Author Archive for Coupleworks

Longevity and long term couples.

We are told that in some parts of the world people are living longer. This may be due to the increased population figures, better health facilities in some areas, better diet in the West or more attention to self care in terms of health issues. This, in turn brings with it more long term couples. Couples can now find themselves in partnership for 70 plus years and not be a subject for discussion or amazement. This is a wonderful thing in some cases but in others can bring problems never faced before except in exceptional circumstances.
I am seeing more and more long term couples in my counselling room bringing diverse problems which, hard to define, are nonetheless presenting difficult situations for which there is little outside help. These are couples who have stuck together for whatever reason, many of which are good for both parties, but carrying with it some feelings of helplessness and estrangement.
Passions, rewarded in previous life stages, by sexual contact, are acted out in quite angry ways. Taking strong and opposing sides on present day situations which they cannot solve or in any way be a part of the solution. What used to be known roles have blurred. Women re entering the work place just when men have peaked and are looking towards retirement. Men who have been in positions of authority, suddenly flawed by a world increasingly run by technology and new generations of people who speak a different language and feel little of the respect shown by previous generations towards age and experience.
This can be isolating for the aging couple and in turn it throws them onto each other’s mercy. Instead of this strengthening them, it seems to cause a split. They become competitive and snubbing about the other’s isolation and they fight from different corners.
Often, I find that one side is passive aggressive, feeling they never press buttons thereby taking the position of the victim. The other, always on the attack, becomes more and more volatile yet ends the round feeling exhausted yet with nowhere to go and no one to explain how alone they feel.
Fear of death begins to take a leading position yet often remains unspoken. The fear is exposed by the accusation and denial, yet remains a ‘don’t go there’ subject. All the fear is released in useless repetitive arguments leaving each side feeling isolated
Never before have so many couples been in this situation yet the rules and regulations around them seem to have no boundaries or grounding common to all. They have to work out their own pathway and either weed the verges of their life together or live in loneliness in each other’s presence.
In many cases, their life is good. They often enjoy travel where the everyday is forgotten, they enjoy their mutual friends and families and seem happy to separate out into interests unshared without envy or mistrust. Their sexual contact alters and becomes something precious to both.
When lack of communication slowly seeps into their lives, feeling special to the other seems to have disappeared replaced by carping or shutting down which becomes the language. Even tactile language has gone.
It helps to go back to the beginnings of the couple and what they found in each other which felt so special. What they fell for at the outset will still be there somewhere buried under life experiences and time. When gently looking at who they were, what expectations they had about the other and the feelings of security and safety in each other’s presence, they can find it again. This brings a kind of mature strength which helps to find the bond and makes them a duo when facing life’s new challenges and inevitabilities.
Their joint history becomes the unique tie between them and is like a comforting place from which to cope with and care for each other. This could become the safe place to go to with kindness and understanding giving them back a unique partnership.
Clare Ireland

The Four Agreements: Simple Rules for Good Relationships

Ok, I hate to admit it but I started listening to Super Soul Conversations, a podcast by Oprah Winfrey. I have always strayed away from commercial spiritual teachings, with the exception of Eckart Tolle because he is The Real Thing but after Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globe Awards, I became a fan.

 

After listening to Oprah’s talk

with Don Miguel Ruiz I began to think about his simple idea of The Four Agreements and how relevant they were in everyday relationships. As a couple’s therapist, I try to break issues down as simply and concisely as possible. This enables me to help bring as much clarity and understanding to the entrenched issues many couple find themselves in.

Using The Four Agreements is a simple reminder of the internal resources we all possess
but may not have developed very effectively. When we do start to remind ourselves to pay attention, to
be impeccable with our word, to not take anything personally, to not make assumptions and to always do our best, our relationships have the opportunity to transform into something more satisfying and loving.

Below are the Four Agreements…

1) Be impeccable with your word.
“Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love…”.

Ruiz believes that we should speak with integrity. Hurtful words only create distance between couples and deepen wounds within the relationship. Choose your words carefully and be clear with precisely what you want to say. If you feel hurt, just say that and try not to react by saying hurtful words back to your partner.

2) Don’t take anything personally.
“Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality,
their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the
victim of needless suffering…”.

Couples frequently fall into this pattern and end up feeling wounded by their partner. The secret is to know ourselves well enough to be able to know what belongs to us and what doesn’t. When we accept all parts of ourselves, we can clearly see that something might be going on for our partner and it has nothing to do with us.

3) Don’t make assumptions:
“Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life…”.

Many of the couples I work with recognise this to be their biggest default in their relationship. It takes alertness, a conscious mind and real curiosity to enquire and shift through our assumptions. We need to be honest with ourselves and be flexible enough to see that we might be mistaken.

4) Always do your best:
“Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as
opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment,
self-abuse and regret”.

Doing our best doesn’t always mean doing things right. We can make mistakes and learn from them and try not to get caught up in judging ourselves. Our best is the best we can do at that moment and our relationship can act as a platform for us to grow and develop if we learn to accept ourselves. These simple Four Agreements should be looked at as a guide to deepen our relationship, not as a narrative but about who we are. When we start paying attention to these agreements, the relationship transforms into the the relationships we want.

Shirlee Kay

12 Rules for Life

A couple of weeks ago I was at the latest of a series of evenings organised by the How to Academy.

The speaker – Jordan Peterson – looked intriguing and I was particularly interested to learn about his new book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos’. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the standing ovation that greeted him in a lecture theatre holding more than a thousand people – even before he had started speaking.

His ‘rules’ are fascinating in themselves and have a great deal to say both to individuals and to couples. Rule 4 ‘Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today’ is advice that could save a large number of people from a great deal of grief. People I see are often comparing themselves with what they think the ‘norm’ is or what they perceive other relationships to look like from the outside.

What also really intrigued me was his willingness to talk frankly about the capacity ‘nice people’ have to become something different. Writing in the Observer Magazine 10 days ago Tim Lott interviewed Peterson and commented on him saying – ‘The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they are capable of being’. To support his case Peterson looks to Nietzsche though he could equally well have quoted William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. He reflected further in his talk that it was so-called normal people not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, said Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic, and capable of great malevolence.

Whilst I wouldn’t want to express what Peterson is saying that bluntly nevertheless I am well aware as a couple therapist at Coupleworks of the problems and challenges faced by a couple when one member of the partnership has a seemingly immovable belief in the fact that all the darkness – or problems or difficulties – are located in their partner. Helping a person to see a different perspective and to move to a more realistic understanding of themselves and their contribution to the problems in a relationship is part of the challenge of couple therapy. Change can happen in a relationship when each partner realises how their ‘darkness’ is contributing to the issues.

Peterson’s 12 Rules has some interesting ideas to offer both to individuals and couples. However what will be of real help to the many people I work with, is to discover that in acknowledging their personal darkness they need not fear chaos but will in fact find its potential as a liberating route to life.

Sarah Fletcher

Couples and Conversations about Sex

All sexual relationships can change over time and be affected by so many different circumstances: a critical relationship dynamic, an affair, medication, the distress of infertility, stress at work, loss of libido, health issues, ageing, low self-esteem, menopause, poor body image, pregnancy, or the arrival of children. Even the closest of couples can sometimes find it difficult to talk about their changing sexual needs. Sometimes we actually do not know how we feel ourselves, let alone explain to our partners. Couples, who otherwise talk freely, can curiously find themselves uncertain about expressing themselves. They can be anxious and nervous about offending or hurting their partner, or feel embarrassed and shy of the topic.

The counsellors in Coupleworks see many couples relieved to find a calm and supportive space in which to have the kind of relaxed conversations about sex that can lead to understanding, closeness and renewed intimacy.

Having a counsellor in the room who encourages each partner to listen, understand, and be non-judgemental, means the couple can begin to speak openly and share their feelings.

In the meantime the following questions may help you both to start communicating about sex:

– How do you feel about talking about our sexual relationship? Do you find it difficult to talk openly? What can I do to make the conversation easier? Are there some moments that are better than others?
– Some say their sexual experiences are dependent on feelings. Do you need to feel close to me in order to want sex? When do you feel closest to me? Do you remember a particularly romantic occasion? What was it that made it special for you? What did you feel? What can I do to encourage that feeling of closeness now?
– What do you like about my body? What do you like best about your body?
– What, for you, is the difference between making love and having sex?
– Do you think we have a different sex drive? How can we manage differences in desire?
– What do you feel about looking into each other’s eyes, touching, hugs, cuddles, spooning, caressing, kissing, caressing? What don’t you like so much?
– Sex in a long relationship often needs to be premeditated and prioritised. Foreplay can start a long time before making love and be an accumulative number of small gestures. What foreplay do you like best?
– Are there times you would enjoy a spontaneous ‘quickie’? When could that be? What circumstances would allow it to happen?
– How do you feel about inviting or being the initiator? What kind of love talk makes you smile and engage in idea of sex?
– Arousal starts in the brain. What kind of situations, interactions, do you find erotic and arousing? Is a long or short arousal stage best for you? Do you enjoy the ‘simmer’ or can you go ‘off the boil’? What can I do to improve feelings of arousal for you?
– Do you feel ‘performance anxiety’ at times? Are there things I can do to ease that pressure and make you feel more relaxed and confident?

It’s good to talk!

Kathy Rees

A Couple Check List for the New Year

We are already three weeks into 2018 and how many of us are still going strong with our new year resolutions to do more exercise, eat less sugar, have a dry January? How many of us have given up already and prioritised on refocusing on work? How many of us have resolved to improve our relationship this year?

Judging from the amount of enquiries that Coupleworks have received from clients wanting to make appointments to see a counsellor, its very clear that many couples are struggling to make the significant changes that they need in their relationships to ensure that 2018 brings them more contentment, excitement and connection.

Relationship patterns are hard to break, but if you start to think more and use some of these strategies there is a strong chance your relationship can really improve this year:

Here are some things to think about:

*It’s the small everyday things that can make the biggest difference: how we greet each other, show kindness, respect and appreciation. What tone of voice and words do we use with each other.

*Can you let go of past hurts and focus on sharing your goals for 2018 to help each other achieve what you want.

*If you really want to make your relationship better, you both have to focus on making time to put energy and commitment into overcoming your problems to make your relationship the best it can possibly be. It won’t happen without this.

*How well do you know yourself and what you are looking for in your relationship? What do you bring to the couple? Is it what your partner needs?
How often do we check this out?

*The importance of feeling you come first for your partner.

* Do you feel supported by each other? Couples who feel they have each other’s backs and see each other as team-mates are usually more positively emotionally connected and see a future as an exciting time for growth.

*Are you still curious about your partner or do you think you know and understand everything about them and how they work?

*Recognising we have different needs and drives in our relationships that change over time. When was the last time you checked this out?

*Focus on your partner’s strengths rather than their weakness. Start by complimenting more and criticising each other less

*Taking responsibility for what each of you are bringing to the relationship and is that what you want?

*How good are you at making compromises that will help strengthen your bond?

*Recognising that we all make mistakes and the need to rebuild our trust in each other. Can we forgive?

*The importance of keeping your sexual energy alive and growing

*Take responsibility for your own behaviour in the relationship and how it makes your partner feel.

*Instead of closing down and turning away from your partner, turn towards your partner to share how you feel.

Of course the New Year will bring challenges – that is part and parcel of being in a relationship. With a shared desire to put more effort into spending time focusing on what you both need and what needs to change, you are on your way to a more loving and fulfilling relationship for 2018.

Dawn Kaffel

Smart phones – addictive behaviour or social connection

Smartphones have changed our lives. Fact.
But the scary truth is that the average Brit checks their phone up to 85 times a day
And that could be a staggering daily 5 hours.
The new year media is overflowing with advice for weight loss, more exercise and helpful hints to improve our lifestyle – but the sad truth is that for many of us, our phones have slipped from an essential part of modern life, to a habit bordering on a compulsion.
Nomophobia – it’s a scary new description for the growing understanding that not being able to access our phones causes us fear and panic.
Smartphone and internet addiction is real and a growing problem, especially among millennials.
If we are unable to function without access our phones, then there is a real likelihood of social anxieties leading to depression.
The latest researches are showing that Phone Separation Anxiety or
PSA is a growing and worrying trend that affects so many aspects of our lives, below are just a few of the ways these devices can erode our mental and physical health.
Relationships
Are severely affected by connecting to our screens at the expense of eye to eye contact with those around us
Alerts
Increase our stress levels and limit concentration on other tasks
Sleep
Is blocked. That blue light will restrain the melatonin that controls the sleep/wake cycle
Driving
There are many horrific statistics of accidents caused by illicit checking/texting
Cyber bullying
Particularly affecting younger users and causing seriously negative self esteem issues when watching and responding to unrealistic postings.
Bacteria
Gruesome figures show the amount of fecal matter found on most phones

Beware, it’s not all innocent technology. Software designers are wise to our needs and use ‘persuasive tech’ to hijack our brains into wanting more connection to our devices.
A weeks holiday off Facebook has had a proven boost to wellbeing in a recent survey.
Maybe it’s time that we admitted our cellphones can become compulsive.
Solution 
We need to distract ourselves gently and make some distance between us and the tiny magic tablet that has so much power.
Start with a 2018 trial of something new or long abandoned –
yoga, drawing, painting, singing, walking, reading, visiting,  just do something else.
Or start with the Forest app (iTunes £1.49)
Set the time you want to focus and a tree will grow. Any phone interruptions will kill the tree.
Better still, and free, is a real tree.
Go outside and just observe one for 10 minutes.
Crazy idea? No more bonkers than checking a cellphone 80 times daily.

Christina Fraser

Tips for surviving Christmas

The mince pies have been in the shops for months, the war of Christmas adverts has begun and soon we will be in full swing. But Christmas comes with mixed emotions for many, the pressure of presents, food and family. For couples with young children there is the excitement and anticipation of nativity plays, Father Christmas and the like. Whilst at the other end of the scale there may be questions about who spends Christmas with you or who you spend Christmas with. And then there is the fact that many millions of people will be very lonely this Christmas. One of the things we notice at Coupleworks is the increase in enquiries that we get after the Christmas break. The reality is that these 10 days put pressure on relationships.

So here are some ideas of how to survive the run up to Christmas.

1. Talk to each other about expectations of how the holiday period will go especially when you come from family backgrounds that celebrate it very differently.
2. LISTEN to what your partner says and take it seriously.
3. Identify key pressure points and make a plan of how to prepare for them.
4. Make sure that you are doing some nice things for yourself and that it’s not all about what you will be doing for others.
5. Be realistic about what you expect and hope for from having more time together.
6. Don’t feel that you are personally responsible for making it ‘the best Christmas ever’ – others have their roles to play as well – and remember it is ok for it to be ‘good enough’.
7. Be aware that reducing your inhibitions through alcohol can be a mixed blessing.

So – plan your campaign carefully and you could find that it builds relationships rather than damaging them.

Sarah Fletcher

Present giving between partners.

If money is no object or every penny counts, getting present giving right is tenuous at best… an accident waiting to happen at worst.

Trust comes into the equation of giving.  Defined as: care–duty–hope–assurance and expectation, trust is paramount but so often precarious, tentative and uncertain.

Money is often referred to as ‘means’.  An interesting definition.  What does money mean?

The successful present is not about monetary value, it is about listening throughout the year.  Hearing, not telling or knowing.

Listening, perhaps the greatest gift in a couple’s demonstration of intimacy and being placed as number one to each other, is about taking notice,hanging on words, pricking up your ears and remembering.

Often in the consulting room, money becomes a representation of unspoken yet deeply felt hurts/joys, anger/pleasure, resentments/closeness, rejection/inclusion and other opposites.

Presents given with love rather than apology, showing power, conscience ridden or a bribe will be cherished for life.  Car boot sales are full of present disasters.  The trained eye, however,  will spot one given with love, buy it and feel the aura of a loving couple’s history. The feeling will then spread to an unknown source.  This, in turn will become part of a chain of listeners and lovers.

The most revealing programme of late about lasting couples was about how similiar the selected couples were –  despite privilege and entitlement for some and hardship and struggling for others.  Both put family, home, understanding by listening and kindness at the head of their priority lists.  Duty and hard work is a by-product of these needs.

One of the few times the Queen has been seen to shed a public tear was at the decommissioning of The Royal Yacht Britannia. The only place when not on official business the couple could really be off duty. As near to ordinary as possible. Even in their carefully chosen furniture and possessions on board, a more ordinary and less opulent existence was apparent.

The more cocooned money makes couples, it can, at the same time rob them of awareness about and trust in the other.

A simple paperback book, picture, gadget, tool etc seen and admired by a partner from January onwards, may be the most intimate and loving present to turn up on 25th December or at a birthday or anniversary.  Hints will be dropped along the way.  Listen, take note and file them in your mind for the next present giving day.

Clare Ireland.

Give thanks on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my very favourite holiday (you’ve guessed it, I’m American). The annual tradition and ritual of celebrating Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends brings a profound feeling of gratitude for our life and people we love. It’s a day to register and observe the things we are grateful for and to embrace those around us in grace.

When I was training as an Imago therapist, the most useful exercise I took away was the appreciation/gratitude piece, where couples spend time hearing and mirroring back what their partner appreciates and values about the other. Couples would do this in the session and what always took me aback was how surprised the other was to hear their partner’s appreciation. I noticed how difficult it was for some people to hear the positive things said about them. When I ask them to take time to ‘take these words in,’ often it felt quickly dismissed as if it was too unbearable to hear. With others, I noticed how little they needed to feel appreciated.

Couples often forget to remember to be grateful for the relationship they have and acknowledge to themselves and to their partners of this fact. As time goes on, couples can lose touch with this appreciation and in turn, notice that their partners are no longer making the effort they once were.
This pattern between couples can erode a relationship and leave couples feeling neglected and unloved.

Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful, readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
What Couples can do to develop Gratitude for one another:

1. We need to start with cultivating gratitude towards ourselves before being able to develop appreciation for others. Taking the time to reflect what you appreciate and value about yourself is your starting point. It might be helpful to journal your thoughts.

2. Take time to notice what you appreciate about your partner. It may be as
simple as your partner making you a cup a tea before work or asking you how your day has been at the end of the day. Take note, make a list and remember.

3. Acknowledge these appreciations to your partner. Tell them what you value and ask them to tell you what they heard. This can be transformational for both of you.

Couples find it hard to share their appreciation for many reasons ranging from not growing up hearing it themselves or assuming their partners should know. Whatever the reason, it is important to reinforce this thanks to one another so the relationship can start to change and deepen. Saying and reinforcing affirmation is not a pointless exercise, it’s what we all need to hear to feel valued and cared for.

Shirlee Kay

Are things what they seem?

In his latest blockbuster, ‘La Belle Sauvage’, Philip Pullman graphically describes a group of people who have lost touch with the realities that surround them. They live in a make believe garden of abundance and pleasure, whilst the ‘fog’ that envelops them hides the truths of their world. As one character comments ‘That fog’s hiding everything they ought to remember, if it ever cleared away, they’d have to take stock of theirselves, and they wouldn’t be able to stay in the garden no more’ (p491).

This led me to think about my experience at Coupleworks where few people come into therapy with the deliberate intention of trying to hide some part of their current or past experiences, but for many the therapeutic process does uncover some part of their story that ‘they ought to remember’. Part of the therapist’s task is to help them face up to this process of remembering, whether individually or as a couple.

In couple therapy few things are more important than looking at the patterns internalised in early childhood and to help people see how these continue to affect them in adult life. For each individual it is helpful to think and understand about his or her early childhood patterns and ‘scripts’ – how their family dealt with emotions – how they got to feel valued and loved.

What is particularly important to ‘remember’ is what they then might expect from their partner. For example, a person who has experienced a very disciplined and rigid parenting style, might then perceive any request from a loving partner as controlling, and therefore respond with stubbornness or antagonism. It is important that they can learn to recognise what is being ‘projected onto’ and therefore expected from their partner. They need to learn to trust that this new relationship can be one in which their wishes and desires will be thought about.

In relationships where there have been years of acrimony and mistrust, it can be hard to ‘remember’ the good parts and why the couple got together in the first place and how they had fun and connected. The build up of hurts and disappointments that go unrecognised cloud the relationship and someone who has been knocked down time and again can get to the point where they simply do not want to take the risk of it happening yet another time. Holding those fears, moving away from a culture of blame, and working through the hurts and having them understood and valued, can help lead the couple to ‘take stock of theirselves’ and to begin the journey into a new phase in their relationship.

Sarah Fletcher

We’ve got to go through it….

There’s a wonderful children’s picture book by Michael Rosen, ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’, that I think has a message for us all.

We wake every morning preparing to face the stresses of the day. We take a real or metaphorical deep breath, look for the positives, remember our skills and abilities, and search for resilience. We can even understand life as an adventure.

‘We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.’
We can all feel the thrill and excitement of risk. There can be an adrenaline rush that comes with sport or travel. Stepping outside our comfort zone can be exhilarating.

But then, of course, the unexpected can happen. Life throws a curve ball and we feel shaken by the challenge of unexpected adversity.

The children in the book, buoyantly setting off on a country walk, are suddenly faced with a number of ‘Uh-uh!’ obstacles that stop them in their tracks. A river, deep mud, long grass, a big dark forest means they have to make a decision as to what to do next.

If they are not to abandon the walk they realise that, ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh, no. We’ve got to go through it.’

And that is true for us all too. We have to endure and find a way of surviving unexpected and overwhelming events. The ending of a relationship that breaks our heart. Redundancy and sudden financial insecurity that hits like a sledgehammer. Facing gruelling treatment after a frightening medical diagnosis. The loss of a loved one that feels unbearable.

The wonderful illustrations by Helen Oxenbury show the children looking more daunted and worn down by each obstacle. Their energy levels lower as they stumble in the thick forest and struggle through the snow storm. They draw closer and cling on as they try to help each other get through.

Then the children discover that, unlike the fantasy, the reality of an actual bear is terrifying. They race back to the sanctuary of home and leap together into the bed and under the duvet.

When we are facing a devastating situation, or the sheer number of difficult incidents has worn us down and we are peering into the abyss, we all need a sense of a safe haven. At the very time we feel we are free floating, with nothing to ground us, we need to reach out and clutch on. No one can take away the pain, but we need support until we find the resources to manage and cope.

In Jerusalem’s trauma centre, when there has been a catastrophic occurrence, they have found it is essential for the victim’s recovery that close family and friends are immediately brought to the bedside.

We will all have different ways of coping and managing the turmoil. In her book ‘H is for Hawk’ Helen Macdonald describes training a hawk when overcome with grief at the death of her father.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10989164/H-is-for-Hawk-Helen-Macdonalds-intense-relationship-with-her-goshawk-Mabel.html

Sometimes it can be the counselling room which offers the safe place to begin to let out the pent up agony and find a way to breathe again.

Kathy Rees

Stress and the Couple

Two news items caught my attention this week: how stress impacts relationships and whether there is a stress gender divide.

The first is new research released for National Stress Awareness Day on 1 November 2017 shows that many more women than men are feeling stressed and anxious.

Data showed that more than half of women (54%) experiencing stress or anxiety are struggling to sleep – while less than 4 in 10 men do (39%)

More than half eat junk food due to stress compared to a third of men

Nearly half (45%) have taken out their stress on partners or family – in contrast to less than a third of men (31%)
Almost a third (29%)have had panic attacks due to stress compared to less than one in in five of men (31%)

Do women juggle with more caring and parenting responsibilities which need to be juggled with their careers?

The second is the BBC 2 programme Trust me I’m a Doctor Mental Health Special who were testing out some of the claims that can help to reduce stress of which only some are supported by scientific evidence.

Working with couples it is becoming more evident how big a part stress can play between partners and how difficult it is to stay connected amid the difficulties.

When conflicts arise, it’s much easier to blame our partners –how could you have done that? Why didn’t you empty the dishwasher? You never ask me about my day.

These are all everyday examples of annoyances, disappointments and criticisms that can easily lead to the blame game with our partners. It seems simpler to focus on these negative interactions than to consider how much stress may be a major contribution. Do we even realise how much stress can be the cause of our relationship distress?

Many couples continually juggle with busy work schedules and parenthood and run a hectic lifestyle. This can be difficult enough. Throw into the mix lack of sleep, financial worries, illness and family issues – it’s not difficult to appreciate stress’s constant presence in our lives.

How does stress affect a relationship?

When a stressed partner does not get the support they need from their partners, this often leads to feeling isolated and ignored in the relationship and the tendency is to withdraw or fight. If we confront our partner for not supporting us, they often feel misunderstood – not even realising their own behaviours.

Even if we aren’t stressed ourselves, we are often not very responsive or miss the opportunity to provide comfort and help to our partners. We often don’t want to admit to ourselves that everything and everyone is making you irritable.

If both partners are overwhelmed with stress at the same time, which often happens, the situation worsens. We use each other to vent and take it out on our partners by picking fights over little things and being overtly critical. This often becomes a competition for who is not cared about the most.

How to stay connected under stress

Some partners chose to keep stress to themselves in order to protect a partner. Other partners chose to off-load at every opportunity making it difficult to find any relief. Neither way is ideal. Use this situation as an ideal opportunity to connect with your partner and really try to understand what they need in the way of support from you right know and how to give it. It may be as simple as practical hands-on assistance or it may include more physical comfort and emotional reassurance.

Learn to be more aware of just how much stress your partner may be experiencing. Don’t just look at the negative behaviour but try and understand together what might be going on below the surface.

At times we presume our partners should know when we are stressed and get reactive when they don’t respond in the way we want them to. Perhaps the answer to this is to ask for help when it is needed in a way that will get the response you need from your partner.

Take time out to support your partners stress head on. By sitting down together, taking time out to listen and offer comfort and understanding rather than focusing on yourself are not only key factors in managing stress but show our partners in those important moments that we are truly there for them side by side no matter what.

Stress doesn’t need to threaten our connection to our partners, it can bring us closer together when our stress hormones activate our brains systems to respond with compassion, love and cooperation.

Dawn Kaffel

Illness and the Relationship

Tough times are likely to invade all relationships at some stage, and unexpected challenges can come upon us very suddenly. Life will sometimes deal unforeseen blows that appear with shocking suddenness.
When ‘Sickness/Poorer/Worse’ replace the ‘Health/Richer/Better’ options that we hoped would be our lot, we need to find fresh skills and understanding in order to learn how to cope in any new situation.
A sudden diagnosis of illness in one partner can prove a serious challenge to even the most solid of relationships. Resilience will be needed by any couple faced with the prospect of having to cope with unexpected adversity. The person with the diagnosis may well react strongly to the changes they are experiencing, some of these changes may be temporary, although it may seem a mighty mountain to climb when the process is being endured.
The supporting partner needs time to adjust to what may seem a situation unfairly imposed upon them, too.
Loss of control around the established pattern of our lives is a situation likely to bring difficult emotional responses of helplessness and unfairness leading both partners, at times, feeling trapped and out of control.
It’s so vital to talk to each other, to exchange feelings and reactions, to listen with empathy to the world in which the other is now caught. The traditional family patterns will need to adapt. A turnaround in established roles may mean they now become a patient and a carer. It takes time to discover how habitual ways of relating could be now at odds with the new needs of both parties. 
Tricky feelings left unexpressed will stick and it’s easy for grievances to spiral. Remember that the frustration is with the illness or impairment and not with each other. Keep ‘the enemy’ on the outside, it’s so much easier to fight this in tandem than allowing it to come between you.
Talk and explore together, take time to find out how each partner feels, learn as much as you can about the situation you face – information gives feelings of control. Knowledge in this, as in so many other places, is power.
It’s very easy for couples to get locked into a cycle of competition – who is the most hard done by – and get enmeshed in the feeling that neither can ever truly understand the burden the other carries.
Illness and impairment can be lonely and isolating. Unfairness rankles and anger is an understandable response. It’s normal to be sad or overwhelmed and both people will need to find outside places to talk and offload a little.
New contacts or fresh interests can emerge from a need to sometimes break free and it’s possible to believe that we can still enlarge a life that might start to feel smaller and more insular.  It is so important to find new connections, as well as nurturing existing relationships.
It may be difficult at first, but explore groups, local resources and ideas that fit in with the different pattern of your lives.
Reach out. People, even those closest to us, often just don’t know what could help, so never be afraid to ask. We have no influence on what happens to us, but we do have choices around how we respond to these changes. Resilience is not a static situation but a life long and ongoing project. 
Facing adversity is a big challenge and needs some self-compassion. It’s easy to for couples to neglect themselves when life overwhelms. Always remember to look after ourselves as well as each other. Treats, sleep, good food will all help, but are easily pushed aside when we struggle. The patient and the carer both need to make sure that they know how to find, and use, all resources open to them – physical, emotional and spiritual.
After the sudden death of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put her energy and grief into the book ‘Option B’, a good resource for anyone experiencing loss. Here she explains how it took a painfully long time for her to face the dreadful truth that what she yearned for, the normality of her life, was just not there any longer. 
She offers up her truism that:
‘if option A is no longer available, then let’s kick the shit out of option B’
Change is inevitable for us all, and will bring loss. There may have to be substantial adjustments in all areas of couple life. But the best defence is to change our defences and adapt to new situations.
Find that option B and use it to the best advantage of your new selves. Accepting the new normal takes time, and it’s sometimes hard to hold onto hope, but try defying gravity, and don’t let adversity bring you down.

Christina Fraser

Rubber stamping.

 

 

When couples come in for the first time there are one or two common questions which they ask.  How many sessions will they need and how long will it take are both very familiar to me.

This is very helpful in terms of trying to listen and hear their story and how they perceive themselves.  It seems an obvious and necessary question but it tells me many things.  Some of which might be a clue as to their couple’s sense of self.  The couple being the third client in the room.

Do they see their partnership as unique or do they see themselves within the couple as they hope others will see them?  Do they realise how valuable they both are and how precious their couple is?  They have built it by themselves and formed it into many shapes and sizes to fit their story.  It is all their own work, not a copy of other couples or a ‘normal’ couple.  There is no rubber stamping of a  couple.  It is their couple and the shape of it is how they formed the way to be together, often with great difficulty.

I tell them this right at the beginning so we can refer back to that question and see how the answer changes as a result of what we are all learning about their couple.  Some, feeling under pressure to change quickly, find this hard to bear.  With time, however, and with careful listening and hearing each other we all begin to understand how much is invested in their case..

Following the start of the work when the questions were asked they begin to value themselves in a much more personal way.  We learn how they have negotiated, compromised and tolerated the difficulties they have encountered and how each individual has found it intimate to carefully wend their way through the difficult episodes they encounter.  At the beginning when things became unmanageable they felt compromise  might be a sacrifice and loss of a part of themselves.

As we journey week by week through their ups and downs, we are all surprised by either the length of time or by the little time it has taken to arrive at a more manageable place.

I marvel at the ability of two people coming in, sometimes in despair, reaching a place where they feel closer and how they get in touch again with the origins of why they chose each other at the beginning.

Clare Ireland

Understanding Changes in Sexual Frequency

Many couples we see at Coupleworks come into therapy feeling as though there is something fundamentally wrong with their relationship when their desire starts to wane and the pattern of their sex life changes. It can sometimes be difficult to help couples normalise these feelings and avoid getting caught in an internal narrative that if their sex lives slows down the relationship is no longer viable.

When couples come to therapy, it is usually because the difficulty has gone underground and been around for quite some time. There is a tendency not to address sexual issues with one another (it’s uncomfortable and awkward), and the gap tends to widen to a point where it is difficult to see a solution. Couples seem able to talk about ‘the fact they aren’t having sex as often’ but less able to talk about their feelings of hurt and rejection. In my mind, it’s when couples bury their feelings that toxic thoughts start to surface between them. Couples usually begin to feel a sense of relief after the initial discomfort of actually starting the conversation.

Common reasons why couple’s sex lives change:
Work
Pregnancy
Children
Stress
Tiredness
Illness
Depression
Tension between Couples
Outside Factors

As couples get caught up in their daily lives, the attention towards their partner changes and a pattern begins between them. The key is to name the issues and more importantly tell the other how they experience these changes. I had a woman tell her husband in a session that his lack of desire for her brought up strong feelings that the relationship was over. These feelings triggered memories of her father leaving her mother for a younger woman. Her internal narrative didn’t allow her to be curious about what might be going on with her husband or the relationship and allow her to address the issue with him. As we worked through this, she discovered he was overstressed and exhausted, and we found ways to help him lower his stress levels and find his way back sexually to her. Disentangling these stories helps couples see one another separately and not personalise the experience. With this couple, it helped them to see that there were external factors contributing to the man’s change in desire and allowed them to find ways of addressing them.

What Couples Can do to Reconnect Sexually:
-Name the Issue.
-Tell each other how they experience it.
-Take time to spend more time with one another.
-Make physical connect with one another on a daily basis.
-Make eye contact.
-Kiss each other.
-Be present when speaking to one another.
-Touch one other regularly even when not having sex.
-Express your appreciation of the other often.
-Do special things for each other.
-Explore others ways of being intimate (sex is a way but not the only way).
-See a psycho-sexually trained therapist.

Long-term relationships naturally change and evolve. Accepting these changes and keeping an open dialogue is key to a couple’s intimacy. When they can see that their sex life is unique to them and not be influenced by what they ‘should be doing’ they are better able to understand what works for them. Being open and honest about these issues helps to generate a conversation. It’s not always about finding a definitive answer but more about understanding and living with the issue differently.

Shirlee Kay

The Course of Love Alain de Botton

‘Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances; love is a search for completion.’

This quotation, which in many ways both expands and focuses Plato’s search for your other half as described in his Symposium, comes early on in the book by the contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton. The Course of Love is by no means a dry and academic dissertation on the theme of love – still less a series of speculative notes detached from human realities. Rather it is a delightfully written novel, following the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten, which takes the time to unpack what is happening for them along the way.

Listen to him again…

‘In reality, there are rarely squabbles over ‘nothing’ in Rabih and Kirsten’s marriage. The small issues are really just large ones that haven’t been accorded the requisite attention. Their everyday disputes are the loose threads that catch on fundamental contrasts in their personalities’

Botton explores and unpacks the ordinary everyday issues that many couples struggle with and are common themes that come into our consulting rooms at Coupleworks. Through the engaging and compelling narrative of Rabih and Kirsten’s lives, interwoven with profound and thought provoking commentary, he covers issues of conflict, sulking, sex, blame, children and parenting, staying faithful and aging parents.

Underpinning his understanding of the couple relationship is the way in which we are shaped by our early attachment figures – our parents – and how this script forms a pattern for us in our expectations and actions towards our significant partner. On the one hand we expect our partners to respond in ways that are familiar to us, whilst on the other hand we can find ourselves reacting powerfully or seemingly irrationally to certain behaviours. This can lead to conflict, misunderstandings and a growing distance between a couple.

One of the themes he highlights which I find to be one of the most common features of couple therapy, is working with the disappointment that our partner is not going to be the person we would like them to be. But this doesn’t have to mean an unhappy ending. In working through the disappointment and letting go of a sometimes idealistic dream, there is much contentment to be found in an acceptance of the fact that our partners are different and other, and finding an intimacy and connection through that difference.

A final quote from Alain de Botton.

‘The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste, but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace’

This book is accessible and a recommended read for all those who face the joys and challenges of being in a relationship!

Sarah Fletcher

Couple Relationships and the Importance of a ‘Safe Haven’

Couples often come into therapy anxious that their relationship has developed a disturbing negative dynamic. They are unsettled and ill-at-ease and have lost the sense of each other as an emotional safe haven. They have become less confident in their future together and cannot access the usual soothing reassurance from the other that all is well. They feel resentful that their partner has become so difficult. They blame and complain and are focussed on the frustrations.

An affair, most classically, attacks the belief in the safety of the ‘couple bubble’. However, trust and dependability (once the bedrock of the relationship) can be eroded in many ways. There can be ‘death by a thousand cuts’ when a relationship has been neglected and each partner no longer feels special and prioritised. Addictions, over-focus on work, on children, even on screens, means attention feels minimal and perfunctory. Sometimes the sexual relationship is affected and the old relaxed intimacy is missing. The couple mourn the loss of the delight, acceptance and intense focus that marked the beginning of the relationship.

Sometimes there can be difficulties managing life’s transitional moments that change an established relationship rhythm. Managing loss, or moving in together, the birth of the first child, differing career ambitions, illness, redundancy are times when significantly different personality traits come to the forefront. It can feel disconcerting when, under stress, a partner takes a different perspective or has unexpected heightened reactions: suddenly becoming withdrawn and unavailable, or with irritability and angry outbursts.

There is real confusion when faced with such behaviour: ‘Why are you reacting like this?’ The differences become threatening and upsetting. Feeling under attack, each becomes defensive. Listening stops and there is ’push back’ against opposing opinions. The implicit message becomes, ‘If I am to trust and relax I need you to agree with me and see it my way.’ Disconnection and tension ripple out. Louise Evans describes being like ‘a vigilant meerkat on sentinel duty’ searching for behaviours that confirm the mistrust.

Entrenched in conflict, the usual relaxed couple interactions become rigid and uncomfortable. They each feel the victim, deprived of understanding, and challenged by any concept of: ‘I have my way. You have your way. As for the right way, the only way, it does not exist’.

There is little inclination to understand or embrace complexity or contradictions when they create such anxiety. ‘We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product while we give ourselves the grace to evolve’ (Jakes). But the more we judge someone, the less space there is to love them.

Lincoln is quoted as saying, ‘I do not like that man – I need to get to know him better’ and counselling offers the opportunity for explanations, listening, being heard, understanding, and calming reassurance. It can help with reparation, allowing the couple reach out and regain the compassion and generosity that became somewhat lost. They agree, once again, to be the safe harbour in the storm.

‘Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, But you and I know what this world can do… If, as we’re walking, a hand should slip free, I’ll wait for you. And, should I fall behind, wait for me…’
Bruce Springsteen: ‘If I Should Fall Behind’


An interesting listen:
Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Natural Predisposition to Suffering: Amit Sood (Ted Talks)


Kathy Rees

Navigating Change in a Couple when children leave home

The summer holidays are over and the kids are back at school. Many parents up and down the country are bracing themselves for the inevitable when in the next few weeks their children will be leaving home for university.

Adjusting to children leaving home, whether its your first child or your youngest child for some couples, poses very little difficulty, whereas for others it presents such a major milestone that it can de-stabilize even the securest relationship. When a first child leaves, there is some comfort that there are others at home to help with this period of readjustment. When the last child leaves the nest is empty and it’s just the two of you. For some the feelings of heartache and loss are overwhelming and like a mourning period. For others it welcomes a period of change and excitement that is free from the daily stresses of parenting and an opportunity to enjoy doing different things as a couple and to focus positively on their relationship.

Often couples struggle to identify that children leaving home can cause such difficulties between them, so accepting that this can be a difficult time for relationships rather than denying it is vital.

Children are often the glue in their parents’ relationship and when they leave there can be a sense of dislocation as a huge void is now present which can be scary and unmanageable. Shifting back to being a couple again can often trigger a What’s my role now? It can often feel lonely and scary.

Worrying about your children leaving home is part of the letting go. Feeling sad they are leaving doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go!!

Here are some problems that couples can struggle with at this stage:

Communication breaks down
Finding faults with each other
Increase in arguments
Taking on more work to try to fill the gap left by children
Staying at the office later to avoid having to spend time just the two of you
Finding yourselves spending more time doing things separately
Using social media and texting more regularly is easier than talking
Seeking out alternative experiences like excessive drinking, drugs or affairs

Couples don’t have to fall apart when the nest becomes empty. It can be an important time to reconnect and to start adjusting to new roles and responsibilities by spending more time focusing on being a couple than you have done for years.

Here are some suggestions to help you work on your relationship and restore what may have been neglected between you:

Can we be friends again? Do we still have things to talk about? Do we have enough in common? Will I be enough for you? Do you still love me?
It may be surprising that you both have similar anxieties and will relish the chance to talk it through with each other in a way you haven’t done for a long time
Memories of being child free Enjoy the opportunity to share with each other how it was before children arrived and took over your lives. Use humour and examples to reminisce. Take pride and delight in sharing your accomplishments as a couple
Notice your spouse as a partner not a parent You may have been so busy working and being a parent that noticing each other as partners and what you need and how you nurture that precious relationship may have been way down the list of your priorities. Focus on being two equals. Show each other you are equally invested, equally involved and equally responsible.
Refocus and rethink life and fill gaps left by children
Start accepting each other for who you are, start putting each other first and learn to see other as partners again. When did you last compliment each other? Practice talking to each other about shared plans, your hopes, your concerns and what you are both looking forward to. Discuss together what you need and what you don’t need from each other? What you like and what you don’t like?
Start thinking about yourself and what you need
It’s an important time for you two as individuals. Discuss what you would like to do that you have been putting off for years. What new challenges would you like to take on? Its important that you feel fulfilled yourself in order to bring the best you can to the relationship
How do we look after our relationship?
Start to enjoy each other’s company again. After years of neglect the relationship needs to be prioritised. When was the last time you planned an evening out together? When was the last time you had a holiday just the two of you?
Do you enjoy doing things separately as well as together?
When was the last time you had sex? It may have been a while since you both felt very close and connected to each other. The more you talk to each about how you feel and what you would like and start focusing more attention on each other the intimacy and affection will start to grow and sex should begin to feel more exciting as you explore what you need from each other sexually. You now have more quality time to spend together.
Hopefully you will start to feel that although one chapter has ended another has just begun and what feels like the end is often just the beginning.
Dawn Kaffel

Separation – helpful tips for ending a relationship

Separation.
Helpful hints for ending a relationship because …..
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

 

Remember when you held me tight,
And you kissed me all through the night.
Think of all that we been through,
And breakin’ up is hard to do.

sang Neil Sedaka in the 1960s.

Ending is a timeless, painful issue and a hard one to face. There is no Good Way to finish a love affair.
Many different circumstances can cause one, or both of a couple to re-evaluate a relationship. Sometimes it can be a particular, seemingly insurmountable, issue, but sometimes the yawning gap just quietly sneaks up causing a mighty draft between the two of you.
Back in the day, there was the possibility that an ending could be just that  …. finality.
But now with social media feeds, there is every chance that an ex may show up from time to time, and sometimes apparently having all kinds of fun without you.

Try and have a face-to-face conversation, however painful.

Never, ever allow a relationship to end by text or email. Those cliches – ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ or ‘I just need some space’ are tired and confusing. The truth is that disappointment has overtaken hope and at least one of you now believes that there is no creative way forward together.

Treat each other with some respect and sensitivity if at all possible.

Anger is a useful way of exhibiting distancing behaviour and therefore a great defence (‘I wish I had never met you’ or ‘I’ve wasted the best years of my life’) and is a lot easier to manage than the underlying emotion which is usually great sadness.

Do avoid the ‘Lets be friends’ route. It is possible, but unlikely at this point and usually a lot easier once some time has passed to allow you to become separate individuals again.

If you have loved, then never allow an ending to eclipse what you have had. It does no justice to either of you or your relationship.
The wonderful songwriter Carol King celebrates this in the poignant ‘It’s Too Late’ – singing, ‘Still, I’m glad for what we had and how I once loved you’

But before the final blow, take time to evaluate. Relationship counselling is not always driven by the need to remain a couple, and insights can facilitate a less painful and more creative ending.
Sometimes it also becomes apparent that with time and kindness, people will come to realise that a little work can help them to understand the reasons underlying what has changed and to find a different and better way forward together.

Christina Fraser

Wedding Season

It’s wedding season and there are thousands of newspaper articles, magazines and blogs advising couples on how to plan the perfect wedding.
Most couples focus on the big day but neglect the bigger question of what they’re expecting from their marriage. Couples would be wise to invest time and energy
in their marriage as well as their wedding day because the day will pass but the marriage, hopefully, will last a very long time.

More and more couples are finding it helpful to have counselling before their big day. Taking time to invest in a relationship’s future enables a couple to move into marriage with their eyes wide open. It allows them to ask the hard questions before tying the knot. Exploring issues both in the present and anticipating those that might pop up in the future, gives couples a better understanding in communicating clearly with each other as they begin their lives together.

Some questions couple might be asking themselves before entering into marriage are:

1. What is communication like right now?
2. When conflict arises how do we address issues together?
3. What are our expectations for the future?
4. How will finances be managed together?
5. Are sexual expectations compatible?
6. Have children and parenting ever been discussed?
7. What are the roles in the marriage going to be?
8. Are your lifestyles compatible?
9. How do you visualise your lives in the future?

If these questions are difficult to talk about, perhaps taking time to have a few sessions with a couples therapist can help address these concerns and provide the best possible start for a new marriage.

Shirlee Kay