The confessions of a couple counsellor – some personal reflections


Interview with David Oliviere, Barnet and Enfield, Couple Counsellor


Please introduce yourself

I’ve dreamt of being a Marriage Care specialist sex therapist or a trauma counsellor or even a wise supervisor. I’m none of these but over the last 25 years with Marriage Care I’ve been ‘just a’ couple counsellor. Opps, I forgot we don’t say ‘just a’ as all our volunteer staff form the core  – counselling workforce , preparing couples,  centre and chaperones and others forming a skilled body of Marriage Care.

Inside, I feel a fraud (‘imposter syndrome’?); nervous when I am due to meet new clients, yet excited, as one is trying to get the experience right for them and their unique circumstances. I still feel challenged by clients living with domestic abuse; concerned for those who had exceptionally poor, deprived or abusive childhood experiences; admired those who have (most of us) hung onto their strengths and internal resources despite….I have a special interest in resilience and how people achieve in adversity.

How did you get involved in Marriage Care?

Many years ago, my wife and I wanted to join with others to improve what was available to support parishioners in our parish at Christ The King, Cockfosters. Hence the “Couples and Family Forum” was created. This led to a project to re-invent the defunct CMAC (Catholic Marriage Advisory Council), now  called Marriage Care. With a team including Viola Martins, now an active FOCCUS Facilitator, a new Marriage Care centre was born in North London.

What are some of your highlights or favourite aspects of volunteering with Marriage Care?

  • Working with clients – the couples but sometimes one partner – who come in all shapes and sizes. The best teachers are the couples themselves. Each one is different; they are courageous! Telling their story to a stranger may be a first for them.

Weeks into my starting counselling, I’ll never forget that husband who came for counselling on his own and began to unravel his story and what he wanted. He described how he used to invite 2 prostitutes in the middle of the night to his sitting room downstairs whilst his wife and 2 teenage daughters slept upstairs… book or course prepares you enough for the unexpected but I enjoy using the structure and confidence training provides to help clients manage change.   Further, one has one’s own ethical and value base, life experience and commonsense!

My heart still goes out to ‘Edna’ in her late 60’s, who also came alone. She had just got news that her husband had been unfaithful and was leaving her. No children, she had no income of her own either, no bank account in her name and was navigating herself through life whilst emotionally bruised by this new crisis. A reminder that some people’s lives are so different from ours. I’ve been reminded of her with our recent Marriage Care reformatting of fees for sessions. I’m so glad people like Edna are catered for in terms of possible free service.

  • The quality of relationship counselling training – the initial and ongoing – is generally of very good quality, enjoyable and usually a high for me. Experiencing the communal brain at work with old colleagues and meeting skilled folk as new counsellors,  makes for creativity in group thinking, questioning, reviewing and a real ‘laboratory’ for practising our skills and techniques. I operate essentially a ‘toolbox’ approach when working with couples: based on a range of established counselling models, frameworks, strategies and approaches. Humans, I find, are too complex to fit around one theoretical model! The models give us, at least, a map and compass to find our way through their mass of emotions, thoughts and behaviours turning them into potential and possibilities for the relationship.


  • I am satisfied when I can ‘hold’ a couple through the pain of their lives and past brutal experiences. Connecting with them and being rather than doing – no magic wands to offer. Then the change and challenging can take place.

What other hobbies/interests do you have?

In addition to collecting elephants, travel and friends, if I say we have 10 Grandchildren who live nearby…. You might guess what our lives are like. I never thought I’d love other human beings with such intensity. We feel very blessed! That’s all I’ll say as I could talk for England about them.

What would you say to others who are interested in volunteering with Marriage Care?

Here is your Strictly moment” – seize it! As with the TV dance show,  Marriage Care has shown, we can take people with no previous experience of the work and skilfully train them up to become competent counsellors.  With rigorous selection, training,  standards, support and supervision, you join an organisation which practises caring.  It is one of the friendliest and listening organisations I have worked with in my career. Resource limitations exist of course – that’s reality.

You discover a ready-made peer support group.

A good organisation is recognised in the little things – it’s the people from the Appointments Line  team to the CEO who count for me.

As an aside, I was surprisingly chuffed by last month’s innovation, the ‘National Tea Break’ (a short communication session for busy people). There was a best tea mug competition which I surprisingly won. I never win competitions but a pic of my Grandson aged 3 on the mug had the edge on everybody else’s mug!!  The light touch of our National Support Team – personal contact, cohesion, communication with a dose of humour – can make such a difference, as it can be for couple wellbeing.

The quality of the national training events is remarkable – this year was no exception.


What are some things you have learned from your time in Marriage Care?

I‘ve learnt: avoid any temptation to counsel my other half!

The work, projects, training, chats, working groups can all be satisfying and enjoyable. For some  it might be almost almost addictive – a past tutor and wise owl said to me as I was enthusiastically getting into Marriage Care,  “don’t let Marriage Care break up your marriage!”  Shocking at the time but this was said following her own experience. Yes, you need to learn about professional boundaries and limits; self-management and self-care and not neglecting your family or other commitments.

Many golden moments: the friendship from one’s training groups,  local centre team,  chaperones; the good quality supervision and that unexpected kindness from someone.

I always feel that being a volunteer, rather than being employed, is freeing, as one’s giving purely out of choice. Usually no budgets, staff management and writing reports to worry about.

But I come back to giving of your time and skills in proportion.  Most volunteers in Marriage Care seem busy people. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, in the city of my birth – “If you can’t feed a hundred, just feed one.”

I think there is an underlying optimism in volunteering for Marriage Care.


David Oliviere is a social worker and educationalist; consultant in psycho-social palliative care; former director of education and training, St Christopher’s Hospice; and visiting professor and former Macmillan principal lecturer, Middlesex University.

10 December, 2023