I am sitting on the sofa on a Monday evening. Gentle music is playing in the background, and I am giving our 12-year marriage scores out of four on a range of topics: our communication abilities, friendship and our intimate life. Do we give each other our undivided attention, the first question asks. My pen hovers and I think back to earlier in the day, when our three children were clamouring around me and my husband was trying to ask me something. I give the statement a two – occasionally true – although right now, in lockdown, when our family of five is crammed together in our urban flat with no garden, the answer is actually probably closer to zero.

Filling in a divorce enquiry? Actually, no – we are trying to avoid such a move.

My husband and I have signed up to The Marriage Course, a seven-week programme designed to help couples invest in their relationship and build a strong marriage. We are doing the course virtually – as with everything else in these strange times – logging in every Monday evening to watch a video that takes us through all the steps we would complete were we doing it live.

Last week, we covered building strong foundations – how to prioritise each other. This week was the art of communication – how to listen better to each other. It’s fair to say that, right now, both of these things are proving challenging in new, and often more excruciating, ways than ever before.

Lockdown has not been easy for many marriages. A survey this week of nearly 1,500 people revealed that one in five of those cooped up with their partner says their relationship is on the rocks. Indeed, no matter how good your relationship, the pressure of being together for every single second of every single day, allowed out for only limited amounts of time, simultaneously trying to juggle work (if you’re lucky), rearing and educating children and keeping the house ticking over, without the option to leaven the mix with the odd dinner with friends, is enough to push things to boiling point. It’s hardly surprising that online searches for ‘I want a divorce’ have gone up 150 per cent since lockdown started.

Sila Lee likens the current situation to ‘a pressure cooker’ for relationships. ‘Everything is under a magnifying glass for a couple,’ she says. ‘All of us have our differences, but right now the differences are highlighted and you find them extra annoying – partly because we’re also all in survival mode, which means we’re thinking about ourselves and what we want and need to keep us in a good place, and we’re not thinking about our partner.’

She knows what she’s talking about. Sila and her husband Nicky, a vicar, devised The Marriage Course in 1996, initially largely as a follow-on resource for church members who had completed a pre-marriage course, to give couples tools to help their relationship thrive. As word spread and couples from in and outside the church flocked to take part, it took off.

The course now runs in over 120 countries, in 45 languages, and has been completed by more than two million couples worldwide. While lockdown is going on, the Lees are enabling anyone to do the course virtually, for free; it will start from the beginning every Monday evening for the foreseeable future. More than 2,550 couples have already signed up.

Part of the appeal of the seven-week course is its practicality. As well as prioritising the relationship and listening, it tackles how to resolve conflict effectively, the power of forgiveness (and how to go about it), the impact of family, past and present, on a person’s background, maintaining a healthy intimate life and ‘love in action’ – how to understand how the other person experiences love in order to try to meet their needs, whether that’s through kind words, a back massage at the end of a long day, or doing the washing up without being asked.

Each session is carefully structured, and doing it virtually, as we are, involves getting online on a Monday evening (kids banished, sitting room door closed) to watch a recorded, lockdown-tailored intro by the Lees, followed by a professionally produced short film – a series of short clips, interspersed with tasks to complete together, and plenty of time for discussion.

‘It’s not rocket science, but these are really important relational tools and skills,’ explains Sila. ‘The Marriage Course presents both the reality of the challenges of marriage, but also the possibility of change – that a marriage can actually be better.’

Key to its success, she adds, are the conversation times between a couple, ‘because that’s where new habits are formed’.

Having to sit down and properly talk about things is certainly a game-changer, especially at the moment. There have been many times during the past few weeks when I’ve been silently seething, about my husband’s apparent inability to see a pile of washing-up to be done, or a basket of laundry to be folded; while he has found my apparent inability to stop what I’m doing and focus on him and what he’s trying to tell me equally trying.

Having a two-hour slot set aside on Monday evenings where we have to confront the things that are bugging us and work through them in a constructive manner has reset our relationship each time, and so far we’ve managed to have the tricky conversations without one or other of us storming out.

‘When it’s just two people having these conversations at home, there is a risk of things getting overheated,’ admits Nicky, who adds that it’s really important for any couple who feel things are escalating to dangerous levels in a difficult conversation to take a break, go into another room or make a cup of tea and allow things to calm down; and that if things get really heated and a person feels unsafe, that there are options to contact someone with concerns.

Are there other challenges to doing the course virtually, rather than in person?

‘Phones!’ says Sila. ‘They’re a massive pressure in the 21st century anyway, and now we’re all in a much more contained environment, many of us having to work from home, any messages or calls coming through are suddenly absolutely the most important thing in the world.’

Try, she advises, to put phones away while you’re doing the course – and, in fact, try to put them aside for a couple of hours each evening anyway, to focus on your partner and really connect with them.

From personal experience, phones are definitely one challenging aspect of focusing on each other; the other is organising anything resembling a ‘date night’, another of the Lees’ must-dos to keep any relationship ticking over.

When you can’t get a babysitter to go out for a meal, dinner or even a walk, you’ve got to get a bit creative; we’ve vowed to try to have a weekly ‘rubbish film night’ (no phones allowed), and to try to escape into the garden for an evening mocktail, sans kids, once in a while.

It’s not easy – but then, nobody ever said that marriage was. And on the plus side, now that all my husband’s work trips and networking dinners have been cancelled, we do have a lot more time to spend together.

‘Our hope and prayer is that many marriages could be turned around during this time,’ says Nicky. ‘This is a huge opportunity for couples to start to connect in a new way. It may highlight where marriages are under stress, but it could also be the time that many are restored, healed, saved and transformed.’

Lucy’s husband says...

If you’d asked me six weeks ago what I wanted more of in life, it would have been time with my wife and children. Lockdown has given me that in spades – but it hasn’t all been a bed of roses. Sometimes, it has actually felt that spending all our time together has degraded our relationship, partly because most of that time seems to be spent on work, children and attending to everyone’s basic, day-to-day needs.

So doing The Marriage Course, and setting aside specific, quality time together has been hugely helpful, and I’ve found it really instrumental in helping to understand our relationship and each other. Who knew, for instance, that there are techniques available to improve one’s listening skills? It turns out that I am, by nature, a reassurer and a problem solver when it comes to listening to my wife, which isn’t always what she wants from a conversation about what’s bothering her. Learning things like this is invaluable – and will hopefully continue to build our marriage long after lockdown has ended.

To sign up: htb.org/marriage

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