Author Archive for Coupleworks

Being a couple therapist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland

Couples Come in Many Surprising Ways

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

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

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

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

Shirlee Kay

Mothers’ Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

Communication: it comes in many forms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Rees

Can Long Distance Relationships Work for Couples

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Kaffel

Stuck Couples

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

Christina Fraser

Longevity and long term couples.

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

The Four Agreements: Simple Rules for Good Relationships

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

 

After listening to Oprah’s talk

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

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

Below are the Four Agreements…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirlee Kay

12 Rules for Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

Couples and Conversations about Sex

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

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

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

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

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

It’s good to talk!

Kathy Rees

A Couple Check List for the New Year

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

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

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

Here are some things to think about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The importance of keeping your sexual energy alive and growing

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

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

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

Dawn Kaffel

Smart phones – addictive behaviour or social connection

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

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

Christina Fraser

Tips for surviving Christmas

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

Present giving between partners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland.

Give thanks on Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirlee Kay

Are things what they seem?

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

We’ve got to go through it….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Rees

Stress and the Couple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does stress affect a relationship?

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

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

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

How to stay connected under stress

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Kaffel

Illness and the Relationship

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

Christina Fraser

Rubber stamping.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland