Author Archive for Coupleworks

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

Couples on holiday.

Before taking time to think about what you hope for on a holiday, try to align your expectations to how you are as a couple at home.  Most couples are having to compromise, acknowledge and deal with difference, communicate feelings without paying a price and think about what early experiences are triggering between the couple and becoming familiar arguments without resolution.  A holiday will be the same two people with the same personalities having more couple time than at home.

Beyond the first couple of days in a holiday location when everything is different the same issues when buttons are pressed, resurface.  Make allowances for the 24/7 exposure to each other. Even if you both work at home…there will be boundaries about space, intrusion and needs.

Descending into disagreements can happen quickly in an unfamiliar place.  It is interesting to note that the ‘dream holiday’ is often seen as experiencing exciting and romantic new ways together.  Yet one of the common anxieties on holiday is about something wrong with accommodation or food or unaccustomed noise.  So while longing for change from everyday life at home, the unfamiliarity can become a trigger for a row.

Both people are different, have different ideas, needs and anxieties, usually rooted somewhere before they met.  This will always be the case and it will be inflammatory to try and change each other.  The romantic and intimate thing would be to celebrate the difference.

A few common things to discuss before setting off may be useful.  This illustrates how people approach situations in their own unique way.

On time for travel with extra time for calm.

or

Running to departure as the doors are closing.

 

Queuing at check out with luggage to cover every need and eventuality.

or

Preferring to travel with a small carry on pack and boarding pass.

 

Chilling on a beach, dipping in and out of the water with a good book.

or

Needing to do ‘stuff’, see buildings and see everything educational in the area.

 

Planning meals in restaurants and wiling away the day in between.

or

Wanting simple salads in the evening and enjoying a picnic lunch.

Flights, trains and encountering traffic during car journeys are all beyond your control.  This common fear needs to be handled by sharing the unknown as a couple and not as an individual.  Both sides can then feel taken care of and less agitated.

A survey in 2016 said that 60% of couples questioned admit to fighting on holiday and shattering the dream.  The advice given was to try and mirror your contact at home.  Don’t feel the need to be glued together.  Do some separate daytime pursuits, discussed the day before and meet later to eat together and discuss your day

The holiday arena is only a minefield of disappointments if there is no discussion beforehand about different expectations.

These are only a few suggestions to help towards harmony and growth of intimacy for the ongoing couple.

Adding the energy of small children,  teenage and parental usage of mobile devices to the mix would be enough copy for another blog.  In the Christmas holidays, where previous blogs have covered the skill needed to make a family Christmas go somewhere near to everyone in the groups’ expectations, there are more suggestions for helping the dream to happen.

Clare Ireland

Couples and Marriage

Over the next few weeks thousands of weddings, both of heterosexual and same sex couples, will be taking place up and down the country. The summer has been the most popular time to get married for many decades and with the British weather, that’s unlikely to change.

But what has changed is how people view their wedding day. Until around the 1970’s what was widely held to be the norm was that marriage provided the gateway to the whole experience of living together and sharing a single home. But the large majority of couples today have already been living together for some years before they tie the knot. So what is it that they see themselves doing? In my experience, most couples feel they have reached a point where they can take the risk of declaring to themselves and to others that they wish to be married. Of course other factors can be in play. They may want to provide what they see as a more secure base to have children. Sometimes too there is a hope that marriage will resolve problems in a relationship that already exist. But for most, getting married is a statement that their relationship is now sufficiently permanent to celebrate and give ongoing stability to.

They also think that the ceremony itself won’t make any difference to their day-to-day relationship and are often surprised to find tensions and difficulties surfacing. The reasons for this are often complex. For some making the public commitment proves to be profoundly unsettling, triggering memories and unconscious feelings of their own family experiences. The net result is that they are taken aback that at the point when they announce stability they feel de-stablised.

Therapy offers a place to talk through expectations, to explore and understand what might have been triggered and to work through these disappointments. This gives couples the opportunity they need to confront the reality that there is no end point to growth in a relationship but they will need to continue to work together on it throughout their lives.

Couples can begin to explore possible difficulties by talking through:

• Expectations of what marriage means

• How that is different in your mind – or not – from co-habiting

• What your experience was as a child of your parent’s marriage

• How would you like yours to be similar or different

 

Sarah Fletcher

Coupleworks, Counselling, Difference and Sex

Couples often come into counselling describing their struggle to manage the conflict provoked by manifest differences.

The beginning of a relationship is often a time of revelling in the similarities: the shared values and interests, the feeling of being known. Differences are minimised and can even seem exciting and enriching. The reassurance of connection and understanding is more important.

As the relationship grows and deepens the demands made upon it reveal the complexities and intricacies. The complexity of the partner’s character also becomes more apparent. Anxiety can arise when certain needs of each partner seem in opposition. The couple can get stuck in a negative behaviour pattern of trying to get the other person to change and fit in.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sexual relationship.

In her recent book ‘Come As You Are’, Emily Nagoski stresses the importance of accepting differences instead of being negatively judgemental and critical (of oneself as well as the partner). She suggests that a basic assumption should be that everyone’s body is different and everyone’s reactions are different. They are what they are!

She also draws the conclusion that, in a heterosexual relationship, there are basic gender differences which should be celebrated and not denied. Men and women are different! Her research shows that a woman’s sexual response often does not follow the same pattern as a man’s sexual response. And it can be so liberating when that is understood and accommodated. Women can frequently be more context sensitive. She may be more open to experiencing desire when there is closeness, connection and acceptance. She finds pleasure as a result of responsive desire. Sex is not context dependent. But pleasure for a woman is often context dependent.

Nagoski debunks many of the myths that can cause confusion, misunderstanding, and distress in a couple’s sexual relationship. The most destructive myth is the existence of a standardised ‘normal’. ‘‘Sexual arousal, desire and orgasm are nearly universal experiences, but when and how we experience them depends largely on the sensitivities of our ’brakes’ and ’accelerators’ and on the kind of stimulation they are given… We’re all made of the same parts, but in each of us, those parts are organised in a UNIQUE way that changes over our life span.’’

‘’In the right context, sexual relationships can be pleasurable, bond us with partners, flood us with happy chemicals, and satisfy deep biological urges. But the brain’s perception of sensation is context dependent. If you are stressed you tense and your brain is vigilant to threat. When you are relaxed you are open to erotic reaction. Same sensation, different context, and different perception and reaction.
Nagoski describes the best context as high affection, low stress, and concordant eroticism. She suggests that we all need to be cognizant that sexual arousal is the process of both turning up the ‘’ons’’ and turning down the ‘’offs’’.

Differences can be celebrated when it is not how your sexuality functions, but how you feel about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your partner. The context determines whether sex is characterised by confidence and joy. Context also can create anxiety as you become the ‘spectator’ to the event, focussed on ‘not good enough’, ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and preconceptions of ‘normal’.

Coupleworks works sensitively with clients when discussing sexuality and the sexual relationship that is uniquely right for them.

Kathy Rees

The Importance of Fathers Day

After the election chaos, the atrocities of the London bombings and yesterdays fire disaster in Grenfell Tower, Fathers Day on Sunday comes as a welcome relief. A celebration first observed in Washington in 1910 to honour fathers and father figures, step fathers, grandfathers and fathers in law. Many families go to great efforts to make special plans, send messages, cards and gifts, to celebrate fatherhood up and down the country.

Fathers’ day provides an opportunity for children to express their love and respect for their fathers’ and acknowledge the important role they play which strengthens the father child bond. However it can also be a time of mixed emotions where there may be an absent father or one who is only seen occasionally. Other male role models may be more reliable and present than the real father.

In our counselling rooms Fathers’ Day gives clients an opportunity to think of the significance of fathers in their lives and perhaps take time out to remember fathers if they are no longer around.

The role of father is often relegated to secondary status compared to a mother. But a father is just as important for a child as a mother is. However research shows that fathers are engaged in caretaking than ever before due to mothers working, longer hours, and there is more recognition of the importance the role of a father plays in family life

Role of fathers
Children depend on a father for emotional physical financial and social wellbeing. For daughters a father is the first man they love and for sons a father is the man they aspire to.
Fathers are central to the emotional well-being of their children. Having an affectionate supportive and involved father can contribute greatly to a child’s language and social development, self-confidence, academic achievement and positive opinions of men.

What a father means to his daughter
A fathers ‘influence on his daughters life shapes her confidence, and her self-esteem and sets an example to her about men.
In her book Women and their Fathers: The Sexual and Romantic impact of the First Man in your Life, Victoria Secunda suggests that those women who grow up with a remote and aloof father and do not feel affirmed by their father, tend to respond to men in their lives like they responded to their elusive father: they seek out the intimacy they didn’t receive from their father, but are unable to believe they can trust their partners to deliver.
Working as a counsellor I see many clients of both sexes whose sense of worth as an individual is rooted in their experience of their fathers. How some re-enact their struggles with their fathers onto their adult partners and how having an absent father can remain such a significant influence.

What a father means to his son
The father-son relationship can be complex. Boys tend to model themselves on their fathers. They look for their fathers’ approval in everything they do. They copy those behaviours that they recognise. Boys who have an actively involved father tend to develop securely with a strong sense of self.

If a father is loving and supportive, boys will want to be that and if fathers are controlling, and dominating those could be patterns that boys take into their adult relationships.

So on this Fathers’ Day, especially after the turmoil of the last few weeks take this opportunity to recognise and reward fathers for being there and playing an important role in your lives. Fathers’ need to feel they are special too!

Dawn Kaffel

Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Addictive behaviours draw in other family members. There will be instinctive reactions in concerned onlookers of anyone with an eating disorder. The Maudsley Hospital in South London have developed a range of descriptive animal metaphors to clearly illustrate the likely responses of carers, and better help them to recognize their natural and typical reactions.

How do you react? There are three basic BEHAVIOURAL types that carers may adopt as a result of the confusion and anxiety they feel.

KANGAROO CARE is the response to a loved one’s seemingly fragile, physical state. It may feel tempting to try to draw them in, to protect them as if in a safe pouch. Kangaroo carers do everything they can to support. They will do anything to try and coax or tempt their loved one, with tenderness and special treats. Sadly, the downside is that it infantalises and can remove the challenge of the difficult return to reality.

RHINOCEROS RESPONSE is the understandable frustration that leads to analyzing, persuading and convincing. This so easily ends in a loss of tolerance and patience and then to arguments – as if trying to charge at, and smash, the disordered behavior.
The negative side is that force brings up all the distorted, eating disordered thinking of counter-agreements as a defense – or it allows the person to feel they could never overcome their situation without assistance

THE DOLPHIN illustrates the most helpful approach. Eating disordered people can feel all at sea, and the condition is their life belt because they feel the world is a stressful and dangerous place. The dolphin sometimes swims ahead leading and guiding the way, sometimes just being encouragingly alongside, nudging from time to time.

The other dimension of the relationship is the EMOTIONAL response, and again animal metaphors can illustrate these.

THE OSTRICH covers the family members who find any kind of challenge or confrontation too tricky. The temptation is to ignore the behaviour or absent themselves completely from the situation. This way they don’t have to admit the seriousness of what is happening.

THE JELLYFISH is engulfed in an intense and transparent emotional response. Sometimes it is just through fear that accompanies misunderstandings or false interpretations. It is only too easy to still hold the historic belief that somehow they have failed as parents or siblings, leading to sensitive or tearful reactions.

ST BERNARD DOG is the emotional ideal. Consistent, reliable and dependable in all circumstances. The St Bernard stays calm even when feeling threatened by the situation. He is warm and nurturing.

Most people will weave in and out of these behaviours – sometimes understandably succumbing to extremes, but it can be helpful to remember that intense emotional reactions are normal when dealing with situations that touch us deeply. Keeping in mind these goals can help when options feel limited.

Christina Fraser

Beware of the safety of Echo Chambers

We are probably all guilty in some way about only reading opinions which back up our thoughts on issues most of us can do nothing about anyway. We read the same newspapers and watch the programmes which back up our standpoint. We stick to our opinion on subjects which we only partially know about. We argue among friends about controversial happenings around us and in the world with often little hands on experience or knowledge about the subject or cultural practices we are discussing.

We feel comforted by and veer towards the friendships of people who seem to be of the same mind. By doing this we enter an echo chamber where opposing ideas are not welcome and where we feel safe. Without the echo, the feeling in the space can become hostile.

When this begins to happen with couples, it is a warning signal that all is not well. Coming up against a brick wall becomes the norm and echoes fade into a forgotten land.

In our consulting rooms this can be a signal that certain important bonding factors have become lost. This can tell us that the sexual side of the couple has somehow vanished, or one side of the couple is more successful in their presentation to their world than the other. Or respect, admiration and acceptance of difference has become lost and been replaced with spite, hurt, detachment and loss of attraction. Interested curiosity about the other’s difference…so seductive at the outset of a relationship disappears and is replaced by criticism, competition and argument.

The lost sexual passion in the couple becomes replaced by opposite opinions and ‘telling’ without discussion. Voices raise in order to be heard and ears shut to debate and reception of alternate possibilities. The discussion turns into a heated fight. Profound statements are made with no other foundation of fact than what has been written by a journalist, writer or film maker who shares the same approach to a subject, often based on hearsay and seldom by hard facts and experience in the first place.

The safety of an echo chamber is longed for but it may not be the place for resolution.

The early seduction game played by both sides of the couple which used to be about listening, learning and admiring your partner’s knowledge, turns into automatic disagreement and fighting corners. Being interested even if not converted and learning from the different approach encourages attraction and intimacy. Ugly and antagonistic slanging matches kills the couple trust and containment. Intimacy comes when there is someone who bears you in mind making a special place for you and your different viewpoint.

It can be very attractive to listen and hear what your partner feels about outside events which affect the world, yet all the time blending and moving with ideas as opposed to laying down the law and killing dialogue. Bringing back a remark you have thought about but not entirely agreed with by saying, “What you said to your friend made me really proud of you. I don’t follow that view but it has made me think and I am grateful for that”.

Other couples can pick up on their friends who have maintained the early respect for each other’s difference and often quote their envy of this seemingly natural flow between them. When in the presence of this atmosphere it can spread to others who have lost that
exchange and find they can regain that link to each other without either entering the safety of the echo chamber or descending into vitriol. They find the middle way.

Clare Ireland

Adulting

The term Adulting has been thrown around on social media for the past few years and many of the definitions are often ladened with their own inference and judgement. One definition defines Adulting (v): to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as, a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups. Used in a sentence: Jane is Adulting quite well today as she is on time for work and appears well groomed. The Oxford Dictionary defines Adulting as the Practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks: As Modifier: I finished all my Adulting requirements for the week.

‘Adulting’ over social media, for instance, seems to be at the heart of most people’s irritation with the young, fuelling their contempt, adding to the argument that the young are unable to cope with discomfort and struggle with the challenges life throws at them. I admit that I bought into this narrative for years. However, I have recently revised my opinion. Now I see willingness by this generation to admit their struggles and take steps to address the situation in a way that best makes sense to them: seeking help. This is important; going to a therapist translates, to some, as “not being able to cope” or more scathingly, “weak and pathetic”. It misses the point that the Millennials have different way of seeing things and a very different experience growing up from that of their parents. These differences, in themselves, are not the problem; it’s the acceptance of these differences. Parents don’t want to be judged by their children and neither do the young.

It’s easy to be disparaging about Millennials and ridicule them as they struggle to cope with the realities of being an adult. But this approach quickly becomes a cliche; isn’t it far more useful to take time to understand what is going on? I sometimes wonder if much of the cynicism directed at the young has more to do with the fact that they actually voice the feelings of how challenging being an adult can sometimes be because the reality is that most young people are hardworking and responsible adults. Perhaps it is the older generation’s need for the young to struggle in the same way they did. It might be more useful for that generation to take into account that the challenges of the young are very different from their own experiences.

The couples I see in my practice are hard working and responsible. Do they struggle? Yes, but what I walk away with is a sense that their struggles can be known, not hidden and ignored. They don’t feel as though they need to ‘suck it up’ and suffer in silence perhaps the way their parents did. Do they sometimes go on about it too much? Absolutely. But like all change, the swing of the pendulum sometimes sounds extreme. The secret might be to look at the grumblings as part of the process the young are going through. As most adults (finally) learn, acceptance is at the heart of being fully grown up!

Shirlee Kay