Author Archive for Coupleworks

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

Depression and the Couple Relationship

Like many I was impressed with the way in which Prince Harry talked so honestly about the struggles he has had since his mother died and how he came close to a complete breakdown on a number of occasions. Last week’s Mental Health Awareness Week has also made more people aware that in England one in six people will be affected in any given week by a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression.

Therapists, whether working with individuals or couples, are very familiar with the way in which depression in particular can be the trigger that brings people into our consulting rooms. Historically if you were feeling low and that life wasn’t worth living, you went to your GP who would prescribe anti-depressant medication or counselling or indeed both. The patient might then seek individual counselling or therapy for their malaise. However in working with couples part of the challenge is to explore how the depression as a presenting problem is worked out in the couple relationship – in other words whose depression is it anyway?

Of course the origins of depression are complex and varied. As therapists we are aware of the differing contributions that biology, genes, hormones, seasonal factors, personality, stress and social triggers can make to the onset and maintenance of depression and the fact that these may vary from patient to patient.

Over the last five years, after NICE identified the potential role of couple relationships in triggering, maintaining and resolving depression, an integrative behaviourally based 20 session model has been developed, which is now being made more generally available in IAPT services in the NHS.
What studies have demonstrated is that, in cases of mild to moderate depression, where couples are treated together in therapy, there are significant levels of relief from the depression in the depressed partner. It may be hard for the non-depressed partner to recognise that anything they are doing is making matters worse, but what this model does is to highlight the interaction between the couple as being potentially a contributing factor rather than identifying one of the partners or the depression itself as the problem. By doing this it breaks the vicious cycle that couples find themselves stuck in and often find it impossible to break.

Couple therapy explores how each individuals early attachment patterns and how they learnt, or did not learn, to be close, together with looking at some of the ways in which emotions and feelings were dealt with in their families of origin. Communication skills are then modeled and facilitated. As each partner learns to understand and be curious about the other’s emotional world, the couple develop empathy and acceptance for each other and move towards each other rather than being polarised. They can begin to see the ways in which they miscommunicate and misunderstand each other and how this leads to increased stress in their relationship and to each of them feeling unsupported.

Working with both partners to help them to find some positive caring behaviours each can do for the other generates an increase in positive feeling in their relationship and can help to address the focus on negativity.

Both clients and doctors, and indeed society in general are quite wedded to the idea that there is very much an identified patient in couples where one of the partners is depressed. From my experience of both working with couples and as a supervisor of practitioners working with this model, I have found by adopting this approach and alleviating some of the distress in the couples system, it often goes a long way towards lifting the more depressed partner and increases the well being of their couple relationship.

Sarah Fletcher

This blog has been adapted from an article originally published by BACP in the Private Practice Magazine in March 2017.

Trauma and the Couple

‘The effects of unresolved trauma can be devastating. It can affect our habits and outlook on life, leading to addictions and poor decision-making. It can take a toll on our family life and interpersonal relationships. It can trigger real physical pain, symptoms, and disease. And it can lead to a range of self-destructive behaviours. But trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence.’ (Peter A.Levine: ‘Healing Trauma’)

Counsellors in Coupleworks frequently work with couples who are struggling to deal with the repercussions of traumatic life events. Depending on our backgrounds, past experiences, and psychological states of mind, we respond in our own unique way to the impact of sudden, shocking or distressing events and couples can be upset, confused and shaken when the other’s response seems alien and the opposite of their own. For example, the death of someone much-loved can cause one person to shut down, close off and withdraw, and appear unavailable at the very time their partner is looking for connection and support.

We can all become overwhelmed by powerful reactions to difficult childhood experiences, violent intrusion, attack, abuse, loss and bereavement. The critical factor seems to be that at the time we had a perception of helplessness, a sense of disconnection from our usual effective competent self, and a feeling that we had lost the ability to deal with the incident. The pain, the shock, the level of threat experienced, and the sense of incapacity, causes the brain to release a flood of adrenaline and cortisol and react with a ‘Flight’, ‘Fight’ or ‘Freeze’ response. We are not in control of this reaction and symptoms can be observed in disconcerting bodily reactions: either overwrought physical hyperarousal – or denial, numbness, dissociation, immobility and freezing.

Peter Levine explains that, not dealt with, these aftereffects can be evident and ever-present. Or they can be unstable – ‘they can come and go and can be triggered by stress. Or they can remain hidden for decades and suddenly surface… They can grow increasingly complex over time and can even feel unconnected with the original trauma.’ There can be a detrimental effect on mental health and the development of psychosomatic illness.

It can be particularly confusing for a couple when re-enactments are played out in their relationship but they are not aware of the trigger. They have not made the link to the trauma that is the source. It can result in each partner feeling bewildered, hurt and disconnected. A seemingly unbridgeable gulf of misunderstanding opens up and they feel lost and emotionally unavailable to each other.
For example, it can feel lonely and hard to reach a partner suffering from a distressing bleak depression. A frightening rift can be created when a partner turns to alcohol or drugs in order to obliterate the pain. Angry or violent outbursts are terrifying and disturbing. Complaint and critical attack fosters resentment and negativity erodes good will.

Careful and sensitive relationship counselling can aid recovery. Appropriate and gentle guidance towards approaches for dealing with the distress can create understanding. Peter Levine again: ‘It is not necessary to consciously remember an event to heal from it.’ But it is important that it is addressed and managed in a supportive environment. With the recognition of their resilience, and of the love, care and concern that they hold for each other, the couple can emerge from their difficulties to establish a deeper more fulfilling relationship.

Kathy Rees

Couple Therapy can help with Mental Health Issues

Mental Health Awareness week takes place from 8-14 May and this year’s theme is ‘Surviving or Thriving’. Since 2005 mental health problems are on the rise – we are making progress on our physical health but not doing the same with our mental health. Thanks to journalists and TV programmes speaking out against the stigma of mental health, our awareness is being heightened as to the effects of mental health issues on daily lives. Thanks to Prince Harry leading the charge of his own experience of depression and anxiety and his work with the Heads Together Campaign with The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge they have highlighted the importance and power of conversation and how being able to talk openly about mental health challenges can be life changing. It now seems a good time to think about how mental health issues impact on our couple relationships.

Mental Health Professionals tend to focus on symptoms and treatments with the individual and overlook the huge impact this has on our couple relationships. Any couple relationship can have its proverbial ups and downs but what about when there is the extra challenge of being the partner of someone who has a mental illness. Losing harmony and connection in a relationship is difficult enough but especially so if some of the relationship changes are brought about by one or both partners developing mental health issues. Things can be very challenging for a partner without mental illness who has to assume a care giving role

Most people fall in love because they are enjoying each other’s company, have fun together and live harmoniously. Life doesn’t always work out as planned. When a partner becomes depressed, they often tune out, withdraw and have little energy to do much except sleep. This can often give the impression to a partner that they are no longer cared about, and there is no interest in them, or going out or having sex. This often leaves the other partner having to pick up the slack especially if there are children. As frustration and exhaustion develop over time, this often turns to anger and resentment at a partner who cant seem to “get over ‘ the depression. If this pattern continues it can often lead to affairs and a complete breakdown of the relationship.

Issues with mental health can be debilitating and its important that partners recognise some of the signs that suggest a partner is suffering:
signs to look out for:
withdrawal
agitation
hopelessness
acute tiredness
poor self care
change in personality

In my work with couples I see how a healthy relationship can serve as a buffer to help ward off mental health conditions. Equally it is well documented that relationship stress can negatively affect the person who is struggling with mental illness and make the condition worse.

We all come to our adult relationships with conscious and unconscious patterns from our own experiences and feelings around mental health. For example growing up with a parent or family member who may have been depressed, anxious or suicidal can greatly influence how we manage mental health issues in our current partnerships.

Couples coping with some mental health issues are not that different from other couples in therapy. Often individuals experienced a difficult childhood, a history of low self esteem and lack of confidence, trauma and loss. Although many of these things happened in the past, they often find a way of infiltrating the couple relationship resulting in on-going conflict. They too develop patterns of poor communication, increased conflict and loss of intimacy. They too have got stuck in negative cycles leaving them feeling distant, helpless and sad.

Give therapy a try

Coming to Couples Therapy with your partner is a positive step forward. Every Mental Health issue presents its own unique challenge and can be complicated and testing on our relationships. It requires special attention in couples therapy from a skilled couples therapist to help give clarity to the situation.

Finding a qualified couples therapist is a valuable option to help explore the roots of the mental health issues and to try and understand how it affects each partner. At Coupleworks we pride ourselves in taking care to consult with the patients GP, primary care worker or psychiatrist so that we can all work together for the patient to bring about change. We don’t have to just Survive we can learn to Thrive.

Dawn Kaffel

A Spender or a Saver?

Learn to negotiate your money, the biggest pitfall in couple life

Forget the chores, the sex and even the in-laws, it is the unsolvable disagreements about money that research now shows to be the biggest source of serious difference leading to separation in couples. Interestingly, a recent YouGov survey puts problems with family finances at 26% of all difficulties. This comes ahead of understanding each other, physical relationships and household chores. So it’s well worth sorting this one out early in the relationship if it appears to overtake sex and the washing up.

Of course it’s not just about coinage – this just highlights deeper tensions, but exploring what is really at the heart of these rows can be vital in helping to save relationships.

Couples who come for counselling will often bring lists of perceived slights or grievances, but money is often not flagged up as an immediate problem. Yet it is pivotal as part of how we see ourselves and others. Money defines us, it can denote our place in society and will reflect to a large degree how others see us. Like it or not, It can influence how we dress, where we live and our perceived status in the world we inhabit.

Therapists dealing with couples will usually ask for a family tree to make better sense of each clients origins, influences and the relationship history that can shape future hopes and expectations.
Dig a little deeper and the way families deal with their assets can have a long lasting effect on their dependents.

We hear of parents or grandparents who made or lost a fortune. People who watched a hard working father lose his job, or get into debt. Clients who were raised by an alcoholic parent who spent recklessly on drink or drugs. Siblings who seemed favoured by ‘unfair’ levels of gifts or education. Bullying that appeared to be influenced by seemingly different lifestyles to classmates.
These are powerful messages absorbed in childhood and will have strong influences on how each of us decides to deal with our assets.
Money can be seen as security – a buffer against feared future calamities or it can signify a life enhancing conduit to fun and good things.

Spend or save? This can be where couples find it impossible to find a solution. Therapy can offer a safe place unpick the reasons behind these deeply ingrained beliefs. Arguments about money are not usually about money, they are about protecting hopes and dreams and can escalate horribly when people feel dismissed or not understood. We may define ‘value’ in many different ways and its vital to grasp what the other hears in this word. Couples need to dig beneath the obvious and try to understand the emotional content of what can seem a purely practical issue.
In the rosy glow of a new relationship, we often assume that we shall just mysteriously understand and be understood. Transparency around finances is an important foundation to any long term relationship.

It’s impossible to change the deeper messages that we all inherited from the way our families dealt with their own problems, but we can listen to each other with tolerance. The acceptance of what shaped the views of a partner who appears to see things fundamentally differently, can give insights that will lead to better understanding.
Sometimes, it’s not just about the money, but it is about what the money signifies. So discuss calmly with an open mind to find a better way.

Christina Fraser

Spring brings new possibilities.

 

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”
― Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

Spring has sprung and showing signs of new shoots.  Spring cleaning living accommodation can be arduous but satisfying so the same can also be applied to couples and their relationships.

Over winter, with the sometimes tense gathering of families at Christmas, New Year, birthdays and indoor life, things can need re configuring to make them feel more peaceful.  We need peace even in a group in order to carry out whatever choices we have made in life.

With our social, family and work companions, we need ways to make social intercourse feel free and flowing.  In winter those interactions can become clogged and uneasy.  Spring with all its energy can teach us about warmth, new growth, pruning old and tired stems, sowing wildflower seeds (this could be deemed as taking a risk) and changing plants around to create a better scene.

A walk in Spring as a couple or as a family can help to awaken our minds to new ideas. To look at each other and see how we can alter things which have felt  monotonous in order to freshen our lives.  Moving furniture around, trying a new class together, encouraging children or ourselves to try a new sport or to learn a new instrument.  Cook together or choose a different nights for each family member to be in charge of the shopping, cooking and serving the meal.  Wash up together while talking about everyone’s experiences during the day.  Listen to or share the difficulties faced and give or receive energy to meet the next day.

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste  adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”[Meditations Divine and Moral]”
― Anne BradstreetThe Works of Anne Bradstreet

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” ― Mark Twain

Clare Ireland

The Value of Knowing We Can Be Wrong

I was reading an article in the Times this weekend about Intellectual Humility and people’s willingness to accept the possibility that their beliefs and attitudes might be wrong.

Research shows that “At the high end of the trait are people who recognise their beliefs are fallible and are willing to consider the possibility that they are incorrect”.
“At the low end of the trait, people are generally convinced that their views are correct”. Saying this, most of us lie somewhere in between.

Although I am sure the article is written with Donald Trump in mind, it started me thinking about the difficulty most couples have in accepting different points of view from that of their partner’s.

Couples in therapy often spend too much time arguing their point rather than accepting and listening to each other. Many of my clients talk about needing to be heard by their partner. The desire to be listened to and understood is the foundation of a strong and loving relationship and helps a person feel valued and respected.

Here are some tips for healthy Intelligent Humility:

Listen to your partner. Go into the discussion with an open mind and before interrupting, listen and mirror (say) back what you think you heard. Ask your partner if this is what they meant and listen further if there’s more. Not an easy task and requires the patience of a saint.

Do not assume you know what is about to be said. Clear your mind before coming up with your own narrative. Again, this takes patience and requires a lot of breathing!

Be curious and lean into the understanding that there is not only one-way of seeing an issue. Ask questions and ask yourself about where you might have learned these views, reflect on whether these views are still useful.

Have compassion towards your own feelings and argue your views but do it with sympathy and an open mind.
Remember, we can feel triggered and therefore defensive when we are up against a different point of view so move forward gently.

Shirlee Kay