iceland, walking on glaciers. When I'd met Gill, she was a folk singer in a band – that had all been forgotten along the way. Now we're in a choir together. We have fun."
Gill agrees. "It's totally different between us," she says. "I can't imagine being separate. If we'd divorced, we'd have taken all our problems with us wherever we went next."
Seven tips from the marriage course
• Go on regular weekly dates together.
• Defer all arguments after 10pm and arrange a better time.
• Take it in turns to talk and listen – and when your partner is upset, listen without interrupting or giving advice.
• Say five positive things for every negative comment.
• Decide together how to save or spend your money. Finances are a huge part of marital difficulty – try to plan for the future rather than argue about the past.
• Learn to say sorry and forgive.
• See sex not as the icing on the cake, but a vital ingredient of the cake itself.