A couple who became friends on a course they joined hoping to save their struggling marriages have come full circle after splitting up with their spouses, falling in love and going on to coach people with relationship problems.
Happily married for 15 years, Emma and Matthew Pruen met in 2001 on a self-development course in East Sussex, which they and their partners were attending separately – hoping to fathom why their relationships were failing and to better understand their own role in their demise.
Clicking as people, they supported each other as they tried to make their marriages work, only for their friendship to become romantic after realising their differences with their respective partners could not be reconciled.
Now dividing their time between London and France, their meeting of minds led to them starting their own self-development courses, according to Emma, who said: “The only person you have any control over is you.
“If your relationship is struggling, you can’t change someone else, the only person you can change is you and that’s the principle that underlies all our relationship courses.”
Running non-residential courses in London as part of the Hoffman Institute, they also run a four-day residential course at their home and retreat centre in South West France.
The Hoffman Process, which they base their coaching on, was established 50 years ago and gives people the tools to make behavioural changes to either improve their relationships or, if they are truly over, to help them navigate separation and divorce.
Emma said: “Matthew is very good at pouring oil on troubled waters.
“I was lucky enough to fall in love with a peacemaker, which means I have a relationship I never dreamed of having.”
But Emma and Matthew, a former restaurateur, have come a long way in the years since they met, when they were working hard – as were their respective spouses – to find a way to make their marriages a success.
Remaining in their relationships for another two years, they confided in each other as friends and shared their insight from a male or female perspective on what was going on in each other’s lives.
According to Emma, it took a Christmas trip to Thailand for a month for her and her husband of nearly a decade – who she ran a business with – to realise their marriage was at an end.
She said: “We were away with no stress, no work and no pressure and it was just gorgeous there, but we still had the worst argument of all time, so there was no kidding ourselves. We knew we were at the end.”
Returning to the UK, she received an email from Matthew, who had also had a bad Christmas, saying he and his wife were separating after 20 years as husband and wife.
His plan was to move to Spain for a few months, so he could think about his new life.
But Emma’s reaction to his news surprised her.
She said: “I found myself massively over-reacting and instead of thinking it was great and a really good move, I realised I would miss him terribly, which I thought was a bit extreme if he was just a friend.”
But, Emma and Matthew agreed that he would stay with her in Brighton, East Sussex, to attend a two-year reunion of the course where they met.
During that visit – both newly single – they became romantically involved.
“I noticed Matthew and I were sitting closer and closer to each other on the sofa, so I asked him, ‘Is something happening here?’ and he just said, ‘Do you want something to happen?’” said Emma.
She added: “I was concerned because this was my best friend and I didn’t want to lose him, but it was like something from a Christmas film and all beautifully respectful.
“And it turned out we were as physically compatible as we were emotionally compatible.”
Matthew returned from Spain and moved to Brighton to live with Emma, who co-parented, Iskander, now 25 and a graphic designer for film, amicably with her ex-husband.
Workwise, she also started afresh – spending 18 months working with the Green Party in Brighton when Caroline Lucas became the party’s first MP in 2009.
In 2011, she even put herself forward as an MEP, running a two year campaign which she then stepped down from to allow the candidate who topped the party list to press on.
Meanwhile, Matthew had been invited by the Hoffman Institute to become a facilitator, so had started his training as a couples’ counsellor.
Two years later, Matthew proposed on Emma’s 40th birthday and the couple married in November 2005 – having a child together, Chris, 15, who identifies as non-binary.
Matthew also has two children from his first marriage, Tom, 37, an entertainer, and Rosey, 35, a photographer.
In 2013, the couple bought a 180,000 Euro run-down four-bedroom house with a huge barn in Poitou-Charentes, South West France, spending 300,000 Euro converting it into a centre – The French Retreat – where they now live and run couples’ retreats, as well as leasing the space to other teachers and healers.
Charging £1,200 for a four day retreat, which is full-board, they also run two day non-residential courses in London, costing £300.
Emma said: “Matthew grew up in Lebanon, in the Middle East, with an English father and a Middle Eastern mother, so was raised between two different cultures and is very good at conflict resolution.”
While Emma has trained extensively in family counselling, she says Matthew’s childhood experience has made him a natural in this field.
But she warns that, while we tend to seek out a romantic partner who will bring to the relationship those parts we are missing, this can bring problems, too.
She said: “We are all drawn to something different but that can bring challenges and cause conflict. because at some point, we realise just how different we are and then can feel repelled by our partner.
“The other factor is that when we get into bed with someone, we also get into bed with their parents, their families, their belief systems and their way of being.”
While Emma is delighted to be enjoying a compatible and fulfilling marriage to Matthew, she says that although a large aspect of their work focusses on helping couples to resolve their differences, if a relationship is truly over, they also guide people towards a more amicable parting.
Still, she hopes that people will, like her, be lucky enough to find their soul mate, saying: “Matthew is very real and funny and is a natural and gifted peacemaker. We are very happy.”
Meanwhile, Matthew is confident that by helping others through their work, they enable their own relationship to grow.
He said: “The way we met was great because we got to know each other very deeply and very quickly, warts and all.
“Working together as relationship coaches has only deepened that, because in sharing our ups and downs with others, we continue to learn even more about each other. ”
(Must Par) For more information about the Pruens’ work go to www.retreat.fr/relationship-workshops. To find out about the Hoffman Institute see www.hoffmaninstitute.co.uk