Married couples in Ireland are more likely to split up over the festive period than at any other period in the year.

Relationship experts have warned that the Christmas break is the most testing time of all for couples, particularly those who are stuck in unhappy marriages.

Therapists at Relationships Ireland, the country's leading counselling service, say they have been advising clients since October on how to avoid break-ups in the run-up to Christmas Day.

And they said they are anticipating a surge in demand for their services next month, as a result of the fallout from the Christmas season.

Tony Moore, a counsellor with the charity, said the Christmas holidays are "pure hell" for many couples, in particular those who aren't used to spending lengthy periods of time in each other's company.

He said: "Christmas is very challenging and extremely stressful time for a lot of couples.

"There's a huge marketing hype around Christmas that creates an expectation that everything's going to be wonderful.  But in most households that's rarely the case.

"For starters, couples are spending more time together than they usually do and that creates tensions and even people who usually get on very well are more likely to row and argue over the Christmas period.

"When you add the fact that people tend to eat and drink too much and are likely to be spending time with other family members, like the mother-in-law, who they maybe don't like, this only adds to the tension.

"Little things can become very big problems. Couples even fall out over preparing the Christmas dinner."

Therapists have also noted that financial difficulties are increasingly causing rifts, with as many as four out of five couples who seek their services complaining of debt problems.

Mr. Moore added: "Debt issues and unemployment will come to the fore in a lot of households this Christmas.

"But Irish people spend too much at Christmas, because they don't want to appear mean-spirited.  I've met people in other parts of continental Europe, who are shocked at how much we spend at this time of year."