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Tips from the top: Couples counsellor Hilda Burke

Has lockdown brought your relationship to breaking point? It’s not all bad news for couples under strain, says this therapist

Were you always trying to help people out?

Growing up, I wanted to be an actress and I did appear in theatre and TV ads. It was years later, when I had therapy myself, that I became curious about the process and wanted to teach myself those skills. I trained and then thought I could make a career out it. I was in my thirties but there were people in my class ranging from their twenties to their sixties. Some had fallen out of love with a career or reached a junction in life such as kids leaving home. I’m lucky because although I was an actress, I wasn’t recognisable. I think it would have been hard in this job if people knew me from TV. I studied for three and a half years, then did a diploma in counselling.

What effect is lockdown having on couples?

Some people are time-starved and although they get on quite well, they’ll take it out on each other if they’re short on time or stressed. There are other couples whose relationships are propped up with separate careers, a lot of foreign travel and trips to luxury restaurants. Now, without these distractions, they’re having to confront the cracks in their relationship. I saw one couple several weeks into lockdown who had never spent this much time together. They were used to going on holiday every six weeks and this was being used as a prop to distract themselves from their lack of intimacy.

What other issues are you seeing?

Lockdown has been like Brexit — polarising. That became clear in the last week before lockdown as couples approached the isolation in different ways. Often, one didn’t want to go out or socialise while the other did. So one would think the other was irresponsible and not caring enough, while the other was thinking, ‘We’re not going to die.’ But actually, after talking to both partners, often they were both anxious and scared but managing it in very different ways. So they had more in common than they thought. Couple counselling is a way of helping them see what’s really going on with the other person.

Covid clashes: Lockdown has provided flashpoints PICTURE: ALAMY

If you’re struggling at home, what’s your tip?

Ask yourself, ‘What are we each investing in this relationship?’, ‘What are we not bringing of ourselves to make it rich and enjoyable,’ and, ‘How have we neglected it?’ Take ownership and responsibility and instead of worrying how to distract ourselves during lockdown, look at it as the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate your relationship.

Is there such a thing as the seven-year itch?

The term ‘seven-year itch’ was coined in the 1950s when people dated for six to nine months before they married. Now the average person dates for two to three years so by the time they hit the seven-year wedding anniversary, they’re ten years into the relationship. I think the ‘itch’ happens a lot sooner than that. The birth of a child can be a really difficult transition because it can put the couple in different places and a potential intruder turns the relationship into a triangle. The classic case is that the woman becomes besotted with the child and less interested in sex but it can also work the other way with the woman noticing that the man is totally besotted with the child. The male provider instinct can really kick in so he concentrates on work and his child and puts less time into her.

Are the new no-fault divorces going to encourage people to walk away from marriages?

Thinking of the people I know who are contemplating divorce, very few of them are thinking about how hard it’s going to be — or how easy. It’s far more of an emotional choice based on the impact on children and family. I don’t think the new rules are going to make any difference.

Is there a danger that Covid-19 will cause people to split up? That they will realise life is too short to stay in an unhappy marriage?

They might also think, ‘I don’t want to die alone and if I fall ill I want someone to bring me my meals.’

What’s been one of your career high points?

One notable success was a couple in their early thirties who had been married for six years and had a lot of love for each other but it was like they hadn’t topped it up. Their main issue was a lack of time. They liked each other’s company but one worked late shifts and the other regular hours so they only saw each other early in the morning — if one of them waited up. It turned out there was just a two-hour crossover every day and, once we’d reflected on that, the man decided his marriage was his main concern. He got another job and their relationship survived.

What age groups do you counsel?

The oldest couple were in their fifties but most are in their early thirties. I think therapy is more normal or acceptable for millennials.

Mistakes, you’ve made a few?

I had a couple who just didn’t change — the same fights over and over again — and I felt defeated. But my supervisor reminded me that they have to do some work too. I learned to get less attached to the outcome, not take it personally. An amicable ending might sometimes be a good outcome.

The facts

Salary: Qualified NHS psychotherapists earn from £37,000 to £61,000 a year depending on experience. Private rates vary.

Regular hours? I work four days a week at a practice but this isn’t a 9 to 5 job as many people require evening sessions.

Short and sweet advice: The focus is on the client but nurture yourself too.

Top tip

‘Recognise your own issues first so you don’t overidentify with one side. You must stay objective all the time’