Author Archive for Coupleworks

Body Language

The social psychologist Amy Cuddy has given a TED Talk (June 2012) entitled ‘Your body language shapes who you are’. She discusses how our body language influences how we are perceived by others – but that it can also change our perception of ourselves. More than that, we can even affect our own body chemistry by adapting the way we sit or stand – and consciously alter our mood by shifting our body shape.

(Try it now…
Stand up and fling your arms wide apart.
Hold that position.
Now smile with your eyes as well as your mouth.
Hold that position.
How do you feel?)

When we feel confident of love we metaphorically and actually spread our arms out wide.
Think of greeting someone you love. We fling open our arms in a gesture of welcome and acceptance and envelop them in an embrace – bring them close. Our bodies feel full of energy, loose and relaxed
However, when feeling vulnerable we curl into the foetal position. When feeling defensive we fold our arms across our bodies. We shut out the person who might cause us pain and harm. When feeling hurt we can become cautious and wary. We withdraw and become emotionally unavailable. The face becomes closed, expressionless and unrevealing and we avoid eye contact. If we are angry our bodies hold a tension and stiffness and we become unapproachable – ‘don’t touch me!’

Our mental state mirrors our physical state. When feeling under attack, we become defensive and shuttered off from the feelings of the other person. It is a state of mind that is the opposite of ‘open wide’. We struggle with empathy or curiosity. Concern and intimacy, interaction and connection, can be lost.

In her book ‘Marriage Rules’, Harriet Lerner describes defensiveness as ‘the archenemy of listening’.
If you cannot listen without interrupting then, effectively, you are blocking your partner. Dialogue breaks down. There is no room for an acceptance of difference, or an engagement of ideas.
Sentences that begin with ‘Yes, but….’ and ‘No, no…’ are rebuttals of the perceived reality of the other. Both feel unheard.

But how to step out from behind a defensive barricade and start a conversation – not an argument?
Consciously choose to change position from passionate fury to ‘passionate listening’ (Harriet Lerner)
Change the body chemistry. Alter your mind’s position and lower the flood of adrenaline released by the ‘flight, flight, or freeze’ reflex reaction.

Pause.
Breathe in deeply.
Exhale slowly.
Metaphorically stay present (mind open wide).
Say ‘tell me more…’

Counselling with a Coupleworks therapist offers a safe environment to begin to take this first step towards change.

Holidays – A Dream or A Nightmare

Holidays are usually seen as a break from the stresses and strains of everyday life, a chance to take a deep breath and have a change from everyday routine.

Going away with your significant other can be joyful and a great time to spend more time together to relax and reconnect. However for others spending a period of concentrated time together can be difficult and stressful and not always a bed of roses!

Perhaps it is taken for granted that because we go on holiday it means that we should get on better, but if there are issues that are unresolved at they are going to come on holiday with you!!

So as we approach a time in the year where thoughts go to planning a holiday here are a few guidelines to avoid some of the common pitfalls:

1.Plan the holiday together. Make sure you are both going somewhere that you both want to visit. This can eliminate disappointment and frustration of the others choice of destination.

2.Make it clear and discuss what you both want to achieve from your holiday.

3.If you want to sit in the sun and your partner prefers to explore and sightsee, just make sure there is enough time and space to do the things you both want to do, both separately and together.

4.Don’t make the mistake of doing too much running around on holiday and replicating what happens at home. A holiday is the opportunity to do something different from the normal. Doing nothing and just being comfortable with this is part of relaxing on holiday.

5.It’s important that we feel that we have our partner’s undivided attention, so avoid constant use of mobile phones and laptops. If you need to be in touch with the office, make sure it is the minimum and at a time that suits you both and quickly return to holiday mode.

6. Don’t use the holiday to bring up past arguments and resentments. It will be much more beneficial to focus on the positive bits of each other to help relax, reconnect and achieve closer intimacy so you can deal with the niggles and annoyances better when you return home.

Enjoy!

Dawn Kaffel

Couples who live apart together. LATS

When setting out on any kind of committed couple, the hope is for a long lasting relationship. With long levity in certain areas of the world becoming more normal, it may be time to take a fresh look at how we perceive couple life. Most would agree that 24/7 together for possibly 50-70 years needs constant re shaping and re evaluating in order to stave off over familiarity and irritation ignited by habit.

The kind of couples people choose to be in has evolved from marriage, a law created to build up the population and a safeguard against lack of structure and safety, into all kinds of coupling, and if chosen, rearing a family. People choose to make their own unique couple without the more childlike safety of rules and regulations hampering their creativity.

One of the changes two people choosing to stay together from formation to death has to think about is longevity. People living to 100 is now no longer a rarity, rather it is becoming something which no longer is discussed as astonishing.

If a couple who choose to be together for life reach these bigger age numbers, certain prices have to be paid. Their bodies continue to age and their brains tend to lose short term memories which hitherto have been clear. Exercise and diet play a part in a long and healthy life but also peace of mind, caring for or being cared for in a kind and loving way can enhance a sense of well being and energy.

There are no set ways for these necessities to be achieved, it is up to the couple to work out a way to continue to want to be by each other’s side through good and bad times.

Living apart together is an option. This, of course, requires enough financial backing to put into place. A decision to live apart some of the time and together for the rest of the time can bring back what was present when the couple chose each other many years before.

Trust has to be one of the biggest assets to make this work. It enables each person to pursue outside interests, different groups of people, ideas, types of holiday, food, ways of running a home and where to live without loosing trust and admiration.

They can then be together for the things they love about each other and apart for the sometimes irritating differences. This can build up renewed respect and sense of self before the time comes when they may have to care for each other permanently.

This will allow them to use what they have built together over the years to be a reward at the end of life.

Clare Ireland

Working with Older Couples

Recently, I have found myself working with couples who have been together for a long time. Sometimes for decades.  They often come to see me not because there is something horribly wrong with their relationship but because they are struggling to find meaning and a deeper connection they long for.  It’s as if having got through their professional lives, raising a family together and managing the difficulties life presents, they are left with a profound disappointment that begs the question “What has this all meant?”

Helping couples to find their way back to one another can be challenging, but I have found that couples who are invested enough to want to come into couples therapy to explore their relationship are far less likely to walk away and better able to work together and find one another again.

When couples begin to sense their disconnected from each other, some common issues tend to come up, such as not feeling supported, leading separate lives and not making an effort to do the things the other likes. Feeling unloved, uncared for, and unappreciated often are what hurt and make couples think that their entire relationship has been meaningless.  Acknowledging this hurt and disappointment doesn’t need to translate into blame but can become an opportunity for understanding and healing.

By going back and better understanding the “unconscious agreements” couples make when they first meet (these are the expectations that are bought into present relationship that are informed by unconsciously witnessing their parent’s) couples are better able to consciously see the part they bring into the relationship. This awareness can help reframe their narrative so they can begin to clearly state what their needs are now.

At the heart of a long-term relationship is the ability to see the value of staying together through thick and thin (despite it not being perfect) and appreciating that “we all learn as we go” and usually have done the best we could at that time.
Accepting each other’s flaws starts with us accepting our own. Learning to forgive ourselves teaches us the compassion to forgive our partner for sometimes letting us down (and knowing we are capable of letting them down). Our own consciousness gives us the tools to be more compassionate, kind and appreciative of our partner and brings us closer to having a loving and authentic relationship which is essential for a long term relationship.

Some things we can do to sustain long term relationships:
Make contact with each other. Say good morning, good night etc.
Take time to ask the other how they are, how they feel.
Leave each other sweet messages.
Do unexpected things, book a favourite restaurant, arrange a special night out.
Run a bath for your partner
Make physical contact daily. Kiss, touch one another often.
Be sweet and playful with each other.

Shirlee Kay

Balanced Living in Relationships

‘There is an Indian belief that everyone is a house of four rooms: a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual room.

Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not complete’. Rumer Godden

I was reminded of this piece of ancient wisdom just the other week. It was in the context of helping couples to think about their relationship and how much they inhabit these different rooms in that relationship. But before we think about these different rooms as they affect couples, let’s focus back on the individual.

As the belief states, human life has different aspects and in order for us to feel whole and balanced, finding contentment in our lives, we need to have these different aspects in balance.

Physical – we need our bodies to go about our daily lives – to work, eat, sleep and survive in the world. But how much care do we take of our body? How well do we feed it, enjoy exercise, or enjoy our sexuality?

Mental – our intellect is our ability to think and reason. We need it to think clearly and to be open-minded as that helps us to build up knowledge and develop skills. It can lead us to a place of profound understanding where as a mis-aligned intellect can be the source of terrible confusion.

Emotional – this is about our ability to experience the world and what drives us to seek connections with others. Are we able to feel the full range of feelings – anger, love, hate, disappointment… but also to set boundaries for ourselves.

Spiritual – this is about our soul – our inner being – perhaps a feeling of belonging to the universe. It doesn’t have to mean a religious belief but perhaps how we make meaning of our lives.

If we then broaden this notion of the four rooms to think about our couple relationship the same questions can be asked – how much time as a couple do we spend inhabiting each of these rooms? Which do we inhabit more frequently and which rarely gets even an airing?

According to Wikipedia ‘Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together’. Closing down any room or never really looking in there, will inevitably limit intimacy between partners. To really experience a deep and meaningful intimacy will mean connecting to all four rooms in our own house and then to those of our partners.

Ask yourself and your partner these questions..

1. Which room am I/we most comfortable in?
2. Which room do I/we tend to neglect?
3. How can we begin to live a more balanced life as individuals and as a couple?

Sarah Fletcher

Getting a better understanding of the problem

When a couple starts relationship counselling the therapist spends time trying to get a clear idea of the issues that are causing strife. Often the couple is stuck in a repetitive pattern of blame and complaint and feel frustrated that they have not managed to break out of a corrosive state of disappointment. Sadly, when trapped in a fog of negativity, each partner can get in their own way of happiness. Dissatisfaction causes a perpetual own goal. Although the intention of criticism is an attempt to revive the relationship, create change and reconnect lovingly, instead it creates resentment and is almost destined to fail.

An added difficulty is that a couple often comes with the perception that the other is the cause of the problem. They hope their partner will see the error of their ways and will be the one to make the necessary changes

However, there is optimism in the hope that the relationship can be more loving, lighter, more relaxed and less fraught. They long for ways to soften the hostile interactions.

But Michael Stanier* warns about the ‘Advice Monster’. Fixing the other is not the answer. ‘If only he/she was different everything would be fine.’ Instead of getting caught up finding solutions to the myriad of surface irritations, it is important to spend time investigating the root of the problems. The need to search more deeply is always flagged when a couple admits ‘It seems so trivial but…’ These trivialities become significant because of what they reveal about a hidden more serious issue.

The counsellor will continue to explore the meaning attached to the behaviour that annoys and upsets. It is not until the ‘raw spots’ are revealed, when the wounds and hurts are acknowledged, and the core anxiety understood, that change can be addressed. Very often unpeeling the layers can expose a deep attachment insecurity or fear. There can be a direct line from wet towels left on the bathroom floor, to then feeling taken for granted, to then feeling not seen and cared for, and to then feeling alone and not loved.

The couple therapist Ellyn Bader suggests experimenting with an ‘Initiator – Inquirer’ process to begin a more effective style of communication. It may seem rigid and artificial but, in fact, it can help to create a freer more open dynamic. The couple take turns in each role.

The first aim is to give the upset partner (the ‘initiator’) the space and time to explain and feel heard

The second aim is to gain understanding. This partner (‘the inquirer’) is to try to manage any reactions of resistance or urges to dismiss and minimise, and stay listening. This should be helped by keeping to a script of questions:

1. ‘What’s upsetting you?’ ‘What’s worrying you?’ ‘What’s on your mind? The ‘initiator’ is limited to choosing one specific issue only. Keeping to ‘I’ statements they explain what it is they find upsetting. This is an attempt to break a loop of criticism/self-defensiveness. Instead of the ‘inquirer’ leaping into retaliatory tit-for-tat argument, the requirement is for ‘passionate listening’. It is not about refuting or agreeing at this stage. There will be an opportunity to explain reactions later.

2. ‘Tell me more.’ ‘What is it about that?’ ‘How does it make you feel?’ ‘Is there more about it?’ ‘Is there something else?’ Expressing an intention to listen and understand shows concern and this, in turn, encourages the other to be more introspective and self-explanatory. Name-calling, character assassination, critical blame or a negative list of complaints is not allowed. The one explaining has to explain the specifics of their struggle and pain. The listener needs to remain curious and avoid either flaring up or shutting down.

3. ‘What is the real challenge about that?’ ‘Why is that uncomfortable?’ The focus is on the person feeling hurt to identify specifically what they find disturbing. Are they making value judgements? What links and associations are being made? What if they reality test? What are reasonable expectations? Are the expectations shared? Is it possible to make a request (but not dictate or demand)?

4. ‘What do you need right now?’ ‘What are your needs in our relationship?’ ‘If we begin to make changes how will things feel better for you?’ ‘In which ways do you think it will be better for me?
The couple then reverse roles with the hope that mutual understanding allows the possibility of negotiating change. Keeping to the script is an attempt to break the deadlock of antagonistic emotional volatility and avoid the usual critical attacks. Previously, despite the couple feeling desperate for relief, the more hostile a relationship the more each partner remained fearful of letting go of the self-protective responses of hot anger or cold silence.

Their challenge is to see themselves on the same side and relax into becoming the safe loving team once again.

Kathy Rees

(* ‘The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever’)

Couples Emotional Attachment to Money

In a session recently a client disclosed to her husband that she was in a lot of debt but had been too afraid to share this with him. This came as a complete shock to him and he questioned what sort of marriage they had if his partner didn’t feel able to share this with him. Yet again this made me acutely aware of just how difficult it is for many couples to talk about money and their finances. It seems to be even harder than talking about sex.

Even when there is a lot of love and connection in a relationship, money issues are high on the list of subjects that couples argue about and cause conflict. This is probably why couples avoid the topic, particularly in the early stages of a relationship. Couple arguments about money tend to be more problematic and more likely to remain unresolved.

We come into our relationships with inherited attitudes, emotions and beliefs about money from our family backgrounds. We may not be fully aware of what we bring to our relationships about our own feelings about spending and saving, but it often gets acted out in our relationships. If we experienced parents who were careful with money, we often want to emulate that if it was a good experience. However if it wasn’t, we may want to do the opposite and be frivolous with money.

Understanding that we have an emotional relationship with money helps make sense of our feelings and behaviours around it. How we feel about money is often tied up with our need to feel secure, in control and independent.

Money can be challenging in a relationship when partners have contrasting relationships to money for example if one wants to spend and the other to save there is the potential for conflict. What happens if one wants to spend in a certain way and the other to save in a different way? Having polarised views can be challenging if not talked about and understood. Our individual emotional relationship with money often gets projected into our relationships. For example if we see ourselves in the role of a care giver and provider which makes us feel secure, how will this effect a partner who may not be used to being provided for and highly values their financial independence.

We don’t like to acknowledge that money can cause a power imbalance in our relationships. This is more likely to happen when there is a big difference in a couples salary and how money is spent and bills paid. Do you have separate bank accounts and/or joint accounts?

Money doesn’t have to be a wedge in your relationship. Learning how to talk to a partner about finances in a healthier more satisfying way is hugely beneficial for a growing relationship.

The key to dealing with this complex issue is to be open and honest with each other about how you feel about money, what money means to you, your attitude and values and where money fits into your relationship with each other. The need for clarity in how you plan to share finances, manage your spending and pay bills will enable you to have a better understanding and connection to one another’s perspective.

Useful questions to ask each other:

*How important is money to you?

*What messages did you get from your parents about money?

*How do you feel about spending money?

*What are your thoughts about saving money?

*Do you identify with being a spender or saver?

*Do you budget?

*Are you worried about money?

*Do you manage money well?

*Have you ever been in debt or had gambling problems?

If you feel money is an on-going issue that is contributing to conflict and distancing in your relationship, you may find it useful to take time out to talk to a Coupleworks counsellor in a confidential safe setting.

Dawn Kaffel

Self Care – looking after number one

We need to allow clients, whether coming as a couple or individually, the time and space to better understand, and have empathy for, an other whose opinions or outlooks they don’t always share. This can often be can be a real challenge.
One of the primary factors referred by clients as a reason to need therapy is described as ‘bad communication’. And observing them finding new empathy is a rewarding part of the work.
But an often overlooked factor can be how hard it often seems to find this same level of compassion and understanding within ourselves.
It’s a given that on every airline safety procedure, we are asked to put on our own oxygen masks in advance of attending to others.
Before we can look after those around us, we need self care, and it can be tricky to better understand why we can sometimes be so critical or judgemental of our own thoughts and responses.
Self compassion needs to be seen as completely different to self pity which victimises the self. Here, we’re looking at coping strategies to overcome very human feelings of shame and self punishment.
How much easier is it to listen to a good friend, or someone we really care about, and find ways to explain and forgive traits or mistakes that we should dwell on if thinking about them in the context of our own experience.
How often do we reflect on long-gone situations and still feel twinges of shame or embarrassment.
Wikipedia suggests that ‘we need to recognise that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience’
See? It’s not only you….
we can’t eradicate our feelings, thoughts or past actions but we can learn to look at them with a more gentle and thoughtful mindset. Making a bad call on some decision doesn’t make you a bad person. Doing the right thing when you can, and giving yourself permission if you slip sometimes, is key.
Most spiritual beliefs centre around a concept of a universal love.
Self-criticism while being thoughtful towards others outside, makes for false distinctions that can only bring isolation. Buddhist thinking suggests that the way of relating to the self is with kindness – not to be confused with arrogance or conceit which can be an indicator of a lack of self love.
Learn to love ourselves unconditionally isn’t easy but here’s India.Arie doing it her way.

An empty or depressed sense of self will look externally for ways to find validation. Feelings of unworthiness can mean depending on others to fulfil us. Sadly, this is likely to lead to disappointment. We can’t ask another person to complete us – we can only ask that they accept us.
There are tried and tested ways to self nurture. Mindfulness, therapy, and the ability to allow ourselves to be good enough.
Remembering that Excellence is the enemy of the Good.
If we strive for perfection then ‘good’ will never seem enough. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes at times and understand that others have felt this way too.
Small treats, time outside, space to think and the confidence to explore creativity will all help,
Good, empathetic therapy that can give the time to further explore all this shows a real degree of self compassion.
Take a little time to treat yourself with as much care as you would give to a good friend, partner or child. Support yourself with as much kindness as you would offer a loved one. Compassion for our self is often a forgotten element of our busy lives. Go on – give yourself a hug, no-one is watching.

Christina Fraser

The advantage of difference.

I have written about the difficulties of difference in an earlier blog (posted on August 4th 2011 filed under Relationships) and looked at ways to include them in a couple rather than allow them to become something which pushes the couple into feeling the thread between them has broken.

I am now looking at the advantages of difference .. how valuable it can be in strengthening the thread of intimacy.

At Coupleworks we see so many couples where difference has set them apart to the point of feeling the damage to the couple is irreparable. We work with the couple to explore why this has happened and if there is another way of looking at difference which is actually part of the glue that they need.

It is important to hear why each person chose the other at their first meeting. What made them feel that here was someone who could repair difficulties encountered in their previous experience. Often each will insert into the other a hope for change and a feeling of security, safety and acceptance which were perhaps missing in earlier years.

It is often difference that features more than sameness; difference of culture, social positioning, religion, language, looks and ideas. Depending on the early story, this can be a good choice but after really getting to know each other, it can become the difficulty which brings a couple into Coupleworks..

Interestingly, cultural difference can be easier to tolerate than social difference within a culture. So much can be put down to cultural ways without offending, yet anything highlighted about social difference can be received as insulting and hurtful; an attack on their family, upbringing and root.

Tolerating the differences and making them work rather than hinder is a loving and giving thing to do for a partner and if well received is felt as acceptance and admiration rather than the end of love. I try to encourage the couple to allow their differences and even borrow some of them without fear of reprisal, hopefully encouraging more warmth and respect.

Raising children can be the time when difference becomes highlighted and for the sake of the children’s future these issues need to be carefully discussed before starting a family. Compromises need to be made without each parent feeling the loss of part of themselves. Different views can enhance the way children learn as long as a feeling of antagonism is not present between the parents. They learn about how to have different viewpoints without them becoming ammunition. Negotiation becomes a valuable asset for the children’s entry into adult life.

Following the last blog posted by Shirlee Kay about the latest Royal Wedding, difference can now be seen as an advantage and not a cause for shame and humiliation leading to argument and discourse. This new light can be seen as a triumph of positive thinking and tolerance.

Clare Ireland.

A Modern Wedding

This past weekend, the nation and the world witnessed yet another Royal Wedding with all the familiar sense of excitement and commentary that goes along with this joyful event. Yet, this wedding was different. Harry, born into royalty and 6th in line to be King married an American actress of mixed race, divorced and with a less than traditional family. Yes. This is the modern family!

It is far easier to define what we have known as a traditional family; two parents of different genders, sharing the same religion, same colour, same class. The difference was only seen when couples strayed from these expectations. Divorced families were stigmatised, mixed race couples reacted violently against, homosexuals ‘jailed’ and so on. These diversions from the norm put couples and families outside the realm of the traditional family. Saying this, the word ‘traditional’ has evolved through time and has brought about more acceptance of difference.

It is far more difficult to define the modern family. It transcends these external differences and becomes a new paradigm of thinking. Still, this can create confusion and a sense of not “being normal” for individuals and couples. We see this in our work with women deciding to have babies on their own and couples choosing not to have children. One gay couple I work with still struggles with visiting his parents with his partner and their children at the family home. From the outside, his family ‘accepts’ his relationship but the underlying discomfort he feels when they visit creates difficult and unresolved feelings between him and his parents. These issues need to be brought into the open and worked through in order to help change these outdated views.

The modern family can create problems within the family and couples have difficulties managing their own family dynamics such as divorced parents, step-parents and half siblings let alone factoring in their same sex or mixed race marriages. Making sense of unresolved feelings often send couples into conflict with one another. Harry and Megan modelled this well when her father decided to pull out of the wedding party. No dramas here, Prince Charles walked Megan down the aisle with love and grace. Of course, we aren’t privy to the conversations that preceded this!

Families are no longer straightforward and no longer look the same. These changes require us to reflect, adjust and evolve. This Royal Wedding hopefully might help make the modern family easier to accept and at some point help it move along a little faster.

Shirlee Kay

OMGYes – breaking the taboo of female sexuality

In my work as a psychosexual therapist I am always on the look out for new articles, books or websites that might be useful for clients in their journey to improve their sexual relationship. The area of women’s sexual pleasure has always been a rather taboo subject. It has been much less well researched and written about than men’s with the result that it has remained shrouded in secrecy, if not shame.

When clients first come to sex therapy we look at their individual sexual histories; this includes exploring areas such as how they found out about sex, what sexual messages they were given in their early life, any religious and cultural influences, and any experiences of inappropriate sexual advances or sexual abuse. Part of this history taking is also about talking through their own feelings about their bodies. Many women grow up feeling less positive about their own genitals than other parts of their bodies. This can lead to insecurity about their own sexuality and also a lack of sexual responsiveness.

One of the great new websites that I have come across recently and which clients have been talking about is called OMGYes.com.

It has been on the web for a couple of years now but was picked up the media when Emma Watson, the Harry Potter star, described it in this way
‘ I wish it had been around longer. Definitely check it out, it’s an expensive subscription but it’s worth it.’

The founders of this site collaborated with researchers from Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute, to interview and do a large scale study on sexual techniques that lead to greater pleasure with 2000 women, aged between 18 and 95. This resulted in 62 short, down to earth videos, and also interviews with ordinary women talking about different techniques for sexual pleasure. There are also11 interactive videos that you can use with a touch screen to ‘practice’ your techniques.

I think what is so helpful about this site is that it really gives specific instructions and techniques to help women with their arousal. Although very explicit in that the videos show women masturbating, it is not in the least pornographic; in fact it is educational and fun. The messages are all portrayed honestly and with no shame and that helps to break down the barrier that women’s sexual pleasure is something shameful and that they should keep quiet about.

Whilst the main aim of the site is to give insight to women and break down the taboo of women’s pleasure, it also offers insight to both men and couples. In my therapeutic work I find that increasing knowledge of the body’s capacity for sensual and sexual pleasure enhances a sexual relationship. As the OMGYes site states

‘Couples who constantly explore new ways to increase pleasure are 5 times more likely to be happier in their relationships and 12 times more likely to be sexually satisfied’

Clients I have worked with have found it really helpful (and no I am not getting paid to write this!). At £29 for a one off subscription it can be money very well spent.

Sarah Fletcher

Couple Counselling and Ending a Relationship when there are children

‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity/Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.’ [W.B.Yeats]

Sometimes relationships come to an end.
And sometimes couple counselling is not about resolving issues, repairing the relationship, or reconnecting the couple.
Sometimes a couple starts therapy in order to manage their separation. Endings of any kind can unsettle, disturb and be profoundly upsetting. Couples seek counselling aware that they need to steady themselves and find a new equilibrium. They hope to uncover a different way of relating that will be as respectful and as amicable as possible. Recently Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were open about their commitment to the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of their relationship.

The old order has gone. Lives are different in so many ways and the repercussions ripple out. Moving out of ‘home’; dealing with the wider family and in-laws; managing old and shared friendships; stress; lack of sleep; health issues – all have an impact.
Lawyers will deal with the legalities. Mediators can help with finances. But the hurt and emotional disturbance needs to be addressed too.
In the face of the upheaval and feelings of vulnerability, there can be a preference for individual therapy. But, particularly when there are children involved, couple counselling can also be an important resource.

There is always a risk that children can get caught in the crossfire of unpleasant hostilities if a couple become adversaries. Frequently children overhear arguments when anger, frustration and resentment erupt and spill over. There are untold benefits in taking the time to communicate more calmly and effectively in front of them. Counselling can offer strategies for avoiding the open negative conflicts that have the potential to frighten a child.

Pulls of divided loyalties, feelings that they have to choose sides, can distress a child already confused and upset at the splintering of the family; and they certainly should not feel any responsibility to repair or be an intermediary.
Committing to keep in mind the best interests of the children, and to control any urges to score points, inflict hurt, or gain revenge, can be important agreed aims in the counselling when the future organisation of the family is being decided.

‘The point is not to end a marriage in some ideal or virtuous way… When breaking up… you need to do it in the best way you can. It is not in your interests to be still caught up in bitterness and anger ten years after breaking up, nor in passiveness and hopelessness… The more you can digest the emotional impact of a break-up, the freer you will be to move on… and it will leave you more emotionally open to help your children.’ [‘Breaking Up Blues – A Guide to Survival and Growth’ Denise Cullington]

The counselling room can be the ‘safe space’ where difficult conversations are contained so children are not overwhelmed by a fraught tension. They love both parents and it is frightening to witness parental hate and attack and difficult for children to evaluate and process adult rage. The separation may have already rocked the foundation of their world, they may feel shattered by the loss of the usual security, but they should not feel everything is out of control. Both parents have a role in supporting and guiding the children to manage the unavoidable grief and loss, and to navigate the changes in their lives as they know it.

However lives are organised after a separation, and however much the couple continues to see each other, their parental role means they will forever remain interconnected. It takes courage and resilience but, along with supportive couple counselling, the couple can find the resources to engage their adult parts in order to make that as flexible and as constructive a connection as possible.

Kathy Rees

The Legacy of Growing Up with an Alcoholic Parent

It has recently been reported that current government investments are looking at funding some proper support for children of alcoholic parents, and recognising the long lasting effects of this legacy.
Finally, there’s some formal acknowledgement of the ongoing devastation caused to children growing up in a family where one, or both, parents are addicted to drink.
As therapists working with adult relationship issues, we usually ask clients to outline their family backgrounds. As soon as the phrase ‘my mother/father was an alcoholic’ comes up, this will give a lot of clues as to how this person may have been raised and what difficulties they could have faced while growing up and trying to make sense of family and relationships.
Many of these alcohol dependent parents will have no idea of the effects their habit has on their families, but the fall-out is generally profound and long-lasting and can impact on their children well into adulthood, if not forever.

Trust
Growing up in the family of a drinker is likely to involve secrecy, there’s the possibility of not knowing how the parent will react as there’s often no consistency in their behaviours. Unpredictability becomes the norm. They may be unreachable, or break promises. Sometimes one parent will cover for the other and truth becomes a fluid concept. The children will have no ongoing feelings that trust and safety are a given. If you can’t trust the people that are your role models, then hope of future solid relationships becomes a lost ideal.

Normality
Well, there just isn’t any, but for the children in these household, chaos or change is their normal, as this is the way that family life continues for them. They may view other ‘ordinary’ families, but we are all mostly affected by our own day-to-day life, and if this is a helter-skelter of experiences, then that’s what we shall accept as reality.
It can be hard for these children to grow into adults who can accept a smooth path, it can also be hard to differentiate between good and bad role models or to integrate into a ‘normal’ family model.

Conflict
Ideally, children should grow up in a situation where anger can be seen as an ordinary part of any loving relationship. Parents can row sometimes, that’s a normal part of couple life. Parents can get cross with children, that’s pretty normal too. But it only works when it doesn’t get out of hand and the child sees that an occasional heated disagreement doesn’t break the caring bond between people. The knowledge that a hug, a kiss and a loving attachment underpins annoyance and is the stronger part of any connection will render reasonable anger as safe and negotiable. The child of an alcoholic is likely to fear any conflict and find it tricky to safely express negative emotion in a healthy way. Assertiveness can later be interpreted as anger and the legacy may be that of constantly seeking the approval of others and hiding their own feelings. Showing need can be dangerously disappointing.

Self criticism
Growing up in these unpredictable environments will often lead a child to become an adult with an over sensitive view of themselves, lacking self compassion and with low self-esteem. Always having to cautiously fit around another, powerful figure leads them to lose their own sense of robustness and identity.

Intimacy
This is a real loss for these clients, as safe intimacy relies on vulnerability. We have to be able to trust another with our deepest feelings and allow them to know our fears to be in an authentic relationship. For the child of an alcoholic, expressing fear can be an alien concept. Losing control will feel massively unsafe. This can also lead to a raft of other, seemingly soothing or distracting habits.
Addiction, eating disorders, co-dependent relationships, or other compulsive behaviours – not inevitable, but if necessary these are important things to be able to express in a safe, therapeutic situation.
Often, these clients have been assigned the role of ‘rescuer’ as a child – this can mean confusing love with pity.  Finding a partner they can concentrate on ‘helping’ to avoid looking after their own needs will repeat this pattern. Alternatively, many will find a partner who is emotionally unavailable, thus repeating the absence of feeling special in their original family.
Staying alert and vigilant was often their natural defence against the fear of the nameless dread that exists when a child feels unsafe on a deep level. Taking this  mindset into adult relationships will undermine the safety and easy companionship that we all need in adult couples.

This might seem a depressing list, but as couple therapists it’s our job to help our clients acknowledge their past. Nothing can change the places we all come from and few of us have a perfect upbringing, but by naming the fears and looking at the full context, together we can begin to make sense of the patterns they may have inherited.
It may be important to look at the unhappy, chaotic parental situation with some compassion. People with addictive personalities are usually suffering themselves and easily afflicted by distorted thinking.
In a safe therapeutic situation we can begin to think about helping clients to distance themselves from this past drama and understand that it need not control the present. Learning to let go is a difficult but rewarding task. Future relationships need not echo those that have gone before.
Let’s hope that the investment in helping today’s children to achieve a healthier childhood will lead to more adults finding loving family relationships of their own in the future.

Christina Fraser

The Mistakes that Couples make

A recent article in the Times entitled “you’re doing it wrong! the 60 mistakes we all make” made me reflect on how often couples can make mistakes in the their relationships without even realising the potential damage this can cause.

Here are some of the most common mistakes that couples repeatedly make that are avoidable:

1. We’ve known each other for so long, we don’t have to work on our relationship
Too many couples are falling victim to Complacency. Content with rushing through life and maintaining a certain life style, couples are oblivious to the reality that their most important relationship is missing out on the effort, attention and care it so desperately needs.

2. Work and children take up all of our time
It’s too easy to allow work and children to become the centre of your universe. It doesn’t hurt to reflect on the time when you were the centre of each other’s universe and how that’s been lost. How important it is to recognise that you both need to show more interest, concern and affection towards each other.

3. Trying to change the other person
Couples are often attracted to each other because of difference but after a while we can be tempted to try to change them to be the same as us. This often leads to a build up of on-going disappointment and resentments which contributes to emotional disconnection
Try to take a step back and remember why you fell in love in the first place.

4. Trying to control your partner
We are often driven crazy by our partner’s behaviours. Being told what to do and how to do it consistently can drive a wedge. Do not treat your partner like a child, who has to be told what to do you are a partner not a parent!

5. Criticising and complaining about your partner
Couples get into bad habits of often using always and never statements that criticize the whole person. When this happens we often feel distant and pull away. This in turn creates feelings of uncertainty and insecurity that triggers the complaining behaviour.

6. Not feeling listened to
Being able to communicate well with your partner is an essential component of a close loving relationship. By paying closer attention to how you talk to each other the tone of your voice, your body language is likely to make you feel that you are being heard, valued and understood. It is more likely to elicit more empathy and understanding from your partner rather than a defensive and negative response.

7. Not feeling understood
Its important to recognise that men and women communicate so differently and getting through to each other in a meaningful way is often a struggle. Women often feel misunderstood by their partner’s emotional disengagement and their offer of a solution. Men often feel overwhelmed with partners changing and often challenging emotional needs.

8. Bringing unresolved issues from our past
Often our past experiences in our families can get re-awakened and projected into our current relationships and its important to take responsibility for what belongs to us as individuals and what belongs to the partnership. This shared understanding can bring empathy and closeness.

9. Depending on each other for happiness
Being completely dependent on the other for your own happiness will only lead to disappointment. Its important to stay connected to who you really are and what you need for yourself to bring happiness both inside and outside your relationship

10. We never argue
Never arguing is often seen as a badge of honour for some couples. In fact couples that argue effectively are more likely to have a stronger more secure attachment than those who avoid arguments out of fear.
Couples who argue tend to be more passionate

11.Spontaneity is the only way to have sex
How difficult is it to bring spontaneity into any aspect of our busy lives let alone our sex lives.
It is argued that putting aside set times to enjoy sex takes away any excitement. However planning sex can help couples maintain their sexual connection and feel closer and intimate.

12. Coming to couples counselling is a last resort and will make our relationship worse
Couples often put off going to couples counselling because for some there is shame in having to ask for help and others believe the therapy process will end the relationship.
In reality counselling offers a safe non-judgmental space to understand and explore our relationships better, in the same way as we use a gym to help us improve our bodies.

Being more aware of these common relationship mistakes means you have a much better chance of happy healthy relationship

Dawn Kaffel

Being a couple therapist.

Why choose to be both a couple and one to one therapist?

In my experience, the endless examples of human interaction between a couple are a privilege to witness. Working with couples is challenging yet rewarding.

The challenge lies in three people in the room. The dance of the trio has intricate steps, each movement becoming either harmonious or out of step.

With two people in the room, the therapist and client – the story told has to be imagined and believed as the client’s sense of self and history which can be an edited version of fact. This is not lying, rather it is the client’s inner story; their version of who they are and why. Working to resolve their difficulties is also rewarding yet it often feels there is a missing link. There is often a couple of some sort in the individual’s story, yet the other half is absent in the one to one space.

When a couple is present they challenge each other, often argumentative and critical. The therapist has to listen to what is being said to be able to mediate and gently translate what is heard into an acceptable and working interaction between two people.
Anger arising from desperation, loss of connection and resentment dance around the room. The therapist waits for an opening to inject a hitherto lost but still there memory of why each person chose the other in the first place.

I find asking each person to think about five things they want in their couple in order to co-habit in love and tolerance. This helps to create the dance of intimacy which they feel is lost. I ask them to write them down between sessions and without sharing them, bring them to the next session.

I look at them first and usually there are at least three similar things both want. The ones they feel are impossible are the reasons for seeking therapy. We work together to find a way to manage these difficulties which enables more interaction and harmony. Neither have to sacrifice a part of themselves, but understanding each other more, they try to manage the disparities and accept them.

It takes time and patience to form a workable liaison bringing back lost respect, tolerance, love and acceptance of difference.

Most importantly, the difference can be slowly seen as a benefit. It may have been difference which was a large slice of the original attraction. We use this valuable ingredient to re-couple the lost connection and see it as a healing tool to lower their defences and react to each other in a different way.

Clare Ireland

Couples Come in Many Surprising Ways

Traditionally, a couple is defined as two people involved in a committed relationship and who are (usually) in a sexual relationship. In the past few years, individual clients have asked if I could see them and a member of their family or a close friend in a therapeutic setting. The prospect of this both intrigued and slightly intimidated me. As a couple’s therapist I am trained to work with two people but had never worked with this type of dynamic. Of course, there have been issues that I’ve not encountered before with clients but I’ve managed to work through the ‘not knowing’ and managed to work reflectively through these issues. Because of this, I allowed myself to trust my instincts and agreed.

My first experience was with a client who wanted to tell her father a few things she found difficult to say to him. She felt ready to speak in what she believed was a safe environment, with the support from a therapist. We agreed on 5 sessions and in that time, they were able to disentangle some of their old narratives and heal deep historic wounds that had created distance between them. This helped my client feel heard in a way she had not experienced with her father and they were both able to begin to make sense of what happened between them and how this had impacted on their relationship. My admiration for this ‘couple’ was huge and it was to their credit that they managed to stay with the uncomfortable feelings and worked through their issues.

What struck me was that all people, no matter what kind of couple, share a sense of not being heard, not being seen, feelings of hurt and a fear of losing their relationship. The longing for repair and need for harmony between people is part of our drive as humans. We are born to connect and love but we don’t always have the tools to know how best to achieve this. This is when people reach out for help and therapy can be a tool that enables individuals to connect with themselves in order to connect with others. Couples bring their hope of creating a new understanding and better communication between the people they love.

There is clearly a difference between working with traditional couple issues and relatives or friendships. My own understanding of these differences has been informed by own experience, by my willingness to ask questions and to learn to not assume anything. As a therapist, I am disentangling and constantly trying to make sense of feelings and where they might be originating from. The dynamics between people, whether a romantic couple or between relatives or friends are usually based on a connection that has been severed in some way. In both cases, the work is the same, reestablishing that connection.

Shirlee Kay

Mothers’ Day

According to retail analysts there is no question about it – Mothers’ Day is big business. Estimates vary but Coresight Research predicted that approximately £260 million will have been spent on flowers and around £50 million on greetings cards for last Sunday’s celebrations. Add in the meals out, special treats and the presents and the total spend was predicted to reach £1.4 billion – a significant sum!

But it’s not just the retailers who see the significance of mothers. At Coupleworks, along with many other counsellors and therapists we see the role of our mothers, and our fathers, as being very significant in our emotional growth as human beings. Writing in her book ‘Hold Me Tight’ Dr Sue Johnson briefly describes the ways in which ‘Attachment Theory’ as pioneered by John Bowlby and others, has proved the significance of parents for our emotional development. Writing of him she says

“His experience spurred him to formulate his own idea, namely that the quality of the connection to loved ones and early emotional deprivation is key to the development of personality and to an individual’s habitual way of connecting with others”.

It seems unbelievable now that for much of the last century parents were not allowed to stay in a hospital with their sick children – they had to drop them off at the door and children suffered in the long term as a result.

In the therapy room it becomes obvious that people who have lacked that secure base of consistent and loving parenting often struggle when it comes to forming good relationships with their partners. For example, someone who has experienced their mother as being harsh and judgmental can often assume sub-consciously that their partner will behave in a similar way towards them. Or if an emotionally absent parent has dominated a child’s experience, they could then find it difficult as adults to be present to another, fearing a repetition of that emotional abandonment.

Becoming more conscious of these early patterns of relating can have a huge impact on our ability to be present and connected in our adult relationships. We cannot rewrite or change the past, but we can learn of its impact on us, and therefore become more able to find ways of deepening our connections with our partners. That process of separating or individuating from our parents is crucial to our psychological health as a person. To mourn the loss of what we haven’t had, or process the pain and trauma or early experiences through counselling is a healing process that often brings change and hope to our adult relationships.

Sarah Fletcher

Communication: it comes in many forms

Some time ago Coupleworks decided to set up a Twitter account and it has been a fascinating experience. We were curious and proceeded cautiously – wondering whether anything worthwhile could come from a message limited by 140 characters. But we now follow over a thousand, carefully selected, accounts and have been struck by the depth and diversity of ideas and opinions. Our focus is ‘relationships’ and a link can lead to a challenging or thought-provoking article, an interesting blog, or a review of a book that we might have missed.

But surprisingly, perhaps, just couple of sentences can have an impact too. A tweet can cause us to pause to reflect on an opinion; or stop to check in on our state of mind. It can allow for a brief emotional MOT when, usually, busy lives don’t offer much time for introspection. Sometimes a pertinent tweet can register, catch our attention, and act as a signpost for action or a change. Many messages, apparently simple and throwaway, have a sub-text that stays and resonates.

By posting ourselves, and retweeting things we find interesting, our hope is to challenge assumptions, initiate a conversation, and trigger interest in the possibilities of counselling to continue the discussion.

Looking through our recent history I have picked out a few examples that may be worthy of consideration:

1. A relationship ‘is two people trying to dance a duet, and two solos, at the same time’.
2. Don’t ‘hit below the belt’. Harsh, critical, and unkind words can stick and damage trust in a relationship. Manage your responses when you are angry or stay quiet until you feel calmer.
3. Criticism is a really poor way of asking for change. Make a request.
4. We have a tendency ‘to want the other person to be the finished product while we give ourselves the grace to evolve’.
5. We long for intuitive understanding – but so does our partner. This requires each to express genuine interest and be prepared to really listen.
6. Don’t just blame – negotiate and find a remedy. Problems are not solved by just complaining.
7. Be curious not judgemental. The situation is probably much more complex than you imagine. Go below the surface and find out more.
8. We expect a ‘good relationship’ to mean ‘it should just happen’ or ‘it should be easy’. In fact it needs constant care and attention. We need to be adept at noticing when change is required – and the ability to be flexible in adapting.
9. A strong relationship requires ‘two people to choose to love each other even on days when they struggle to like each other’. It needs both to choose to stay on the same team and choose not become at logger-heads.
10. We can get stuck in behaviour patterns and repeat the same responses to situations even though we know they don’t work and they lead to the same conflict.
11. Small positive changes have a way of morphing into significant generous gestures.
12. Find the humour. It’s impossible to laugh and remain defended.

With the recognition that issues often deserve deeper exploration, the counselling room can be a place which offers the safety and space for talking and listening. In a supportive counselling environment, a couple can unravel and accept the complexities of their relationship, understand the needs of their partner, and allow hurts to be repaired. It’s all about communication!

Kathy Rees

Can Long Distance Relationships Work for Couples

Untitled

Since the start of the new year it has been noticeable how many more clients are requesting counselling sessions via three- way Skype (the couple are in two different places) or trying to arrange face to face sessions weeks in advance for the few hours or days that they know they are going to be together.

There are many reasons why couples find themselves in long distance relationships and it appears that the geographical distance is often seen as the reason why these relationships can be so problematic.
It is often suggested that long distance relationships (LDR) are less happy and satisfying and bring more difficulties and problems than couples’ that are geographically close. In fact recent studies show that those couples that have a strong emotional connection will function better with distance than those couples who are in a regular relationship and lack emotional connection. Only today I heard a couple describe their 30-year marriage as very lonely and emotionally disconnected despite having worked and lived together for so long.

What is it like for a couple to be in a long distance relationship?

Choosing to be in a long distance relationship can be tough and challenging and is often not a choice that is taken lightly. Long distance relationships can be short in duration or go on for years. In some cases it is not a choice but a necessity due to work commitments, job enhancement, opportunities, family commitments etc.
What is clear is that we can often find ourselves in long distance relationships without realizing the huge amount of patience and understanding being in one requires.

Here are some crucial points that clients bring to their counselling sessions that they have found useful to think about:
*The need for a very solid base to a relationship when you are long distance. To feel you can be open, honest and trusting with each other is vital in order to be able to manage the difficulties that you will encounter.
*Be prepared to work harder on your relationship than if you were together. Don’t take things for granted and show each other respect for the roles you find yourselves in.
* Feel confident in sharing any insecurities or shaky times you may have with each other
*Make sure you take time out to work out together the best way and times to communicate even if you are in different time zones. Make each other feel you are interested in what they are doing and care about them even when you are miles apart?
*The importance of knowing when you will next see each other and to take time planning where that might be and what you will do.
* Having a schedule for when you text, skype or call is essential. Checking that whichever mode of contact it is it works for both of you. It’s often easier to get caught up in text messages than take a risk and spend time talking on the phone.
*The pressure of being together again and what are your expectations? Do you spend all your precious time together or do you use the time to catch up with friends? Do you have close family who also expect to see you? If there is often a lot of pressure to feel the time you have together has to be “perfect” this will bound to lead to massive disappointment.
*Do you tend to put off talking about difficult things because you don’t want to end up rowing but then get resentful that you don’t feel that close?
*When you finally meet up knowing you are going to be apart again, don’t waste precious time fretting about the impending good-bye as this will prevent you enjoying every precious moment you have with each other.
*Always make time to check in with how you are both managing with the distance itself. At times it will feel manageable and at other times not. What’s important is you feel you can be honest with each other about how you feel otherwise this can build up into resentment.

So yes long distance relationships can be challenging but certainly with closer communication and shared understanding, couples can make it work
“Contrary to what the cynics say, distance is not for the fearful; its for the bold.
Its for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love”

Dawn Kaffel

Stuck Couples

All therapists will know the feeling when the air in the therapy room feels thick and heavy. For both clients and counsellor, everything can seem to be slowing down to a tiring pace which defies logic. This is often the ‘stuck’ moment.
As a couple therapist, one of the signs of a static session is when I start imagining bright ideas that could ‘help’. This is quite a different feeling to that of sharing a conversation about creative ideas that can encourage clients to try to find new ways of interacting.
No, this is where I start to imagine nice places they can eat, or cheap locations for dates, even holiday destinations – when, of course, they are perfectly able to find these solutions without their counsellor acting as their social secretary.
This is often a clue to the ‘Yes, But’ moment, when one half of a partnership will stymie anything the other suggests. All ideas get blocked before they can be explored.  Offering up any therapeutic reflections in the counselling room can be quickly shut down too. We are all caught up in the defensive process and  ‘Yes, But’ is really taking a hold. The thoughts of the therapist are also pushed aside and there seems every logical reason why there is no space for reflection or insight.
This will also be part of the stage in many relationships when the couple report back week after week that they have been just ‘too busy’ to spend any time together, that they have ‘hardly seen each other this week’ (or last week, or next week)
This often evolves into a neat system of procrastination.
Ideas get deferred, babysitters can’t be found, snoring is keeping their bedrooms separate, the list can be endless. It’s a clever tool for resistance. But dig deeper and often ‘Yes, But’ is just a useful method for avoiding something that we are truly afraid to examine in case it won’t be how we imagine, or want, it to be.
Now it’s time for the big challenge and for the therapist to try and look at this situation in a way that will not feel critical, but can begin to acknowledge that the underlying problem is fuelled by deep fear.
We, as therapists, have to open up this dilemma and find a route into the clients anxieties that will tread a safe line between any possibility that an intrusive comment could feel unsympathetic or harassing, and that of being in tacit agreement, which colludes with them, but blocks any possibility of a shift in the status quo.
Intimate relationships open us all up to the fear of great vulnerability, and by continuing to find good reasons to stay put in their confusion, clients can find it easier to hold onto their defences rather than risk change
Allowing the challenge of being truly curious about how the other feels and reacts, can seem dangerous. We may not like what we hear in response if we expose ourselves to ask honest and interested questions.
‘Yes, But’ can be just one way to disguise the dread when clients feel they can’t really cope with the anxiety of accepting the other, and their differences, without it becoming a serious challenge to the bedrock of their relationship.
In therapy sessions, we can point out that listening does not necessarily mean agreeing, but it means better knowledge of each other. Listening without judgement is an art, and not always an easy one to master. We can all fear being criticised and a couple therapy room should be a safe place to find ways of open discussion and the space to play with new thoughts. It can allow couples  to better know their differences and for them to believe they are both still loveable in spite of examining these tricky parts of the couple relationship.
Change is risky, but being stuck leaves couples in a gloomy and frustrated place.
Clients invest in therapy with hopes for change.
Turning ‘Yes, but’ into ‘Yes,  …. and?’ can be a good start and brings hope of rebooting the impasse of the stalled relationship.

Christina Fraser