Memory

It is now six weeks since the moving and emotional D-Day landing anniversary which made people in Europe and the wider world stand still and marvel about the courage, bravery and sense of purpose shown by men, some of whom were just out of, or having lied about their age, still in boyhood.

I could have written this on June 6th, instead of my blog posted on the 10th on another subject, in order to try and capture the mood of the moment.  It is said that the technical world has made things hard to store in memory but I wonder if this is accurate about the things which really matter.  That being the reason for pausing before writing.

Working with couples in my Coupleworks practice, I marvel at the perseverance of two people trying to find solutions to their apparently insolvable difficulties.  I see how memory can affect them and have influence on their adult lives and communication with others without them being consciously aware.

Sometimes, a couple can  bring  a problem or problems which seem to be defeating them. They feel unhappily stuck.  I ask them what memory they have about their first meeting.  This can bring tears of sadness about what they now feel is lost and irretrievable  When we look further into their story before they met and how the relationship grew it is often memory of something in their past which becomes conscious when one inadvertently ‘presses a button’ in the other.  This throwaway remark, not meant to wound can ignite something and cause a row out of all proportion to the original comment.

It is helpful, in a therapy session, if we unpick some of what might have happened.  Memories of earlier hurt from a source unknown to one and forgotten by the other start to uproot old pain, This insight is also helpful to individuals who come into therapy wondering why keeping a relationship is hard for them.

It can be useful  to explore what is going on inside their own memory bank rather than the temptation to tell their  partner what they think is happening to them.  Taking time out to think about what happened in a painful argument and try to locate the earlier hurt where memory is their aid.  It can be painful to remember things which seem better forgotten but the damage which can silently seep into the foundation of their intimate lives can be the clue to returning to how they felt when on their first date.  This time, however, it will enhance that first feeling rather than destroying the couple or individual seeking a partner.

Clare Ireland

Couples and Arguing

The Metro asked Coupleworks their views on couple’s arguing styles and the best ways for couples to argue. Here are our answers.

1. What are the main arguing styles someone can fall into?

Before distinguishing one arguing style to another it’s helpful to normalise “arguing”. Couples argue and it’s healthy to communicate one’s point of view. The problem isn’t that couples argue, it’s the way they argue. Learning to argue more consciously and with more awareness helps couples work through every day issues and then more challenging issues between them.

Arguing Styles:

Reactive Arguing: When couples reactive to one another they have been triggered and usually feel hurt and vulnerable. This is when they feel the need to protect themselves and react by withdrawing, stonewall, gaslight and often saying hurtful and damaging things to one another.
Reflective Arguing: This is when couples are conscious of their own feeling and are able to slow down and pause before responding. This is when couples are able to listen, acknowledge, see the others point of view, compromise and let their partner know that the argument isn’t endangering the relationship

2. Is one arguing style the healthiest, or better than another?

Reflective Arguing is more productive and loving for any relationship. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do and takes practice (yes, practice) and refinement throughout the relationship.

3. How can you identify which arguing style you are? 

Identifying the style (either reactive or reflective arguing) isn’t essential but what is important is that each person is attuned to their own feelings and work to identify them so they don’t default into reactive arguing. It’s obvious when an arguing style is not working for a couple because the conflicts are still there (but sometimes buried for a time until they come up again).

4. Why is identifying your arguing style important within a relationship?

I’m not sure it’s as important to identify your arguing style as much as it is to know yourself well. Therapy is one way of doing this but by no means the only way. The key is to learn to become connected to yourself so you can develop the muscle to slow down and reflect before reacting, pursuing or withdrawing from your partner.

It also means knowing when you might be wrong or stepping over the line when acting badly and apologising to your partner. Learning to think that your way of thinking or point of view is not ‘the only way’ is key.

5. How can you make sure your arguments are healthy in a relationship?

Start with the trust that arguing is not a threat but helps your relationship grow

Timing is everything. Don’t start arguing until you feel calm and understand what the issue is and how you feel about it. Communicate to your partner and let them know you need time to think about it, reassure them you will sort it out together.

Remember you are both vulnerable.

Don’t have expectations when coming into an argument. There are no should or shouldn’t. Be flexible in your thinking and don’t assume you’re right. Listen. Slow down and Reflect.

Stay on point. Talk about the issue and don’t get personal.

Be respectful to your partner. The golden rule to treat others as you would like to be treated has never been more true when arguing!

Shirlee Kay

Narcissism and the Couple

Over the past few weeks it has been difficult to ignore the amount of publicity and hype being given to ‘Killing Eve’.  Prior to the launch of the second series Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh featured in numerous articles and chat shows with huge speculation surrounding their relationship.  How attracted are they to each other?  Whilst ‘Eve’ may have stabbed ‘Villanelle’ at the end of the first series was this an end to what attracted them to each other, or was it a prelude to something ‘deeper’?

Although I’ve been watching the whole series on i-player I won’t spoil the story and I’ll leave you to speculate on the answer.  However as a therapist I am fascinated by their relationship to each other.  Clearly on one level Villanelle (Jodie) is portrayed as being the psychopathic assassin (or is it a sociopathic one) whilst Eve (Sandra) is a desk bound British Intelligence officer intent on bringing Villanelle’s killing to an end.  But dig a little deeper – ask the question about the narcissistic traits of both of them and the picture becomes more complicated.

Classically narcissism is defined in terms of the self-absorbed personality who always knows they are right, with a grandiose sense of their self-importance, and with fantasies of unlimited power, brilliance and achievement held in the face of contradictory evidence.  Villanelle qualifies superbly for that as a diagnosis.

However there is also another form of narcissism which is less well recognised that again focuses on a deluded self but which is bounded by vulnerability, fear of exposure and the need for attention and care.  

Of course it does not take much thought to realise that elements of both these descriptors exist in all of us.  ‘Normal narcissism’ is healthy in that it gives us a degree of self-belief and an ability to create a boundary between ourselves and others in social settings.  However it is in its extreme forms, at each end of the spectrum that things become more unhealthy and can lead to a difficulty in relating amongst other things.  In the case of Villanelle and Eve I’m not sure if either of them are capable of making the compromises and adjustments that are essential to any lasting relationship.   

As couple therapists we see not so much the pathological extremes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but the more troublesome elements of narcissism that get in the way of relationships.   For example a client may say: nothing is ever his fault; he’s never there for me: it’s always about him: he will never admit he is wrong. 

The challenges are about being able to allow a degree of vulnerability into a close relationship.  To the grandiose type narcissist this is about not always needing to be right and the best, but developing empathy and allowing the wisdom and value of their partner to take its place in the relationship.  For the vulnerable type narcissist it is about discovering and growing their sense of agency in the relationship and not always seeing themselves as victims.  For both types it’s about valuing ourselves in relation to another – being able to hold another person in mind.  This often stems from an insecure attachment in our early lives and the resultant struggle to practice relational thinking: of me in relation to you.

So what in practice does this mean? From my experience as a therapist I often find it’s the vulnerable type narcissist who presents in my consulting room as having problems with their partner.  The key intervention at that point is to explore as much as possible about them rather than focusing on the perceived shortcomings of their partner.

The same principle largely applies when a couple comes together to therapy.  It’s too easy to get locked into a blame scenario with each other avoiding their contribution to the breakdown of the relationship.  Changing the ‘dance’ does happen but only if each begins to recognise the part they are playing.  Of course the very nature of the more classical narcissistic personality means that they are not always very open to reflect about themselves in this way.

However, whilst we don’t change our personalities in therapy, significant and profound shifts can take place in our relationships as we change the way that we relate to others and the way that we think about ourselves.

Sarah Fletcher 

Anger and the Couple

Like a sniffer dog recognising the scent of explosives, we all learn to be alert to any hint of danger to our psychological well-being. Whenever we have a suspicion that our partner may be behaving in a way that makes us feel vulnerable, we move to defend ourselves against the threat.

Deep in our brain, the amygdala is responsible for recognising and responding to the perceived danger. It sends out an alarm so that we can be prepared to protect ourselves. It is responsible for the ‘act first, think later’ response. We become all about ‘reaction’ – and it is so rapid that there is no time to think about our behaviour or consider the consequences.

There is an almost instantaneous physiological reaction as the amygdala triggers a surge of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. There is an immediate change in both our physical and mental state as a result.

Cortisol increases our muscle tension, breathing and heart rate, blood flow and blood pressure. Our focus becomes intense and fixed on the danger. 

The next influence is our individual propensity to one of the stress responses of ‘Freeze’, ‘Flight’, or ‘Fight’.

So we might ‘go cold’ (freeze), avoid eye contact and close down, shrink inside, and be unable to think. We hope the danger will pass without us having to engage.

Or we might have an urge to escape and get away (flight). We might need actual physical separation and space; or our partner senses that we have become emotionally unavailable, become distant, and have withdrawn from actively engaging with them. We have retreated into our cave.

Alternatively, our default survival mechanism might be angry confrontation (fight). We become hostile or threatening (both verbally and physically); or we sulk and become passive aggressive. The assumption here is that ‘attack is the best form of defence’.

Sometimes anger is energising and allows us to recognise something is wrong. We can become assertive and work for change. But that can only happen when there is a balance of reaction from the cortex. This is the ‘rational’ part of the brain which is responsible for thinking and judgement.

Frequently, we lose the ability to think and the anger escalates and becomes destructive (and even violent and dangerous). Couples describe being caught up in a repetitive spiral of arguments that never get resolved. They easily lose control, and lose access to the competent, creative, problem-solving parts of themselves. It becomes all about ‘feelings’.

 Because anger masks the fear and anxiety that has provoked the reaction, the partner is oblivious to the underlying feelings of vulnerability and the actual issues are never addressed. It becomes about ‘the dirty cups’ and not about ‘I feel you don’t care enough about me’.

There is a ‘Catch 22’ situation where describing those feelings would increase the sense of panic. After all, the person we love is the person who has the ability to hurt us the most. But they are also the ones who could soothe and reassure if only we could let them. But anger blocks that. When we are aggressive they stand up to us in return. Or they just want to get away from us, and we remain misunderstood.

Relationship counselling offers a calm space to uncover and understand the underlying issues. A couple can discover why they react to certain triggers and think about alternative ways of responding. Paradoxically, exposing the vulnerability can strengthen the relationship. It can become a safe place not haunted and overwhelmed by past hurts. The love, care, trust and generosity in the relationship can be used to heal emotional wounds. Counselling can offer the opportunity of experimenting with managing angry feelings – and equip the couple with constructive, supportive coping strategies. 

Kathy Rees

Building and Repairing Trust

As we watch with varying degrees of disbelief the goings on between the Conservative candidates vying for the job of Prime Minister, it’s very difficult to believe that we can trust any of them to fulfil this important position.

Being able to trust your partner is one of the cornerstones of a healthy strong relationship.  Without trust it’s difficult to build a strong connection that helps deepen and grow a relationship.  We need trust to feel safe and secure and have confidence that our partners are there for us physically and emotionally.

Building trust in a partnership is a gradual process and requires commitment from both parties.  It is the foundation of any long term relationship and ensures confidence and security with each other.  It helps us cope with challenges that may arise in the future trusting that our partner is there by our side throughout more difficult and testing times.

Being able to trust ourselves is an important element in being able to trust a partner.  Perhaps you may have been hurt in the past, which may affect your ability to trust yourself and therefore others.

At Coupleworks we see many couples struggling with trust issues in their relationships for many different reasons such as money, addiction, texting, emotional and physical affairs. Trust is one of the easiest feelings to loose and the hardest to regain.  Without it couples find it hard to deepen their relationship.

How to build Trust – It’s worth checking out these pointers:

Are we there for each other?

Does your partner listen to you and is open with you?

Do you feel your partner supports you?

Do you feel genuinely cared about?

Do you feel its safe to talk about feelings and you don’t get a negative response?

Can you depend on your partner?

Is there consistency in what your partner says and how they behave?

What happens when we lose Trust

Not being open and honest with each other, keeping secrets erodes trust.

At times lack of trust can be something we experienced as children growing up in our family of origin. This imprint we can take into our adult relationships and may make us feel more vulnerable around trust issues. It’s important to understand whether the mistrust is a pre-existing condition or something that has developed in the relationship due to the behaviour of your partner.

Believing that your partner does not have your best interests at heart can lead to a lack of trust creeping into your relationship.  

Losing trust in one another can be damaging and long lasting often creating wounds and scars that prevent closeness and intimacy growing between partners.  

Betrayal of trust such as an affair can lead to trauma and injury.

Affairs can completely rock a marriage. According to psychotherapist Esther Perel while infidelity can shatter trust, it doesn’t mean couples cant find a way to rebuild trust in their relationships.

How to repair Trust

Understanding this is a crisis in a relationship

Consider each other’s views and feelings and listen to each other calmly

Engage in positive and constructive discussion 

Strong shared motivation to work together to resolve the issue

Understanding and appreciating the damage caused

The more effort put into the repair process the more you will make it through the crisis

Sometimes, despite all efforts, repairing a relationship when trust has been tested is not possible, seeing a couples counsellor may be a good idea if you are stuck and unable to move forward.

“The most precious thing in the world is trust – without trust you have nothing – with it you can do great things”

Dawn Kaffel

Why the Father-Daughter Relationship is so important

With Father’s Day still in our sights it’s worth reiterating the pivotal importance of the paternal role.

In therapy, it becomes so clear that dads sometimes underestimate their influence on growing daughters. And women who have grown up with disappointing or punitive fathers can carry the impact of this into their adult relationships with male partners.

Mothers are historically seen as primary role models for daughters, and sometimes the significance of the father’s influence can initially appear to be more shadowy.

Where there is not a ‘present dad’ – then a secondary male can step in. Never underestimate the influence of grandfathers, uncles or good family friends.

The first important man in a small girl’s world will be this male figure. Children will regard themselves as they imagine others regard them. Women begin to find their sense of acceptance and value as a result of these early messages from their fathers. Adult male validation is an absolutely vital part of a young girl in gaining self-esteem.

The first family unit is where we all learn our powers of negotiation. Those who come from conflict averse or overly critical parenting will not easily be able to learn the value of safely expressing their own opinions. The father who is too powerful, or too passive, will not allow a woman a sense of safety when finding her voice with later male relationships.

Learning that her thoughts are valid and worth attention (even if not agreed with) is a good life lesson for any girl and being listened to will mean that she, in turn, will find it easier to listen.

Believing that her opinions count will help a girl to learn how to be assertive. This differs from sounding aggressive, which is more likely to stem from combative behaviour arising from early feelings of powerlessness.

Offering safe male attention is one of a fathers best legacies to a daughter. Understanding boundaries and privacy, and avoiding any negative or trite comments about her physical characteristics are essential.

Remember, the parents are the first couple that any child observes. How the father treats the mother is a powerful message. Parents who treat each other well, are companionable and can disagree (even heatedly) but resolve and safely make up will show daughters that this can be their expectation of a fair and respectful relationship in adult life.

Christina Fraser

One way therapy can help.

I feel admiration for my clients who decide to discuss their couple life with a therapist whom they trust. The trust is often a difficult thing because there may have been a breaking of trust earlier in either or both of the people in the couple’s lives. This will make the forming of trust over a period of sessions a very important and delicate part of the work.

Some couples will arrive at my Coupleworks practice with hope that the process will somehow magically resolve their presenting difficulty but realise over time that the magic becomes their own acceptance of the fact that they hold the key to the progress of a sense of repair and hope.

These feelings come about through better communication aided by the therapist who can listen and interpret their words with an independent ear and voice. The therapist should have no agenda with the couple other than helping to resolve repetitive issues which have become stuck. This could be compared to a log jam where the water is stuck on one side of the logs with only a stubborn dribble getting through a small outlet at the other. The therapeutic work together can free up the places where the logs got stuck and encourage the water to flow through in a steady passage. This in turn, helps to open different avenues where the water can flow and makes the whole picture look less constrained and trapped. The sight of a flowing river and free fall over a waterfall is a picture which captures many photographers. It is popular because it seems to represent different things to different people just as all couples are different.

That picture looks relatively easy but often there are sensitive places where easy flow is painful and constricted. This, in a couple with a stuck pattern of behaviour and words, needs to be carefully and gently eased into a place of security. That early feeling of security with each other may have been discovered in the first stages of the couple’s life together and that time needs to be held onto with care in order to return, in part, to those feelings of togetherness, trust and safety. This, coupled with the progress of life with all its good and bad times, can encourage growth and a shape which is unique, treasured and valued by the couple.

Nothing goes backwards in a couple it is all about advancement into a natural flow which incorporates all the good and some of the bad bits of a long life together. The good bits are easy and nurturing but some of the bad bits not discovered until the couple faces all the comings and goings of couple and family life, are harder to negotiate. With gentle encouragement from the therapist, the harder bits can be looked at, the source of their importance uncovered and a different approach tried to enable better translation as the words come out of one mouth and enter the ear of the other.

Therapy can open up duos and trios formed in earlier life which caused misunderstanding, pain, anger and resentment. Once memory helps to dig these difficult feeling up and look at them, it becomes easier to put them where they belong in an earlier life and disallowing them to surface again when an adult relationship ignites earlier unresolved pain. The couple will find ‘here and now’ domestic or couple annoyances stay in the couple and can be resolved rather than many other characters from their past entering into the argument and therefore escalating the atmosphere into something which has little to do with the couple.

Death the Avoided Topic: How to work with Loss

During the past year, I have experienced two close deaths (ok, one was a pet). It’s taken time to fully appreciate the impact this has had on me. I’ve learned some fundamental lessons throughout this process, and how some of my narratives about death have been informed by my background, and society’s expectations of the expression of death. Most importantly, it has allowed me to see that everyone’s experience of death is different, and there is not a right or wrong way to express grief. 

Working with recently bereaved clients has sometimes been a challenge for me as a therapist. Of course, I feel their pain, the pain that loss brings, and I hope I have been sensitive and compassionate. But, the truth is, my personal experience with death has been limited. 

It was only when my young cat died last summer followed by my mother in September that I started to fully appreciate the expression of grief. It is a complicated process, often confusing and sometimes very messy with no right or wrong way to express emotions and feelings.

It’s hard to write this, but my experience at the time was I felt more upset over my cat’s death than my mother’s. It’s not because I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, in fact, we had an excellent relationship: I adored her, and she adored me. Was there something wrong with me? No. She was 93 years old, and she died; I accepted this fact and was grateful that she died quickly without any prolonged illness. 

Obviously, I felt sad and missed not seeing and speaking to her, but that’s it. That’s all I felt, and it holds true to this day. I mention this because after her death I had letters and conversations with friends saying how sorry they were and how upset and devastated “I must be”. This caught me off guard because it wasn’t how I felt, and I began to feel as if I was experiencing death ‘in the wrong way’. It was only when I was able to take accept my feelings that I was able to say “actually I don’t feel that way, I felt this way”, and this felt far more aligned to how I was feeling. 

This has undoubtedly helped inform me to think differently when working with individuals and couples. It reminds me to stop assuming anything and allows me to create more space with clients to encourage them to say what’s in their hearts or the unsayable. It has also taught me to know when it’s better to steer away from and when to gently push forward more difficult conversations. Most importantly, it’s taught me to honour one’s own process and never to judge or think there is a right or wrong way to get through grief.

Useful things to say/do after someone has died:

  • Be physically present, unless you are specifically told: “I don’t want you here”. 
  • Be attuned, be there to take care of the tedious things like cooking, cleaning, helping in what’s needed. 
  • Don’t ask for instructions (that takes energy); see what is needed and do it.
  • If you’re unable (for any reason) not to be supportive or present, address it with the person.  It’s never too late to talk about it and to heal painful and complicated feelings between friends or relatives. 
  • Talk about the person who has died. Tell amusing or meaning stories that you remember. Also, don’t compare your own experience with death but do say what was helpful to you at that time. 

As time passes, help bring them slowly back into life. Invite them out and understand if they need to cancel but always continue to ask. Do not expect them to be ok until they are ready to be ok. No judgement, just acceptance to, however that person needs to be.

Shirlee Kay

How to keep sex alive

Summer might only just be upon us but it is the season of weddings nonetheless.  Many couples are experiencing the results of much planning and anticipation as they come to their big day.  Many hopes and expectations abound as to what their life together will be like – the unknown of the journey ahead for many at this stage is exciting and yet possibly unnerving.

But what of those years ahead – one of the questions I am asked a lot in counselling is ‘How do we keep our relationship and particularly sex alive?’  Sex in the first couple of years of a relationship is passionate, urgent and much wanted for most couples.  But then the ordinariness of life sets in – the familiarity, the pressures of work, young children bring time pressures and sleepless nights and suddenly years down the line couples take each other for granted and sex gradually becomes something that moves way down the list of importance, or it even becomes a matter of conflict for the couple.

So here are some tips for how to keep your sex alive after those early years in a relationship.  Broadly speaking, sex will be better if you are more fully yourself, and if you are emotionally more connected to your partner..

1. Spending all your free time together can stifle difference and individuality.  Those elements are needed for good sex in a long-term relationship.  Pursue some separate interests – it is healthier for you both to be able to be fully yourselves and keeps some mystery and interest between you.

2. Show appreciation and say thank you to your partner.  Daniel Keltner is quoted in the Observer saying that studies show that romantic partners who express gratitude are more than three times less likely to break up.  The warmth and good feeling that is generated by simple gestures of goodwill can make an amazing difference to sex.

3. Stay emotionally in tune with your partner – check out how they are and take time to talk. Being connected emotionally is a starting point to being connected physically.

4.Take time to have fun together – play tennis – go dancing – enjoy a movie – or make time for a weekend break. Fun outside the bedroom can lead to more fun within.

5. Make the bedroom a digital free zone.

6. Schedule sex.  Let go of the idea that the best sex is spontaneous.  There can be fun in the anticipation.

7. Remember to kiss your partner and take time about it.  It is a way of building real intimacy between a couple.

8. Try something new – surprise your partner.  Don’t just use the same routine and path that you know works.  Familiarity can become dull, and sexual arousal can be enhanced by a fresh approach.

9. Finally don’t look back to the past – enjoy who you are now both individually and as a couple and look forward to new and life-enhancing times together.

Sarah Fletcher

A Healthy Relationship involves Acceptance

Creating A Safe Couple Relationship with Your Partner Entails Finding a Way to Accept the ‘As Is’

(Ella Fitzgerald: ‘My Funny Valentine)   

 ‘You’re my funny valentine, Sweet comic valentine, You make me smile with my heart…

But don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me.’

And yet, and yet…

How long does the sentiment that we would not change a thing about the person we love actually last? What happens when the unexpected intrudes with a rude awakening into our loved-up bubble? Life can suddenly seem disappointingly more ordinary when the pieces in the kaleidoscope shift and we no longer look through rose-tinted glasses. As we get to know more about one another we are faced with the full complexity of our partner’s character and there can feel a loss of a romantic innocence. Confronted with the reality of the person in full 3D we become aware of contradictions, irritations, disconcerting traits that had been missed. We have to widen our scope to now include a wide variety of previously unrecognised parts. After basking in the warmth of similarity, the realisation of difference can be unsettling and provoke anxiety. The relief that we had found someone ‘perfect’ can scarily become a fear that it was ‘hope over reality’ after all. We can reassure ourselves that, of course, our partner will change in the ways we want when they see it is important. We only have to point out the ways they can improve and what could be better. ‘If you really love me you would…’

 But what if, yes, you are loved, but these changes are not part of the deal?

Of course real deal-breakers do exist: the serious obstacles that get in the way of creating a trusting relationship and can break it.

‘A deal breaker is any matter that would disqualify a partner from a committed relationship despite other wonderful conditions’ (Stan Tatkin ‘We Do’). It could be abuse, where you live, children, sex, infidelity, lying, addictions, money, violence. Whatever the issue, it has to be confronted and negotiated or the couple has to part. But, ‘because human beings loathe to lose the potential for everlasting love, partners may be prone to overlook, defer, or bend reality to avoid a deal-breaker’ (Tatkin) – OR they protest and clamour to make the partner change.

However, both strategies can cause problems for the couple and allow for the possibility of hurt, confusion, distress, resentment and anger. The couple can become stuck in disappointment and disillusionment. Both feel a certain topic has become an unresolvable ‘no-go’ area and they are walking on eggshells. They begin to shut down and close off from one another and the pain of this is what often drives a couple to seek out relationship therapy. 

‘Our vulnerability is that we are susceptible to be wounded. It is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function…  Our automatic repression of painful emotion is our prime defence mechanism even though we know that it is better to feel than not feel. Emotions have a crucial survival value. They offer us vital information – orientate us and interpret the world for us. It is how we learn what is dangerous and what is benign. Imagine how disabled we are when we cannot see, hear taste, or sense heat or cold or physical pain. Emotional shut down is similar.’ (Gabor Mate)

When we avoid and flee from our vulnerability, when we are flooded with anger, or become icily withdrawn, we lose our full capacity for navigating relationships. 

 ‘How couples fight is as important as how they love and it is one of the most predictive factors for a successful relationship. All couples have conflict and will cause each other distress from time to time. There are two people with different brains, two different personalities, many different moods, and many different thought patterns… Yet there is a need move in tandem, as in a three-legged race. If not, you fall over, you lose.’ (Tatkin) 

James Cordova (‘Walking on Eggshells With Loving Steps’) suggests the couple embraces the idea of walking on eggshells as a positive strategy – not as a negative. ‘Because we invite each other into an extraordinarily vulnerable space in our intimate relationships, we are necessarily exceptionally vulnerable to our partners, and our partners are exquisitely vulnerable to us – sensitive, fragile, exposed, precious. And we have invited that space for good and loving reasons. We want to be our beloved’s safe harbour in a hurtful world; and in turn, we want for our partner to be our safe haven, the person with whom we feel safe in being our authentic vulnerable self.’

And so there is an urgent need to find a generous acceptance of the other ‘as they are’. A need to move with sensitivity, gentleness, compassion and care: ‘Even when we are in a hurry. Even when we are angry. Even when we are exhausted or hungry. Even when we are stung and hurt. We need to walk on eggshells!’ (Cordova). It is acceptance that can create the windows of tolerance where it is possible to stay engaged without feeling threatened. Understanding the situation ‘is what it is’ allows for a more flexible menu of options that enables both to benefit.

‘When a person is encouraged to get in touch with and express their deepest feelings in the secure knowledge that s/he will not be rejected, criticised, nor expected to be different, some kind of rearrangement or sorting-out process often occurs within the mind which brings with it a sense of peace…’ (Anthony Storr)

‘We are all a little weird

And Life’s a little weird

And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours

We join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness 

And call it Love

 (Dr Seuss)

Kathy Rees

Mental Health and the Couple

To launch Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 The Duke of Cambridge has teamed up with stars from TV and Music to record the Mental Health Minute.  The theme behind this year’s minute is to highlight the importance of listening. Just by taking a minute to stop and really listen has the power to make a real difference to our mental well -being.

At Coupleworks we often see relationships under considerable strain but when a partner is suffering with mental illness the stress of coping is very challenging and can often reach crisis level and destroy the relationship.  

Anxiety and Depression are the most common causes of mental illness and these can be episodic or long-term

Managing the illness becomes the preoccupation of the relationship and often attention is focused mainly on the person with the diagnosis leaving the healthy partner to cope alone.  

In my work as a couples’ therapist I have witnessed the curative effects that a healthy relationship can have on a partner struggling with mental illness.  On the other hand long-term relationship stress can negatively affect a partners mental health and can make things considerably worse for a partner already struggling with mental illness.

It’s important to remember that there are two partners in a relationship and that your own wellbeing and needs are just as important as those of your partner

Mental illness does not have to destroy a relationship.  There are many ways to maintain a healthy loving relationship despite the obvious challenges.

Show Support

Reassure your partner that you are there for them and love them. Often in our efforts to “make things better” its hard to get the balance right.  There is a tendency to either ignore the symptoms in the hope they will go away or to take over and do everything you can for your partner to fix the problem

Take time to talk

Try to be empathic and really listen to how life feels for your partner.  Don’t dismiss their feelings.  Conversations about how you can improve things together and what changes you can both make offers hope and are more helpful than simply dwelling on the problems.

Educate yourself

Although mental health issues are being talked about so much more openly, there are still many people who are ashamed, confused and misinformed about mental illness, the symptoms and treatment options.  Finding out as much information about the condition is important for both partners as you work and support each other through this time

Finding the right help

Partners cannot be therapists for their spouse – it is too demanding and not appropriate.  Your role is to provide love and support and to engage with finding  the right professional help.  It can often be very challenging and shaming for a partner to accept they are suffering with a mental illness and need help. Willingness to take responsibility to manage their own illness and treatment plan because they understand how their illness affects you and those close to you is an important step towards recovery.

Finding Individual and Couples Therapy

Individual therapy can help process difficult feelings in a safe environment in a way that will help the couple and the individual communicate and understand yourselves and each other better.

As a partner of someone with a mental health condition, there are often negative feelings such as anger, frustration and hate that can be overwhelming.  Couples 

Counselling can help give meaning and understanding to these complex dynamics.

Looking after self

Feeling that you have to handle everything is natural but how you look after yourself is not a selfish luxury but an absolute necessity.  If you can’t look after yourself, you are not going to be able to look after another. Often the pressure to keep it all going can feel overwhelming.

Important areas to consider are boundaries – what you can reasonably give your partner in terms of time, energy, advice and emotion and what you can’t.  Discussing this with your partner is vital.  Having clear, consistent and manageable boundaries is your way of working to look after yourself because you care and are there for your partner.  This also means your partner has to take charge of their emotional wellbeing too.

Its important to remember that in all relationships there are periods of difficulties and drama that can overshadow everything.  When a partner is going though a mental illness it can be a major challenge that can threaten to destabilize the strongest union.  Challenges are a life force for a relationship and if we stop and listen, and have the right tools in place we can ensure a happier more successful relationship. 

Dawn Kaffel

Can you stay friendly with your ex?

Looking at the royal family for an overview it would appear that there are two hugely differing outcomes of a separation. We can all see Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew’s rumoured enduring and affectionate connection and we have also seen the apparent face of far less harmonious royal divorces played out in a sadly public manner.

A passionate love affair will not easily reform quickly into a fond friendship.

All that strong feeling can’t dissipate overnight. We need time to elapse in order to create a new relationship without the heat and intensity that used to bind us. This is when it may be worth taking a while to decide exactly why we actually want to stay friends with an ex lover

If they ended the relationship then perhaps it mitigates feelings of rejection. See? We aren’t unloveable after all, they don’t want to completely let go of us, and maybe a small bit of the cake is better than total deprivation.

If we ended it, well keeping in touch shows that we aren’t that cruel after all. And someone who loves us is still in our life, most of us do like to be adored.
The reality is that uncoupling is usually a painful process. So a lot of people swerve a brutal ending by not ending at all. This avoids the pain of grief, but it’s worth considering if this mateyness is a way of soothing this pain rather than the healthier option of enduring it which allows for reflection and acceptance and a capacity to experience change and to understand that this will always also bring loss.

The finish of a love affair is similar to a bereavement and can involve the same incredibly sad and hurtful stages.  But for some, there’s the added pain of knowing the other is now significant to somebody new.  In the age of social media, a clean ending is almost impossible. It can be agonising to see happy snaps of a beloved ex cosying up to their new love and moving on without you. It may be necessary to disconnect from media sites that bring pain, and even to avoid old haunts for a while.

These are the tricky bits, but let’s also look at the positive reasons that can help twosomes maintain good contact

Some couples can live comfortably like housemates without sex or passion. If they truly are friends, there may come a time that sex does become important and a new love can bring feelings that don’t totally diminish the bond between them. Real friends should be capable of unselfish pleasure and be able to see and enjoy renewed happiness for each other.

Time can settle old scores and bring a fresh perspective to a relationship. Empassioned feelings can fade, and once an ending has been mourned and accepted, then people can begin to see the good in what they once had, and want to preserve that affection. If a person has been truly important in our lives, it’s worth remembering the good times and not allowing those happy experiences to melt away or be completely eclipsed by the pain of the end.

Do both partners agree to a new way? If so, clarifying fresh boundaries will be important.This will be another, new kind of couple. Talk about how often you both feel it’s appropriate to talk or connect. Maybe daytime meetings are best in the initial period, and away from anywhere that holds memories.

How might you cope with seeing each other in new relationships?    Is this truly an equal agreement and are you really sure that neither of you might possibly be hanging on in the hope of repair?

Of course the biggest and most powerful reason to stay friends with an ex is if you have children together.

You are co-parents for life, so it’s imperative to look at your relationship in the most positive way that you can muster.  As relationship counsellors who have witnessed many of these couple breakdowns we are familiar with a scenario in which, initially, the ending will be harder for one half of the couple.  It takes sensitive thought and great care to see that the main focus has to be on safeguarding children from any unnecessary fall-out.

Whatever unresolved or negative feelings may surface, especially at the outset of what may be a traumatic time, the connection between parents has to be seen to be restrained and polite in order to maintain security and stability for the new arrangements that their children will have to experience.

In time many couples can forge friendships  as they are compelled to stay connected through the family links.  If we keep anger and grievances within us, this will only block our capacity for the best outcome with new partners.  It takes time and kindness to come out of our previous relationship and to allow both people the freedom to enjoy a future that won’t be blocked by negative feelings.

So, here’s to conscious decoupling and shaping some new horizons of a different kind of love.

Christina Fraser

Managing time.

On March 31st our clocks went forward one hour meaning we lost one hour’s sleep. On 27th October the clocks go back and we gain one hour’s sleep. There is spasmodic controversy about this and from time to time the Act is altered

This process has changed over the years since 1905 when William Willett a British builder campaigned that this idea was needed during war time ( the Act was passed as official in 1916) to stop the loss of valuable summer light. It also gave him more time to play golf which he enjoyed. He was the three greats grandfather of Chris Martin of Coldplay.
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In our Coupleworks practices, ‘not enough time’ is something which comes up in discussion with couples. Not enough time together or too much time apart becomes an accusation

Feelings of unfairness and not being special to each other are focussed around time.

‘He/she gives so much more time to his/her friends than he/she does to me’.

‘She/he is either with her/his friends or thinking and talking about the children and I always come last on the list of importance’.

‘I never have time to do the interests which give me pleasure. I am accused of being selfish when I should be doing household chores, child duties, pet duties, gardening, shopping, cooking etc’.

‘I never have time to read my book or paper when he/she is in the room because I am made to feel I don’t love him/her enough’. Personal time turns into accusation and point scoring.

It is important to discuss time out with each other. What seems fair and what seems rejecting. Making time for each other is very important and often the reverse happens. Both feel they come last on the list.

At the start of the week it can help to discuss diaries, taking care to respect the other’s need for personal time. If couple time is planned for one or two nights, it makes for better feeling and allowance when one or the other plans time with a friend or to do something for themselves. It is also helpful to define early on who spends time doing certain tasks. Otherwise, time becomes the weapon and not the friend.

With trust this can be beneficial for personal needs being taken care of and heard. Interest and curiosity about how time apart is spent can make your partner feel special and exciting. Sharing what you have been doing can feel more intimate.

Using time to be creative and inventive brings more colour and ability to create and build a third way together. Changing your routine, volunteering for community work together and making time to do nothing. These and many more ideas are all beneficial and grow into positive time for feelings of security, and co-operation. This, in turn leading to more intimacy and feelings of love and respect.

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 Yes Brain Child

In my experience as a therapist Mother’s Day raises all kinds of questions and emotions for my clients.  Frequently their own childhood experiences of being mothered will continue to impact them and is affecting how they are in their current relationship.  Equally too it will raise questions about their own parenting skills and, in some cases, the parenting skills of those closest to them.  To take one example – nowadays many older people are helping out caring for their grandchildren on a regular basis and this brings the challenges of seeing them being parented in a different way.  Likewise parents can struggle with feelings stemming from not having their own way of parenting respected and valued by the older generation.

In that context a book that I have found helpful to a number of parents in recent months has been ‘The Yes Brain Child’.  Its authors, Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, who specialise in the fields of psychiatry and paediatric and adolescent psychotherapy, are fascinated by the ways in which the brains of children develop.  

Beginning from the hopes that most parents want for their children – happiness, emotional strength, academic success, social skills, a strong sense of self and more – they argue that there are ways in which any parent can help their child to develop a ‘Yes Brain’ – a brain that provides a perspective characterised by 

Balance: the ability to manage emotions and behaviour, so kids are less likely to flip their lids and lose control;

Resilience: the ability to bounce back when life’s inevitable problems and struggles arise;

Insight: the ability to look within and understand themselves, then use what they learn to make good decisions and be more in control of their lives;

Empathy: the ability to understand the perspective of another, then care enough to take action to make things better when appropriate.” (Welcome page x)

The book is written in a way that is very readable with its concepts made easily to any reader, by outlining strategies to help in its different areas. 

One of the models, which I find very helpful, is the focus on the three zones your child may experience at any given moment.  When the child is in balance they are in the Green Zone – but given a conflict or something not going their way – they may move into the Red Zone and lose control, or move into the Blue Zone and shut down.  The aim is, of course, to widen the window of the Green Zone and to help children build resilience and find strategies for maintaining their balance within it.

Although the book is written for parents or grandparents, there are of course applications for these tools in our own adult relationships.  How often do we move into the Red Zone (and fly off the handle) with our partners or retreat into the Blue Zone (and withdraw)?  When we want to ‘have a go’ at our partners – rather than just being the ‘player’ in a fight, can we learn to stand back and with insight become a ‘spectator’ and make a different choice to communicate our frustration or disappointment.

If you are interested in finding out more, then I would encourage you to give yourself or your partner or a friend a copy for Mother’s Day – its good effects will last longer than flowers or chocolates or even breakfast in bed!

Sarah Fletcher

The idea of a ‘Normal’ Relationship

If it is true that there as many minds as there are heads,

Then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts’

(Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The recent controversy in Birmingham schools over sex and relationship education has exposed the belief, held by some, that there exists such a thing as a ‘normal’ relationship. In this case it relates to a group of parents preferring their children are taught that heterosexuality is the ‘normal’ sexual orientation. They object to their children being ‘exposed’, in particular, to knowledge of LGBTQ relationships and to an understanding of the concepts of diversity and difference.

Pleased that the government had introduced relationship education into the national curriculum, I now feel saddened that it has become associated with disagreement and division.

As a couple therapist I have found that the idea of ‘normal’ is often problematic and can cause stress and strain in a relationship when it relates to one person’s expectations of their partner. Difficulties can arise when a behaviour is judged inappropriate, or seems incomprehensible, or creates feelings of insecurity, and is ‘not normal’.

I take time to inquire what ‘normal’ means to each individual and explore the origins of these beliefs. How were they learned? Are some concepts considered universals and what are the shared and agreed assumptions of ‘normal’? I encourage the couple to agree on what is their understanding of normal for the two of them.

For some couples monogamy is essential, while others are polyamorous. While some couples live apart, others need close proximity. Some couples choose to try to start a family, while others choose to remain childless.

There can be differences within the relationship itself – with some couples reassured by close shared interests and interactions, and others accepting the place of different preoccupations or friendship groups.

However, more than such explicit normalities, what feels core to a healthy relationship is an acknowledged implicit normality: a shared understanding of the meaning of what makes for a good life together This must involve an acceptance and tolerance of each other’s similarities and differences.  In his book, ’The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’, American therapist John Gottman says, ‘a culture can be created by just two people who have agreed to share their lives. In essence, each couple creates its own microculture. And like other cultures, these small units have their own customs, rituals and myths… Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead there is a meshing which is flexible enough to change as they age, grow, and develop… Conflict is then less intense and less likely to lead to gridlock.’

This is not about being ‘average’ but revelling in the richness that can come from a combination of each ‘otherness’.  In medieval times alchemists experimented with mixing different metals in the hope of creating gold. Similarly, there is something powerful in a synergy – where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – that can occur from two people in a relationship.

However, for a relationship to flourish and survive life’s vicissitudes, the couple must treat the relationship itself as a third – as a separate, living, breathing organism that needs tender care and concern. The special requirements of their own unique partnership will need to be identified and agreed – for without this attention it will shrivel and die.

Stan Tatkin, in his new book on pre-marital preparation, ‘We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring love’ explains that the seeds of building a ‘secure-functioning partnership’ should be part of a conversation from the start. The fine detail of what is involved when beginning on a life of ‘we do’, instead of ‘I do’, needs careful consideration and it’s important to talk.

Unfortunately, nearly half of marriages do end in divorce. But Chrisanna Northrup, in ‘The Normal Bar’, a book based on a survey of more than 70,000 people about their relationship satisfaction, identified five ‘high-five’ common behaviours that correlated with greater satisfaction. Good communication was the one that was valued the most. Understanding one another fully can lessen disappointment and soften judgemental criticism.

Gottman’s view is that we have to consider that certain differences will probably never be reconciled, and many conflicts will never be resolved, but an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance allows a couple to live well and thrive. 

‘Cause all of me

Loves all of you

Loves your curves and your edges

All your perfect imperfections’

John Legend ‘All Of Me’

Kathy Rees

Secrets and Lies

Couples come to therapy for a range of different reasons and one of the most important requirements for any good therapeutic experience is that there is openness and honesty in the sessions.  But clients are not always honest with themselves, or their therapists and this often leads to a break down in the therapeutic alliance and a breakdown in the relationship.

From the start therapists need to be clear with their couples as to what their policy is on secrets especially if they have some individual sessions or if one partner contacts the therapist between sessions to reveal a secret.   It is not a therapist’s role to hold onto secrets for the couple but to help and prepare them to have a more honest relationship with their partner.  To understand and explore together what their fears about what might happen and why it seems easier to withhold than be honest and open.  Sharing these difficulties and bearing the tension and the shame is the path towards a more open and intimate relationship.

Definition of Secrets and Lies

Keeping secrets from your partner is a deliberate intent to keep information hidden.   This choice is usually because you fear the impact on yourself or others that the information may have.  What often underlies secrecy is a fear of judgment and reprisals.   A lie is a deliberate act of deceiving another person by hiding the truth or trying to manufacture an untruth.

Secrets and lies jeopardize trust in our relationships and can cause irreparable damage in the following ways:

*Trust and vulnerability are blocked

*The need to constantly cover up and watch your back leads to tension

*Easier to blame a partner than recognise your choice to maintain secrecy

*Jeopardises sexual intimacy

Being honest in a relationship doesn’t mean you have to share every single detail all the time.  Knowing what to share and what not to share is an important communication skill in any relationship.

It may seem like your relationship is smooth sailing but having secrets can cause catastrophic results:

Secrets that hurt a marriage

Unhappiness

In my experience the reason that couples come into therapy often too late is because sharing their unhappiness or discontent with each other is too difficult.  The reason for keeping these feelings a secret for so long is hoping that the problems will eventually sort themselves out, or the fear things could get a lot worse if true feelings were disclosed.  Sometimes it’s hard to just be honest and admit we are unhappy. 

Finding intimacy outside a marriage

Disconnection between couples is often around for a long time before an affair happens.  If you have stopped having sex for a long time and there is a lack of affection and intimacy, it needs to be understood and talked about.  Often it feels that it’s easier to turn to someone else and get emotional and sexual fulfilment than manage the honesty and vulnerability that is needed with your partner.

Financial Decisions

Keeping secrets about how you spend money or make financial decisions without sharing with your partner is a major violation of trust and can have devastating consequences.

Dishonesty 

Making decisions together as a couple is an integral part of any relationship.  However feeling that you have to agree all the time for a quiet life is not being honest with yourself or your partner.  This leads to unresolved feelings and resentments.  Working through disagreements and difference is essential for a closer emotional connection.

Past relationships

Couples often find it hard to share or hear experiences they had with previous partners for fear of exposing aspects of themselves that partners may not feel very attracted to.  However part of growing closer together is knowing and understanding each other’s different experiences and how you were affected by them both positively and negatively.

Knowing you are being lied to is often worse than being hurt by the truth.  This quote sums it up for me:

If you tell me the truth

I’m going to get mad but

I’ll get over it.

If you lie to me, I’m never going to be

able to trust you again.

Your choice!

Dawn Kaffel

Conflict in front of children – How much is too much?

When asking new clients why they have come to therapy, a common answer is to ‘improve communication’. On exploring further it often transpires that this is a euphemism for unresolved irritations bordering on rage.

It can be a brave and creative decision to begin couple counselling while there is still the energy and enthusiasm between them to tidy up the messier parts of a partnership, and to put in the effort to resolve differences in a better way.

Couples that realise endless bickering is tiring and usually unproductive can be helped to find resolution through negotiation. But anger is a symptom of other emotions, it’s part of the human condition and needs an outlet from time to time.

Opinions vary widely as to how much children are affected by witnessing their parents having arguments. But the realisation that conflict is part of human relationships is a valuable lesson for a kid, and there are useful tips to keep this safe

Children will pick up tension

The notion that rows can be ‘saved for later’ is a false hope as little eyes and ears are often hyper-vigilant and will pick up on a tricky atmosphere. Children will ruminate and their worst fear is that a calamity is lurking and the parents may even separate. And woven into this mix is usually an assumption that somehow, mysteriously they might be to blame.

Far better to allow parental differences the airtime they need, but there are rules:

Never allow a row to become a fight

This involves ensuring that voices can get passionate but never violently loud.

No yelling, no door slamming and no personal insults allowed.

Children won’t understand the context and can be bewildered and scared by seeing the symptoms of a very heightened atmosphere.

Tough though it may be, try to allow each other time to voice grievances and don’t interrupt by butting in. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the situation will get more loaded and what should be listening time, actually becomes just white noise that marks the gap until the other can blurt out their own side of events. It’s hard enough, but give each other time to express their opinion. Keep to a fair fight.

It’s fine to express negative emotions, we all have them, but let the family see that they pass. Anger comes and anger goes.

Never bring the children into the row

In therapy, I often hear one or other of the kids being used by warring couples as witnesses for the prosecution or the defence. Leave them outside the grievance and never put them in a position where they feel obliged to take sides. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make

Don’t raise voices in front of the tinies

Pre-verbal children will only understand noise and body language. Up to the age of 7 it’s also hard for them to grasp multiple emotions, so caution is needed with language and behaviours. After 10 years, there’s more understanding of complexity of feelings.

Also don’t forget that most healthy siblings will learn about vehement rivalry and arguments just amongst themselves and on a regular basis

Don’t use the silent treatment

No child is going to learn the art of healthy disagreements if they see one parent shutting down. This can be the tight lipped ‘I’m not discussing this any more’, or the permanent retreat into another room. Detaching from a row is likely to inflame the situation, one person will feel abandoned as if their feelings aren’t worth being heard, and the other is passively biting back grievances which, unaired, will just stick and smoulder.

There is often just one truth but two perspectives. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it shows respect for another point of view. This is an essential skill for any child to learn, both in the context of relationships, but it’s also a valuable lesson for better communication in other aspects of life.

Resolve is Imperative for everyone involved 

The most important part of conflict is for children to see that anger is not a deal-breaker. Couples who can row, but can also publicly show their affection are the ones offering up the healthiest message that difference is a part of life and that to care enough to want to be better understand and be understood is a foundation of good relationships.

The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s apathy.

The couple relationship underpins the family so let difference thrive but allow affection a bigger space in the relationship between parents.

Make sure that children see the reparative embrace, a loving look, and an affectionate squeeze or kiss.

The Legacy

When asking clients how anger was dealt with in their original families, the message that gives the most promise is the person who will smile and tell me that in their childhood, their parents could argue fiercely and vehemently, but that the repair was always seen in the hugs and laughter fondly remembered as the most prominent part of their parents relationship. This will be the internal model of couple conflict that children can carry into adult life.

The family that plays together, stays together, and the family that doesn’t shy away from problems, but gives each other time and consideration will allow their children to grow and develop a stronger emotional vocabulary

Christina Fraser

Denial versus exposure.

Joint denial in a couple is difficult to work with unless there is a facility for long term work.

More often in the consulting room, I find one person is in denial and the other tells all. This is a common cause of irritation on both sides.

Often, I hear, ‘ You are so buttoned up and economical with the truth when we are ‘out’, while the other is saying, ‘Why do you become so dramatic about our life. It is our private business and no one needs to know the real story’. The reality lies somewhere in the middle of both positions.

For a couple dealing with this disparity, it is helpful to know where the resistance comes from on the denial side and where the need to ‘let it all out’ on the other side originated.

One partner may feel as if there is a huge price to pay if the real story of family life behind closed doors is shared with others. Did the family of origin lay down unspoken rules about, “we are the perfect couple and family?” No need for neighbours to know our business.

The other partner may say, “I need people to know it is tough, When I share things with others they feel able to share their own difficult stories”. The sharing of life scenarios and stumbling blocks opens up the feeling of not being alone. Not being the only one to make that mistake or encounter that problem. The sense of others in the same boat is both healing and strengthening. Suspicion about and the reality of, an affair, money issues, different moral points of view can lead to all kinds of feelings about rejection, abandonment and resentment. Not being on each others’ side. Not watching the partner’s back.

Clients sometimes describe their couple as so different that they feel as if they come from different countries and cultures when the reality is that they possibly lived in the same street and went to the same schools.

When all these challenging differences between a couple bring them into Coupleworks, it is necessary for the couple and therapist to gently uncover the triggers which lead to estrangement. I try to encourage both to express how it feels when the other seems to cut the thread of intimacy and join another tribe. Trying not to place blame but using the positive, not negative, energy of underlying anger to fuel better hearing mechanisms leading to clearer understanding.

Questions such as: ‘It seems that what has just been said was really painful to you and I wonder what memories came into your head?’ Are there other voices with ‘should’ and ‘ought’ being said to you by others from your earlier story before meeting your partner? What and who is also is in the room when you argue?

This can slow down the anger and hurt in the room and give pause for thought.  Sharing a healing process can be intimate and helpful taking the couple towards better management of the malignant roundabout of accusation and denial.

Clare Ireland

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is upon us – with all the hype and commercialisation that goes with that.  For some couples, particularly at the start of a relationship, it can be a time of excitement and the anticipation of good things to come. But for others the day has something of a hollow ring to it.

Of course relationships change.  Hopefully they deepen and mature but they inevitably lose some of that initial sense of excitement and passion as partners get to know each other better than they did in those early years.  But how sad it is when couples stop trying to make each other feel special and all the sparkle and great hopes of five, ten or even thirty years ago fade away. Valentine’s Day can then leave people with a sense of being let down when life has not turned out as they would have hoped and planned.

But, if that is what has happened to yours, like the story of some relationships, what has transpired will not have happened suddenly.  Rather like those niggly waves that nibble away at the back of a sandcastle leading to its final demise, so a gradual downhill path can signal the destruction of even the most hoped for partnership.

One of the questions I always ask couples when they first come to see me is what they found attractive about each other when they first met.  This usually brings a real lessening of tension in the room as they recall with fond memories some of the characteristics of their partner that they valued all those years ago.  

When things go wrong between couples it is easy to forget the positive.  But it’s when people say things like ‘ he made me laugh’ or ‘she was so sensitive’ that you can sense a fresh connection being made. Telling your partner something that you value or love about them strengthens the bond between you.

At Coupleworks we spend time with people working with them to try to improve the quality of their relationships.  There aren’t any quick fixes but quite often a few fairly simple things can breathe new life into them when each person takes time to understand themselves and their partners.

Flowers, cards, chocolates and meals for two don’t have to be just a Valentine’s Day treat.  Take time regularly to make your partner feel special.  Talk with them about what helps them to feel loved and cared for – what makes a difference to them.  It might not be what you think it is and the important thing is to listen, not to judge, and then to act on what you have heard. 

Not every day will be a Valentine’s Day but both of you can work together to improve the quality of a relationship that you used to celebrate each 14 February.  If not, why not make an appointment to come and see us.

Sarah Fletcher