Depression and the Couple Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

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

Trauma and the Couple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Rees

Couple Therapy can help with Mental Health Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give therapy a try

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

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

Dawn Kaffel

A Spender or a Saver?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Fraser

Spring brings new possibilities.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland

The Value of Knowing We Can Be Wrong

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

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

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

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

Here are some tips for healthy Intelligent Humility:

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

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

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

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

Shirlee Kay

Rituals and Relationships

Every culture, every family, every couple indeed every individual, has their rituals. Some have been there for centuries – others are of a much more recent origin – but all are important to the formation of identity. Of course it is also true that as human beings we will at times seek to establish our identity by rebelling against the rituals that others use to define us. How many family arguments begin at that point where one or other parent says ‘Well that’s not the way we do things in this family….’

Often, in the counselling room, I am confronted by conflicting rituals, where one or other members of the couple will talk about their frustrations with the other. Their partner’s behaviour seems so unreasonable to them – Why? Because their way just isn’t a good way to mark an event, to celebrate something, or to do a particular task – it’s much more than that… it isn’t the right way to do it. Often it seems as though they are appealing to the therapist to validate their position, almost appealing to a moral adjudicator outside the couple’s experience. The secret as ever is to keep your own ears open to the assumptions you are making and then to share them with your partner whilst being open to hearing a different perspective on them. There is often no right or wrong way of doing things – just different.

But rituals don’t all need to be set in the context of negativity. The fact that every culture has them shows us just how significant they can be in helping us to feel safe, bring comfort, form our identity and mark stages of our lives. In building long term relationships rituals can have an important role. One of the things I encourage couples to think about and to seek to establish are forms of rituals in their own relationships. In a sense it doesn’t matter if it’s a Friday night curry, or a date night once a month or if they always buy flowers or a gift for each other on particular anniversaries – it is for each couple to work out what’s meaningful for them in their relationship. What matters is that they find some building blocks to create solid foundations for themselves – to create rhythms and traditions that are about the new couple that they are forming. This brings shared meaning and deepens connection in a relationship.

Sarah Fletcher

Issues of Anxiety and Control in a Relationship

Couples in a close loving relationship often describe trusting that the partnership is an emotional safe haven. They feel optimistic for the future of the relationship because they hold the belief that their partner is looking out for them, has their well-being at heart and wants the best for them. The relationship feels a refuge from life’s pressures, and a support when facing the vagaries and stresses of the modern day world. They can relax with the understanding they are loved and accepted, they have someone to turn to, and their partner is someone they can lean in on when things are difficult. The couple feel ‘more than’ when together and relish the idea that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.

Which is why an affair can have such a devastating impact. The security has been breached and the relationship suddenly feels adrift, shaky and fragile.

However, our individual psychological insecurities can also wreak havoc on a relationship. Extrapolating from past painful experiences we become pessimistic and make negative predictions about the future. We assume that similar situations are bound to happen again.

A man would not get married on his birthday because it would mean that day would always be spoilt after they divorced. A previous girlfriend had let him down badly and he was predicting the end of this one even as he planned the wedding: ‘It’s the kind of thing that always happens to me.’
Childhood hurts can diminish our willingness to trust and so foster a dependency on overt displays of reassurance and expressions of certainty. However, constant requests for minute detail, concrete evidence, and proof of fidelity, can become oppressive and destructive.

The rationale can be that ‘I too felt unwanted when my father had an affair and left my mother. I believe all men to be somewhat untrustworthy and I need to be on the alert so that I’ll not be abandoned and rejected again’.

A woman had become hyper-vigilant and, despite his loving behaviour, was secretly checking her partner’s phone for possible proof of an affair. When he found out he was distressed and angry at what he felt was an attack on his integrity.

Open wounds from a previous relationship can colour the view of a present partner and suspicions about their sincerity, openness and honesty can breed. The joke ‘The figments of my imagination are out to get me’ no longer feels funny, and a runaway imagination becomes a primary source of stress. Fear is a response to the perception of an immediate threat, while anxiety is a response to a possible future threat. Both states mean the brain moves into ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ mode and releases high levels of adrenaline and cortisol with tension and agitation manifest in the body.

Attempting to avoid the possibility of more pain and hurt we work hard to keep ourselves safe, expending huge energy on being super-vigilant, well-informed, and in as much control of the situation as possible. To relax and trust feels counter-intuitive: ‘Why would I? It’s a dangerous world.’

And yet, ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened’ (Mark Twain). We need to beware of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a danger that the compulsion to avoid the imagined catastrophe can become obsessive and addictive and a chronic need for reassurance, being in control, can take hold. The attempt to manage the anxiety then becomes counter-productive when it causes distress and hostility as a partner resists the control and rails against being accused and blamed

Unchecked, anxious responses to uncertainty and states of not-knowing can create poisonous feelings of dread, panic, jealousy and anger. All are toxic to a happy relationship which needs a dynamic of acceptance, trust, contentedness.

You might find it interesting to listen to a (long!) lecture by Martin L Rossman on ‘How Your Brain Can Turn Anxiety Into Calmness’ and pay particular attention to the visual imagery exercise at the end.

Kathy Rees

Is giving up on marriage easier than working on it?

Over the past week I was lucky to attend two very different events that I found very interesting and which shared a common thread – the importance of resilience and survival.

The first was a strictly orthodox Jewish wedding where Rabbis from every sect and from all over the world were in attendance. One of the UK’s most eminent Rabbis was asked to address the bride and bridegroom under the wedding canopy. What was surprising was how he used this opportunity not to preach about Judaism and orthodoxy but focused on the very young couple in front of him and the importance of working on a marriage, of putting each other first, of showing each other how you love, care and show respect for each other every day for the rest of their lives. Without working on a marriage, he said, a long happy relationship is not guaranteed.

The second event was at Jewish Book week where Lady Rosa Lipworth and Dorit Oliver-Wolff were in discussion with the author Anne Sebba. Here were two women who as very young children endured intense pain and loss of their families during the Holocaust to survive against all odds through their incredible bravery and fortitude. They never gave up hope and today they inspire others with the resilience that kept them alive.

Today we are living in very uncertain times and I have wondered for some time how these feelings of unease and disquiet impacts on our couple relationships.
.

Is it a mere coincidence that for some time now many more couples are coming to counselling wanting to give up on their marriages without really trying to understand or work on their relationships?

When couples struggle to live together in any meaningful way they often present with very negative feelings towards each other. They get caught up in patterns of behaviour that leave them feeling very emotionally disconnected and pretty lost and alone in a marriage. Resentments run very high and often become the shopping list for incompatibility.

For some couples the growing apart has taken years, for other it’s very sudden. By the time couples come to seek help from a Coupleworks counsellor, they are often so disconnected that it does feel easier to bail out rather than make the decision to really work on their relationship.

We are living in a quick fix world and some clients give up very easily, believing life will be different with someone else. Some clients meet at a very young age and years later are unable to manage the loss of the life they could have had before marriage. Others feel marriage makes them feel old and after 40 or 50 years of marriage yearn for something different before its too late. Loss of intimacy and sex is often another excuse to exit.
Whatever the reasons – we seem to find it much easier to work on our jobs and achieve success in our careers than we do in working on our marriages to stay strong and resilient together through the difficult times. Sometimes couples never had the experience of seeing their parents really work through difficulties.

So before you give up and walk out of a relationship because you have fallen out of love and feel so detached and disconnected from your partner, take some time to talk to a Coupleworks counsellor who will help make sense of the emotional distress that entangles many couples. Emotional Focused Therapy helps us to understand how to be more open and attuned and responsive to our partners and re-establish an emotional connection to grow together as a team. This takes hard work, strength and resilience.

Letting Go by Dorit Oliver-Wolff

The urge to live life in the fast lane
Has become an obsession with me
If only I knew how to let go
Let go of the past
Let go of the pain
Let go of others
Let go of me
Just drifting in weightlessness
In no man’s land
Without gravity
To pull me in either direction
Just drifting
With nature and myself
In unity with the omnipotent force
Where time stops
And the endless loop
Of eternal continuity
Takes away the fear of entering one’s time
Of the inevitable end

 
Dawn Kaffel

Let’s have a good row

Couples coming to counselling will usually describe communication problems as one of the main reasons for seeking outside help.
A magnetic twosome that starts in a glowing bubble of love, fuelled by a powerful cocktail of chemical reaction is likely to have some disappointing moments as realism and disappointments begin to sneak up on the happy couple.
Psychologists describe this first stage in the passage of a relationship as the Romance Stage which generally lasts around 18 months to 2 years before life cruelly pushes us into the Power Struggle stage. 
Often, the higher the hope the deeper the disappointment when our ‘other’ transpires to be just that … No longer our twin soul, but another who just doesn’t see things the right way (that is, the way we see them)
This is where couples endeavour to point out to each other, often not with much gentleness, exactly where the other one is going so very wrong.
The partner who had seemed so kind and understanding can often become an enemy who just doesn’t get us at all.
Now, when momentarily disenchanted with our beloved, all we see are the flaws and the differences instead of those glowing attributes and understandings that seemed to blind us at the start.
The power struggle is a hard system to shift, but when I ask in a first session how a couple argues, it’s the answer ” O, we never row” that makes me know the work will probably be long and hard.
It is often the ability to have a creative row that can lead a couple to some better understanding of each other and show there is passion in the dynamic between them.
There is, however, a big difference between abusive anger which is unsustainable and cruel, and a good barney which often leads to repair and an affectionate re-entry into the safety of the loving side of our partner.
Here are some tips for A Good Row.

1. Pick your battles 
It’s pointless to keep moaning about unloading the dishwasher (aka ‘nagging’) unless you can recognise what is really being said. Are you actually asking for more help around the house, or maybe it’s about just feeling generally unheard and unimportant. Think it through and try to explain your feelings. Behind most power struggles is fear.

2. Avoid accusatory language
This one is easy. So when describing some issue of contentiousness, don’t use the ‘you’ word, as in ‘you always..’ Or ‘you never…’ And instead, own the feeling that it evokes in you.
‘When X happens, it can make me feel …..’  (Fill in your own reaction)

3. The impact of childhood 
Ingrained issues often come from past experiences. Think of where you may have felt this way before you ever met your partner. Ask how anger was dealt with in their family. Conflict averse families don’t help kids to learn how to process difficult feelings. Critical parents can breed critical children – often they grow up to be hard on themselves and will dole it out because they can’t bear their own feelings of not being right.

4. Try to listen
This one is tricky in the middle of heightened emotions. But do try to think about what is being said rather than just waiting to speak. If people feel heard, they are more likely to listen to your point.

5. Not in front of children
Sounds so obvious, but often doesn’t happen. Children can be really scared by continual rows. Never include them or confide in them. Sometimes gripes are bound to become public, but make sure they also see you hugging and close so they grow up seeing that anger isn’t a deal breaker, but can be successfully and lovingly negotiated.

6. Keep it clean
However bruised we feel it’s important to keep to the relevant issue and not allow anger to take over and become a character assassin. Hurting because we feel hurt can only cause deeper pains that take a long time to heal.

7. Don’t use sulking as a weapon
Sometimes confused feelings cause people to withdraw. It’s ok to discuss this at a quiet moment and explain that we need a period of quiet time to regroup. This is so different to doling out The Silent Treatment, which is borne out of inability to express feelings and is tantamount to withholding and over-harshly punishing the other.

Now for the good news, overcoming the worst of the Power Struggle Stage can lead to a healthier Commitment Stage and a far stronger and successfully tested relationship.
Here’s Huey Lewis to explain.

Christina Fraser

 

Talking in tongues.

Lack of communication is a phrase I hear a lot when seeing a couple for the first time.  In many cases, this is followed by, “there is no sex in our relationship any more”.

This indicates the possibility that words, phrases and sentences are an important part of seduction.  At the onset of a relationship, words are carefully chosen, seductive, kind, caring and appreciative.  As normal life sets in, these words can slowly become critical, punitive, complaining, judgemental and even cruel.  It can hardly be believed that the same two people who set out on a couple fit have suddenly become ugly and punishing.

How does this happen and why does lack of sex follow in its wake?

Wanting to please the other, becomes wanting to change their disappointing bits and what seems to be a drive to make them the same as yourself.  Sex with self carries no mystery and gives only partial relief and satisfaction.  For sex to be shared and safe there needs to be admiration, tolerance and acceptance of each other.  An understanding which good communication can encourage rather than exacerbate feelings of dislike and low libido.

Without an invisible message flowing to and fro through loving words the desire found at the start of the couple life can become toxic and negative sowing the seed of dislike and estrangement.

How can two people retrieve the early electricity when life and its ups and downs have become part of normal couple and family life.  Often the two adults become other children in the mix to be disciplined, taught and punished as if they too were being prepared for life in the world.  This increases the disparity between them and a sense of dissatisfaction and let down becomes the aura in the atmosphere.

Where are the people who seemed so perfect to each other?  Where is the sexual satisfaction which seemed so natural and easy before?  These things are still there  but have to surface again by penetrating through the resentment and criticism .  They need praise, admiration, listening, accepting difference and celebrating it without needing to convert.  A certain mystery has to be maintained by avoiding being each other’s therapist and feeling love can only be maintained by being changed.

Some different ways to communicate can be tried:

Take some seconds to monitor your own words before they escape.  Are they reacting or responding.

Think about why you are saying them and have they helped in previous angry exchanges.  Try to rephrase them with a different tone and facial expression.  Be careful of body language.

It will be impossible to be heard if these words are spoken to punish, used as a post mortem or as an attack.

Keep ‘you’ out of the sentence and speak about yourself and how what has just happened makes you feel.

Ask for tolerance while you work out why your feelings are so painful.

Come back to the topic when both of you have used an internal camera instead of a long angle lens.

 

Clare Ireland.

Valentines Day Every Day

Most couples dread certain days in the year. New year’s eve, Christmas with the in-laws, etc. But nothing causes more anxiety than February 14th. The hype and expectations Valentine’s day demands doesn’t always equate to a couple’s expectations and, more often that not, the day ends in disappointment, arguments and often, tears.

Valentines Day comes with a heavy burden attached. It tells couples that if the flowers or chocolates are forgotten (or not posh enough) they are not loved. Comparisons are often made with other friend’s relationships, and judgments are thrown at one another as barbed as one of Eros’ arrows.

Learning to be loving and thoughtful on a daily basis give couples the connection that translates into love. As Dr. Sue Johnson says in her book “Hold me Tight”, ‘learning to be open, attuned and responsive to each other enables a close emotional connection.’ Couples are able to feel loved and cared for, even when their partner gives them dyed purple carnations, or a two-for-one voucher for Pizza Express on Valentines Day.
Forget the big gestures. Studies confirm the best way to show someone your love is far simpler than that.

The way we learn to feel loved comes from what we experienced growing up, how we felt loved (or not) in our own families. So it’s not surprising that we all experience feeling loved in different ways. With some, feeling loved means action: tea in bed, fixing the shower or cooking a special meal. For others, it might mean words: taking an interest in your partner’s day and then really listening. It could also simply mean saying thank you, or I love you.

Dr Sue Johnson believes couples need regular bonding rituals of meeting and separation or key times of belonging. These are deliberately structured moments that foster ongoing connections. They can sometimes feel a bit contrived, but it will help remind couples to stay connected.

1. Regularly holding, hugging and kissing on waking and going to sleep, leaving home and returning.
2. Writing letters, or leaving short notes for one another, especially when one is going away.
3. Calling or ‘checking in’ with one another to ask after one another.
4. Creating a personal sharing ritual. It could be dinner together or a daily walk after dinner.
5. Arranging a regular time to spend time together, also called “Date Night”.
6. Taking a class or learning something new together.
7. Remembering special dates such as birthdays or anniversaries.
8. Acknowledging your partner’s struggles and commenting on them. “I’ve noticed how hard you’ve been working; it’s inspiring.”
9. Publicly recognise your partners and your relationship, the affirmation lets them know you’re connected and appreciate them.

Valentines Day is a day to remember why a couple chose one another and what it was that attracted them to each other in the first place. The question helps couples remember the original feelings they had and helps underpins the relationship even when there are issues that keep a couple drifting apart. Feeling loved by one another helps to cement and underpin the relationship. These feelings are worth their weight in Valentines cards.

Shirlee Kay

Mistakes in communication, memory and perception

Earlier this month I was approached by Katie O’Malley to give some comments for an article she was writing for Elle Magazine online about how to be how to be happy in love. Read here As part of the brief Katie sent me a Ted Talk by Stan Tatkin, which I found really interesting.

Stan Tatkin is a developer of a psychobiological approach to couple therapy. He describes in a very accessible way something that at Coupleworks we come across all the time in our work with clients. He talks about how, when we come to a new relationship, we also come with unresolved hurts from past relationships that have become imprinted in our brains and form part of our ‘procedural memory’.

When we first start a relationship everything is new and exciting. However as things get ‘serious’ and time passes, we begin to take each other for granted and stop paying attention to each other. The brain then begins to work on automatic – ‘procedural memory’ takes over and it reverts to old patterns of learnt behaviour. For example we may believe that we are responding to our partner in a particular way, but in fact our pattern of response is dictated by our procedural memory forged by a previous relationship with a betraying abandoning person.

Tatkin says ‘we all make mistakes in communication, memory and perception’. Likewise in therapy I often encourage my clients to pay attention to each other and not to assume that they know their partner. The key thing is to be curious and interested in them for themselves and not to allow our procedural memories to dictate our responses.

One of the last points Tatkin makes in his 10-minute talk is the fact that as humans we can’t survive the loss of safety and security. He argues that one of the benefits from being in a relationship is to ‘have each other’s backs’. To be a couple involves protecting each other and to make each other feel safe and secure. Sadly this is one of the things that so often gets lost for a couple as things break down in their relationship. It can become more and more about fighting for each one’s own survival and the closeness suffers as a result. In maintaining and restoring relationships it is vital to ‘have each other’s backs’ – to care for and show our partner that we love them.

Interestingly a recent survey in a women’s’ magazine asked the question ‘What is the most important quality to look for in a partner?’ Much to many people’s surprise 94% replied kindness (5% humour and 1% good looks). Thinking of Stan Tatkin’s Ted Talk it struck me that he is talking about a similar thing.

Our relationships will be healthier and we will remain closer and more connected to our partners if we make the choice to pay each other attention, and secondly to be kind and caring.

Sarah Fletcher

Couples: Communication and Conversation

Coupleworks’ counsellors frequently meet couples desperate to improve their communication – and often start by asking about the beginning of the relationship.

‘You’re My World’ Cilla Black


The time of falling in love can be marked by fascinated curiosity, rapt attention, delving into inner worlds and gazing into one another’s eyes. It can feel like the discovery of a best friend and soul mate and taking the couple back to the memory of when they experienced such closeness can reignite hope.

‘Where Are You Now…?’ Justin Bieber


However, later down the line, busy lives can mean conversation is brief, occurring in snatched moments, and focussed on practicalities. Each can lose sight of the other’s dreams, desires and longings. More light-hearted moments of warmth, laughter and sharing can often take place with friends and colleagues and not with each other. The relationship can become irritable, joyless and serious – weighed down by pressure at work, decisions about running the home, parenting, finances, aged parents. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed, a sense of being alone, unsupported and short-changed – can create an atmosphere of complaint and criticism.

‘Mind the gap…’ Nabiha


Parallel lives can mean moments of intimacy grow fewer. In his book ‘The Relationship Cure’ John Gottman says that reconnection and repair lies not in the grand gesture but in the ‘turning-towards micro-moments’ that indicate how you are seen, valued, loved and cared for. Couples constantly reach out and make bids to one another for affection, attention and support but they are sometimes misunderstood and misread as demands. Gottman describes how each partner has a ‘sliding-door’ moment in how they choose to respond: to rebuff, turn away or draw closer. The squeeze at the dishwasher, the wink across a crowded room, the pause for a longer hug at the door, sharing the preparation for dinner, the back rub, switching off all screens when eating – all mean ‘You are special’. But these can be rejected with a shrug of annoyance or received with appreciation and a smile.

‘Love Hurts…’ Nazareth


If the love bank is depleted or empty there is nothing to call on when times are tough and the disappointment in each other can feel sharp and result in flashpoints of anger and blame.

‘Working my way back to you…’ Four Seasons


Consequently, the couple’s emotional reserve requires constant topping up. The positive ways in which the mundane tasks, the work of daily grind and tedium, are managed allows caring and intimacy to establish itself once more. What might appear to be insignificant moments of consideration and connection can quickly add up to an environment of safety, relaxation and warmth. Mistrust and defensive interactions dissipate and love expands.

‘Talk To Me…’ Stevie Nicks


Gottman suggests creating a regular, twenty minute, DAILY, couple conversation time that is prioritised above all else. It should be a time for connection, focused listening, not interrupting, checking out, reflection, going deeper. It can be reparative after an argument and generally replenishing for the relationship. It can guard against the thread that connects the couple becoming too thin and stretched – possibly to breaking point.

Kathy Rees

Difficulties with Commitment in your Relationship

January is a month where we were bombarded in the press about the need to make new year resolutions, make changes to our work life balance, loose weight and go to the gym more, eat less sugar and more complex carbohydrates.

In my counselling room recently, I have been aware of how many couples hope and expect 2017 will be the time when their relationship moves forward. However when the subject comes up couples can be faced with very different views on what moving forward means for both of them.

It is clear that making a commitment to a relationship means different things for different people: for some its moving in together, for others its getting engaged, wanting marriage or deciding to have a baby together. For many, these steps come easily and for others making a decision to commit can bring a great deal of distress and disharmony to an otherwise healthy relationship and often results in looking for help from a couples counsellor.

I often encounter couples who appear to present with a really secure and connected relationship and this all goes out the window when one partner wants the relationship to move forward as a natural progression of a committed relationship and the other is in no hurry to change this and is more than happy to stay where they are.

Often discussing moving forward and making a commitment brings happiness and excitement for one and overwhelming anxiety and panic to the other. This is something that affects both men and women.

Some sessions with a Coupleworks counsellor would help partners to look at:

What are some of the causes of Commitment Anxiety?

♣ Fear of intimacy and deep emotional connection
♣ A damaging previous break up or ending of a relationship
♣ A belief this is not the ‘right relationship’
♣ Trust issues
♣ Difficulty with attachment needs being met in childhood
♣ Experience of separation or divorce in parents relationship
♣ Fear of rejection
♣ Negative media exposure on unhappiness of committed relationships
♣ Over focusing on divorce statistics
♣ Fear of loosing independence and being tied down
♣ Not wanting to parent
What are the effects of Commitment issues on a relationship?

♣ Tendency to avoid long- term relationships
♣ Closeness and safety is replaced by distance and avoidance
♣ Risk of developing depression
♣ Loss of confidence in self and partner
♣ Increase in conflict to avoid discussion

Treating commitment issues in couples therapy

An experienced therapist can help identify potential causes of commitment issues in a couple relationship and explore useful ways to work through these issues.

Couples can learn how to understand their fears of commitment, where and how it may have originated and how a rigid way of thinking can be quite paralysing. It opens the way for partners to better discuss fears of making a commitment with each other in a calmer, safer way, and hopefully develops an ability to be more truthful and open about their needs and desires.

Dawn Kaffel

How to make boredom your friend

It’s that time of the year… What can we do differently, how can we improve our lives, how can we look and feel better.
Gym membership traditionally soars in January only to dip again by the start of February when the newbies realise they haven’t got the time, interest or will to factor this regularity into their lives.
Shops bombard us with stuff to replace the stuff that we have outgrown or just wearied of.
Magazines and papers remind us constantly that we should look better/thinner/younger.
Basically, we are being nudged to avoid the state we are in and seek a shinier one.
But wait, time for a rethink.
There is a big difference between looking to improve the things that will genuinely bring us a life more healthy, either physically or psychologically – and hopefully both, but after the stimulus of Christmas, one of the triggers for all this change is the fear of boredom.
There will be times when boredom is inevitable, often when we have no control over our circumstances. Stuck in a traffic jam, a tedious meeting or waiting room we are often unable to change the situation.
But working with couples, it often transpires that one of the things they dread is the thought of slowly creeping ordinariness and the feeling that they can become a prisoner to this.
Partners become so well know to each other that every comment, joke and conversation is a well trodden landscape, so predictable that they are no longer curious about each other. Couples need the security and safe attachment that is the flip side of this, but it’s up to each of us to keep interested and interesting. Relationships are no different. We don’t always need outside stimulation, sometimes it’s enough to cook together, play a board game, listen to music together or go for a walk somewhere new and try to rediscover what we once found so interesting about each other.
The life of the creative man is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes said Susan Sontag.
Don’t lets allow a yawn-making apathy obsess us and obliterate our ability to live in the moment.
It’s tedium that usually drives us to check our phones and screens for something to obliterate a gap in the day. Noise and messaging will cover up any emptiness. Yet it’s those gaps in life that give us space for thought and a chance to be at peace with our own minds and think creatively for ourselves, without waiting for connection to cyberspace or TV to anaesthetise us.
Dorothy Parker wisely told us that the cure for boredom is curiosity – there is no cure for curiosity…

Christina Fraser

A New Year – a New Relationship

Many of us start the New Year with various resolutions ranging from the need to eat healthier, stop drinking, commit to more exercise etc. Let’s spare a thought to starting 2017 by thinking about making resolutions in our relationships that will help make them more loving and fulfilling.

Here is my A-Z of how to enhance your relationship in 2017 and bring about change.

A is for Accessibility
Take note how available and accessible you are for each other. Can you access your partner’s presence, support and attention when you need it?

B is for Boundaries
Ensure there are clear boundaries between how you divide your time between work, children, family commitments and your partner.

C is for Caring
Take time to think about how you show care to your partner. Is it how they wish to be cared for?

D is for Dance
Relationships are like dances. We often get stuck playing the same music and dancing the same steps. Understanding and validating the feelings of our partners, meeting their attachment needs, changes the music. As the music
changes, so does our dance.

E is for Emotions
Emotionally Focused Therapy helps couples tune into their own important feelings and needs and then helps to put those needs and feelings across to a partner helping to create more closeness and security.

F is for Fun
Relationships can often loose their sense of fun that you used to have at the beginning of a relationship. Discuss together how to bring back the fun you once enjoyed.

G is for Glamour
Lounging around in a tracksuit and pj’s is Ok at times but don’t forget to step up the glamour sometimes and put on the lippy and heels!

H is for Happiness
Having a smile on our faces, and sharing laughter together brings happiness to a couple relationship

I is for Intimacy
By making time to talk, discuss and play together, intimacy helps build feelings of safety and security and knowing that your partner is there for you.

J is for Joy
Often partners get bogged down with complaining about each other and forget about the feelings of joy they once had. Discuss what would bring joy back into the relationship

K is for Kindle
Think about different ideas and things you can do that would rekindle a relationship that may be stuck

L is for LOVE
When we communicate with our partners we should:
LISTEN with an
OPEN mind
VALIDATE and acknowledge each other
EXPRESS our thoughts and feelings, slowly and simply

M is for MOMENTS
Be more mindful of the little inconsequential moments that happen every day which are taken for granted. We can feel a lot closer when we feel our partners have noticed.

N is for NOURISHMENT
Think of ways to nourish your relationship – it may be as simple as going down the road for a coffee or arranging a surprise.

O is for OPENNESS
Don’t hold onto resentments and negativity. Find a way of being more open about how you feel in a gentle sensitive manner

P is for PASSION
Couples find happiness through intimacy, passion and commitment. Keeping passion alive in a long-term relationship is not always easy but giving each other more time and energy and thinking outside the box is often a way forward

Q is for QUICK FIX
There is no pill for a quick fix of your relationship. Relationships need time and effort to make them the best they can possibly be and only you can figure out what that is.

R is for REFLECT
To be able to self reflect on our own behaviours and emotions rather than criticise and blame another is crucial to building a stronger more connected relationship.

S is for SHARING
Spending more time sharing thoughts, feelings and ideas makes partners feel listened to and validated

T is for TIME OUT
There are times in all relationships when feelings can get out of control. Taking time out away from each other in a calm measured way, gives us time to calm down and reflect and control our own behaviour.

U is for UNDERWEAR
Taking time to go shopping together for new underwear can help couples connect more intimately and sexually

V is for VALIDATION
Instead of responding with a knee jerk defensive reaction, it’s important that we make an effort to validate what our partner says as its important to them. This helps to make them feel respected and listened to, even if your view is different to theirs.

W is for WITHDRAW
It’s easy for couples to get into negative patterns of behaviour where 1 partner is the pursuer and the other closes down and withdraws. By identifying these patterns of behaviour partners can start to understand each other’s feelings better and make changes in their behaviour.

X is for X-RATED
Where is sex on your priority list? Are you making enough time for a good sexual connection, or is it way down the list of your priorities? “Emotional connection creates great sex and great sex creates deeper emotional connection”

Y is for YOGA
Yoga teaches true mindfulness – living in the present moment. Yoga can be a great stress reliever and certain positions improve flexibility and increase blood flow. For a closer sexual connection with your partner practise yoga positions together. Breathing, and moving together can be great foreplay.

Z is for …….Zzzzzzz
Turn off the computer, ipads and phones. Go to bed together, in a restful, calm manner and see what a difference a good nights sleep brings to your relationship.

 
Dawn Kaffel

Date night: How often do Couples Spend Time Together

Recently I’ve become curious as to how often couples go out together, so I asked a few I work with how often they make an effort to spend time together. Not surprisingly, most couples responded, “It’s been ages since we last went to dinner, the cinema or theatre together, we are just too busy.”

And it’s true; life gets in the way of spending time together.
As responsibilities increase, jobs become more demanding, and when carefree life becomes ‘grown up live’ with mortgages and children we forget to make time for fun together.

Just as it is natural for a couple’s sex life to slow down, it’s normal to slow down going out together. But couples begin to feel disappointed when they lose that connection with one another as they cease to engage beyond the mundane and routine of every day life.

So why do couples stop making the effort to have fun together and how does it leave them feeling? As a couple’s therapist, it would be easy to pathologise why this might be, but my experience tells me that couple’s more often than not just get into a pattern of behaviour that rationalises not making an effort with one another.

One man told me that when he see girlfriend making plans with friends, arranging trips to museums and the theatre it makes him upset. This left him feeling uncared for and that others got the best of her and he’s only left with the scraps. He felt bereft because his narrative became one that said, “I’m at the bottom of the pile” and expressed feelings of not being valued and felt that his partner didn’t have fun with him.

This idea that fun lives outside the relationship is unfortunate and can be problematical. Living with this feeling can devalue the relationship, leaving couples feeling as if they have little between them. The good news is that when couples recall the fun they had together when they first started dating then they start to remember the feelings they had towards one another, feelings that can feel lost after time.

Couples may not want to go clubbing any longer but they can remember what it was like when they did. From there, adjusting to ones lifestyle and age, and finding new things to do with each other can hit that sweet spot. Going to dinner, working out together or going to a new exhibition… it doesn’t’ matter. What matters is learning to spend time together outside the couple’s everyday existence.

Changing the dynamics and the patterns between couples can transform the relationship substantially. A couple I’ve been seeing, who have had some extremely difficult feelings towards one another, recently had this transformative experience. The husband arranged for their four children to be looked after and told his wife that they were spending the day together. This surprising act of reaching out reminded both of them that they had plenty to talk about and that they still knew how to enjoy one another. I noticed the tension between them that once hung over our sessions had vanished, to be replaced by a softer and happier couple.
It told me two things: that couples need to spend more time together and that it really doesn’t take much to do this. The New Year is coming; these small changes can make a huge difference.
Shirlee Kay

Couple kindness.

I once attended a seminar where the speaker asked us to think about how unkind we can be to our partner. In fact she went further by asking us to visualise anyone else in our life circle whom we would feel as free to verbally abuse and still expect them to be there the following day. What does this say about a couple?

Hate seems to come naturally, love is to be learned. In a simple derivation of love it means no more or less than the wish to be together with another in an intimate harmony. And yet we often sabotage the very thing we wish for in our partnership.

How can we avoid the repetitive haranguing and pressing buttons in what is hoped to be the safest relationship we have. On the one hand we ‘make love’ and on the other we ‘make hate’. How many of us can put our partner down in company in the most subtle way which only we know can hurt and while the rest of the group may sense an atmosphere they will not challenge the couple.

Some couples I see ask how to arrest this dynamic in their duo. The following can be helpful if both people are committed to avoiding the habit.

1. Try to monitor the words about to be spoken and ask yourself why you want to say them. Does it give a kind of power, a relief, a payback or is it really about something else which has been simmering unspoken for possibly years. It may even relate to early experiences with close family members long before the couple met and is ignited by a familiar trigger between them.

2. Try to think what you hope to resolve by this way of interacting and why do you automatically think your partner will go on receiving the angry words and still be there for you.

3. Question whether you would say what you are about to say to an adult sibling, a parent, a friend, a work colleague or even someone you have just met and may never meet again.

4. Talk to each other at a better moment and share how it feels to get into one of these episodes. Explain how each of you could hear the words better if they were kinder and less judgemental and critical. Explain the buttons which you know it is hard to resist.

Trying to break the pattern and get off the malignant roundabout. Owning instead of blaming is complicated but it can be done if both sides want resolution.

There is a form of containment which each can offer to the other by not personalising what is hurled at them in bad moments. But, the containment must be a kind one and not an abusive one which, like a virus, is hard to stop. Kindness is also catching and used with care can be the intimacy they are searching to achieve.

Clare Ireland

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