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'An argument about a coffee cup almost ended my 20-year marriage. This one thing saved us.'

This time two years ago my husband and I were on the brink of separation. What started as a petty disagreement about a coffee cup led to the mother of all arguments that almost ended us. 

Of course, it's NEVER about the coffee cup — that was simply the catalyst to us both launching into all the resentments, hurts and pain we'd ever experienced in our 20 plus years together and this time it just went to that place that I honestly couldn't see us coming back from. 

After three months of separate bedrooms, walking on eggshells, and stilted conversations around child care arrangements, we finally admitted defeat and agreed he would move out. We then booked to see a couples therapist to find a way to separate with as little disruption for our children as possible.

What came out of our couples therapy sessions was not what I expected. Our incredible therapist somehow was able to see through the anger and hurt and utter contempt that we had for each other to two broken people who simply felt unseen, unheard, uncared for and unappreciated by the other. 

While she never actively tried to keep us together, she asked questions and allowed us time and space to talk in a way we hadn't for years. And gradually, oh so slowly, the red mist lifted. The contempt fell away. Instead of looking at him as the enemy, the one I had to fight against at all cost, I began to soften. To see the role I had played in us reaching this point. And I was able to express my emotions, my fears, my needs and my wants. After several sessions and some really hard conversations, we both began to feel something we hadn't felt for a long, long time. HOPE. 

Therapy taught us a new way to listen and a new way to communicate. And there was one piece of homework that I believe now was really the thing that saved us. The 10-second hug.

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Have you ever hugged someone for 10 seconds? Really clung to them, felt their heart beat against yours? Felt yourself melt into them and them into you? So much can be communicated without words when you hug someone for 10 seconds. So every night, before we went off to our separate rooms, we hugged. And in that hug, without words, we communicated. We said: "I'm sorry. I've got you. I'm here. I'm open. I want to make this work."

We had got complacent, as I'm sure many couples can relate to after years together. We'd stopped prioritising the other and instead our efforts and energy were going to everyone else in our lives - work, kids, friends and our individual pursuits. We'd become like ships in the night who barely spoke or saw each other and when we did it was to discuss logistical arrangements ('you collect Will from rugby, I will get Scarlett from netball, there are leftovers in the fridge.') And slowly but surely we'd stopped being attentive and showing interest, care or love towards the other.

The other change is that we'd removed alcohol from our lives and as drinking together had been our ritual of connection, it meant we'd stopped making time. In the past, I would hear his truck pull into the driveway at the end of the day and it was the sign for me to grab the beer and wine and head outside for an evening debrief (which was really an excuse to have our first drink of the day). When we quit drinking, we didn't realise it, but we stopped connecting. We stopped sitting down together and asking that simple question "how was your day, any news?" And when this seemingly innocuous conversation ended, so too did our moment of feeling seen and heard by the other.

And as we slowly but surely pieced together our fragile hearts, began a ritual of connection (an evening walk after dinner) and ended our days with our 10 second hug, we started to once again plan for a future together.

Two years later, we are by no means perfect (is any couple after 20 plus years?!) but we have tools to support us through conflict, a communication style we never had before and when all else fails, a 10 second hug to communicate our feelings when we don't have the words.

Feature Image: Sarah Rusbatch (@sarahrusbatch).

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