A couple who became friends on a course they joined hoping to save their struggling marriages went on to split with their spouses, fall in love – and 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 the problems.
The two immediately became friends, and supported each other as they tried to make their marriages work – only for their friendship to become romantic after realising the differences with their respective partners could not be reconciled.
Their meeting of minds eventually led to them starting their own self-development courses.
“The only person you have any control over is you," said Emma.
“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 was established 50 years ago and gives people the tools to make behavioural changes to either improve themselves and 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 – trying to maintain their marriages.
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Remaining in their relationships for another two years, they confided in each other as friends and shared their insights 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.
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.
“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.”
Emma and Matthew agreed that he would stay with her in Brighton 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.
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. They then had their child, 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 run-down four-bedroom house with a huge barn in south-west France, and converted it into The French Retreat – where they now live and run couples’ retreats, as well as leasing the space to other counsellors.
Matthew is confident that by helping others through their work, they enable their own relationship to grow.
“The way we met was great because we got to know each other very deeply and very quickly, warts and all," he said. “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. ”
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Additional reporting, PA Media