Marriage - a journey, not a destination
Economic pressures and job insecurity are placing strain on a growing number of marriages, says Deirdre O'Rawe, making counselling and family support more vital than ever
LAST year Accord Catholic Marriage Care Service saw another increase of 13 per cent in the number of couples seeking our marriage preparation and counselling services.
While there is a growing awareness of the need for couples to actively work together to create a secure and loving environment, many are finding their relationships and parenting strained by the effects of unemployment, job insecurity, and today's culture of economic uncertainty.
Strong, caring, loving relationships provide emotional shelter and support but they also exist in the real world, and when that world is being turned upside down, even our most important relationships and responsibilities can be thrown into disarray.
As a faith-based organisation founded by the Catholic bishops in 1962, Accord has a wealth of experience and effective practice to draw on in helping couples and families along their journey.
With over 900 committed members working across the island, our work is based in local community networks that facilitate a holistic approach to supporting and strengthening relationships.
Local church communities and faith-based organisations have a long history of providing care and support to couples and families, including vital services for the most vulnerable and marginalised.
Our volunteers make a major contribution to addressing need in this area. In supporting couples in their preparation for marriage or in the counselling services we provide, Accord aims to be a custodian of what Pope Francis has called "the fundamental pillars that govern a nation... the family, the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation".
We are constantly reminded of the importance of education, prevention and early intervention in all areas of life. This is especially true when embarking on the most important commitment of a lifetime.
To love is to choose freely but freedom can seem in short supply when life is not going according to plan, and our hopes and expectations become very forlorn.
Accord strives to support couples so that they can remain committed to each other even during the bad times, committed to their marriage when life is difficult. Significant numbers of couples opt for the Accord course, which is always faith-based marriage preparation.
It would be naive to suppose that effective marriage preparation will necessarily eliminate the need for counselling.
Accord Catholic marriage preparation can provide couples with a level of awareness and the communication skills needed to address problems early on, and to know when to seek advice or counselling.
When couples give their consent and exchange their vows, they can never know what life holds for them.
Those who come to Accord for counselling - whether couples or individuals - are often distressed and experiencing communication difficulties, conflict, domestic abuse, financial pressures, childcare and family stresses, intimacy issues, infidelity, addiction and sexual issues.
Counsellors help their clients to develop new insights about themselves and their relationship, manage conflict, and challenge issues in a constructive manner.
The objective is always to support their relationship, and bring benefits to their family life.
An in-depth study into Accord's work, Unhappy Marriages: Does Counselling Help? (McKeown 2004), concluded that: "In this intimate space, hope can be restored, healing can begin and love can grow again."
Accord continues to provide a safe space for couples to talk and listen.
It is worth reflecting on something else Pope Francis recently said, something certainly close to the heart of Accord: "Families, walking along the paths of life with all their day to day experiences - it is impossible to quantify the strength and depth of humanity contained in a family... the first place in which we are formed as persons and, at the same time, the 'bricks' for building up society."
:: Deirdre O'Rawe is Northern Ireland regional director of Accord. For further information on Accord's services or to join its support of marriage and the family, contact: ACCORD Catholic Marriage Care Service, Cana House, St Mary's Church, 44 Chapel Lane, Belfast BT1 1HH; email firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.accord-ni.co.uk or www.accordni.com; or telephone 028 9023 3002.