When love changes

MALAYSIA - MANY couples flounce into their big day expecting a lifetime filled with magical moments.

Unfortunately, skipping into the sunset after the wedding day is hardly the end of the story. It is only the beginning, as both man and wife will discover upon their foray into marriage.

In place of amorous delights, there are suddenly bills to pay, a household to maintain, and young children to run after.

In the thick of this new and unfamiliar order, tempers flare and resentment kicks in. What started out as one of the most promising events in your life could end up in a painful descent down the rabbit-hole.

American country singer Billy Ray Cyrus was headed for an achy, breaky heartbreak, when his wife, Tish, decided to call for a divorce after 19 years of marriage in June.

This came after the couple decided to kiss and make up just two years ago, following an earlier petition for divorce in Oct 2010. The 51-year-old singer had filed for divorce from his wife, 53, but he dropped his filing in March 2011.

Still, trouble in paradise doesn't always lead to splitsville. Their recent call for divorce is reportedly off again, just one month after their divorce papers were filed.

The couple tells the media that marriage therapy played a large part in their reconciliation.

"We both woke up and realised we love each other and decided we want to stay together. We both went into couples therapy - something we haven't done in 22 years of being together, and its brought us closer together and really opened up our communication in amazing ways," Billy Ray's rep said in a statement to US Weekly.

Together, Billy Ray and Tish have three children - Miley, 20, Braison, 19 and Noah 13. Billy Ray also adopted Brandi, 26, and Trace, 24, Tish's children from a previous relationship. The country singer also has son Christopher, 21, from a previous relationship.

Like the Cyrus', many couples who face problems in their relationships can benefit from couples therapy, or marriage counselling, as it is better known on the local front.

Fit4life explores the cause-and-effects of marital problems, and how marriage counseling can help put things back into perspective.

Love changes

Most love stories begin this way: boy-meets-girl, they fall madly in love, boy and girl start dating, boy and girl get married.

This initial phase of love, often characterised by "wonderful, romantic feelings and red Valentine's day hearts" is known as Eros love, says Dr Johnben Loy, founder and clinical director of Rekindle International Marriage and Family Therapy Centre.

Eros love, also referred to as "erotic love", is typically built on physical attraction, and is defined by strong, passionate feelings that usually occur during the first stages of a romantic relationship.

The weakness of this type of love is obvious - it doesn't last.

With marriage, Eros love often metamorphoses into Agape love - a more steady kind of love that involves commitment and taking care of the children, says Dr Loy, also a marriage and family therapist.

In his book, The Four Loves, author C.S. Lewis used Agape love to describe what he believed was the highest order of love known to humanity - a selfless love, a love that was devoted to the well-being of the other.

However, this constant and relatively more sedate version of love could set a humdrum tone for married life.

Dr Loy explains: "Agape love does not necessarily feel like 'romance' or that 'Valentine's day' kind of love. It is a different kind of love."

In the absence of racing hearts and butterflies in the stomach, it can feel as though the "passion" in a romantic relationship has burned out.

Why the marriage cookie crumbles

In 2011, the National Registration Department (NRD) registered a total of 5,634 divorces in non-Muslim couples.

It was previously reported that Malaysia has seen a steady increase in the number of divorces over a 10-year period, with over 33,000 couples splitting up in 2010.

According to the Malaysian Quality of Life (MQLI) 2011 report, 0.22 per cent of Malaysians between the ages of 18 and 50 (in 2010) are divorced, almost double the 0.13 per cent recorded in 2000, and 0.14 per cent in 1990.

According to Dr Loy, being ill-prepared for married life is the main reason for divorce among younger couples.

"There is a tendency, that if you get married at a younger age, you are not quite ready to settle down. This could lead to conflict, especially if there is a child and one person is not ready yet. Maybe they haven't had enough fun yet. Maybe they got married because their girlfriend got pregnant, and that is the right thing to do," Dr Loy shares.

Often, young married couples succumb to the stresses of work and finance. It gets worse when they have difficulty learning how to cope with a new family unit. Those who cannot manage their new responsibilities and differences will eventually choose to end their marriage, he says.

"As for older couples, the biggest trigger factor for divorce appears to be extramarital affairs," says Dr Loy, whose clients are mostly aged between 30 and 50.

He points out that cultural and socio-economical shifts in recent years have altered the traditional dynamics in a marriage.

"I think women have become more in charge of their relationships. Up to 70 per cent of my clients are women. They are the ones who usually seek help first. I think the reason for this is because women have a natural tendency to be more interested in relationships and are constantly looking out for the 'temperature' of their marriage."

"Also, back then, women did not have the financial freedom to walk away. These days, there are women who are powerful and wealthy, and they have the ability to say: 'Let's just part and be friends,' when things do not work out. It's less torturous that way."

How marriage counseling works

Marriage counseling, sometimes called couples therapy, helps couples understand and resolve conflicts surrounding their relationships. It gives them the tools to communicate better as well as negotiate and solve problems in a healthy way.

Marriage counseling is often short term. Most people usually need only a few sessions to smooth things out. However, if your relationship has greatly deteriorated, you may need counseling for several weeks or months.

Counseling sessions are generally provided by licensed therapists or counselors, with a specific focus towards a couple's relationship. Most people usually see a therapist or a counselor once a week.

Dr Loy likens a couple in a trouble marriaged to two dancers who have lost their rhythim. Their movements are no longer in-sync.

"Everytime they do a dance move, they end up hurting each other. He sprains his back, she gets a stubbed toe, and so forth.

"Despite their inefficiencies, they keep repeating the same moves because they can't seem to correct it. They feel that they have to move and dance this way, even if it hurts, cuts and creates conflict," he describes.

This metaphoric dance gets even more disoriented with the stresses in life, and over time, these clashes could end up eating into a relationship.

"I assume the role of a choreographer here. I try to help couples learn how to move differently, in a way that will help them rediscover a balance that they lack in their relationship.

"Maybe I'll help hold his foot, or teach her to twirl in a different way, so that they will no longer get in each other's way or hurt each other when they move. They will learn how to dance beautifully together again."

Among the strategies he utilises in his sessions include emotion-focused couples therapy, an empirically-supported treatment that is based on methods to help people accept, express, regulate, understand and transform emotion.

This approach, which has become popular in recent years, focuses on the development of emotional intelligence and the importance of a secure relationship.

Another popular strategy used in marriage counselling is cognitive behavioural therapy, Dr Loy shares.

The principle of cognitive behavioural therapy is that a person's belief system affects his or her emotions and behaviour.

As such, this approach focuses on reconciling the correlation between cognitions (thoughts), actions (behaviours) and feelings (affect), and the role they play in determining a person's attitude, functioning and quality of life.

By reconciling these three components, changes can be made in how a person thinks, acts and feels about his or her circumstances.

"When couples come to see me, I usually like to see them together, so I can hear both sides of their experiences. Otherwise, it is not the complete picture," says Dr Loy.

"By observing the way they interact, I am able to gauge the health of their relationship."

Does marriage counseling actually work?

In Malaysia, a session of marriage counseling (which could range from 50-75 minutes), could cost anywhere from RM300 to RM500, or more, depending on the centre and the therapist.

Dr Loy claims that most of these sessions will yield favourable outcomes.

"Success rate is very high if the couple wants to work on their issues. I almost want to say there is 100 per cent success rate," he says.

However, he notes that "success" first needs to be defined. Most people seek marriage counseling because they want to work on their issues, so they can continue living together. But there are others who are here to seek resolution, so that they may come to an amicable end.

He explains: "Therapy is always about change. Often, it is about changing yourself for the sake of your relationship. However, there is only so much we can change about ourselves.

"Sometimes, the final change isn't what we should do to fix a relationship, but what we can do to part ways in a civil and harmonious manner, especially if there are children involved."

"Success isn't always about getting back together. Sometimes, it is also about learning how to let go," he concludes.

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