Grandparent couples in the 21st century

I am writing this blog with the knowledge I have gained over the years about couples becoming grandparents; mainly in the Western World. As a background to my thinking I am taking for granted that grandparents in certain cultures, religions, social positioning and in geographical areas have always been and still are ‘hands on’. They are expected to be reliable, accepted and respected second parents to their grandchildren. Frequently they are living in a 3 or 4 generation home and their position, until infirmity, is taken for granted.

In the West, families have tended in recent times to wander and to leave their root, out of choice and not always fleeing war zones. They take jobs in other areas, postings abroad, marrying into other cultures, sometimes wealthy enough to travel frequently and more often living in a two generational home either rented or owned. The top generation living elsewhere either in their own accommodation or in a rest home or old peoples’ home.

With all this in mind, my blog for Coupleworks is commenting on the difficulties which can arise for the grandparent couple whom I shall refer to as GCs. I shall look at single grandparenting in another blog because it is different and carries different expectations.

GCs may have a precarious role. Whilst thrilled to be grandparents, the GCs may have only recently experienced their youngest children leaving home. A mixed feeling to begin with, this can quickly become replaced by a whole new adult world opening up. They start to fulfil personal interests, spontaneous travel out of school holiday time perhaps to areas of the world unsuitable for children both in safety and activity needs. They start to regain old friendships neglected during child rearing and have time to make new friends. They can eat healthy food of their choice at times of their choosing. Their hitherto taxi service, no longer required, can sometimes be altered to no car and using other forms of transport.

Once grand parenting begins…how best to play it to suit everyone requires making timetables where both sets of child carers are respected.

In the 21st century, the muddling through as parents is questioned. So many books, diets, allergies, fears about strange people entering the home to care for the children and different forms of child rearing have been thrown at today’s 25-50s parents. The GC’s ‘doing it their way’ is now an anxiety and introduces lack of trust and suspicion into the mix. The wonder, pride and pleasure always present for the GCs is now edged with anxiety in both roles.

I have noticed with clients whom I am now seeing more frequently with this dilemma, the most helpful solution can be firmly laid down ground rules. Rules that can be best put down even before the birth of the first grandchild. If left to ‘fingers crossed’ and chance, surely hidden resentment and unspoken but acted out anger will erupt at unexpected times.

Doing diaries together with respect and understanding is sensible: grandparents often work beyond retirement age and their diaries are as complicated as the parents.

Planning should include:-

Compromise over meal times and content of the meal.

No assumptions made that the GCs will take over in school holidays and half terms.

24 hour- 3 day stints rather than long visits.

Who does what in the kitchen area if the home is shared. Buying, preparation, cooking, serving and washing up to be allotted.

How much housework, bedmaking, washing, ironing if needed, rubbish delivery to the tip etc is expected.

GCs are not expected to do special days unless volunteering. Christmas, Easter, New Year and anniversaries plus all the other culture rest days. These can become minefields. GCs must accept that there may often be another GC couple who may take a different view of their independence and want to be the hosts. Sometimes GCs getting together and sorting this between them can be a help to the childrens’ parents.

Nothing should be assumed. The rules apply as strictly to the GCs as to the parents. GCs may find relegating the control difficult and find it hard to hear, respect and understand the parent’s wishes and their new ways of raising children.

Clare Ireland

Jealousy: How to Embrace and Talk about it with our Partner

Dr. Ari Kiev, a New York psychiatrist, who has written on the subject of jealousy, calls it “the most painful” of human emotions. He claims that jealousy often strikes in the early stages of a relationship when the couple have not developed a sufficiently strong “sense of self” and are prone to doubts and suspicions. It then invariable becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Jealousy brings out the worst in people and most of us don’t want to admit we can be jealous and are ashamed of feeling this secret emotion. Yet, jealousy is a common and normal feeling.  When we learn to accept our feelings of jealousy then we have a better chance of starting to think about it differently and start to talk to our partners effectively. 

The definition of jealousy is often connected to envy and by distinguishing between the two, we can have a better understanding of the origin of this feeling. Envy is a two- person situation whereas jealousy is a three-person scenario. Envy is a reaction to lacking something. Jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something or someone.

Knowing whether your jealousy is well founded can be a confusing process. A client of mine was talking about “her jealousy” telling me her husband thinks she is behaving in an unreasonable and irrational manner when he looks at other women in front of her. She admits she reacts badly when he does this and can’t seem to communicate this without her husband turning it around to become about her behaviour. This is when the dynamic becomes confused between them.

When this happens, her behaviour becomes the focus of the issue and her husband’s behaviour is forgotten and the conversation is at a stalemate. Until the dynamic between them shifts, this is the only conversation they can have.

When my client was able to work through her feelings more clearly, she was able to begin a dialogue with her husband to own her jealousy but also pointing out that his behaviour was reinforcing this feeling. She explained that she felt it was as if she couldn’t hold his attention and that hurt her. The blame was taken out of the conversation and he was able to see that his behaviour was making it worse. It’s important to say, this shift in the conversation took some time, but they stuck at it until they were able to see the situation less defensively and from each other’s point of view.

So how can couples best deal with jealous thoughts?

Start to cultivate the connection to jealous feelings. Your body will alert you. It might be a tightness in your chest or stomach. Listen to it and slowly the feelings will emerge. Once you are clear what the feeling is try not to judge yourself, accept it. This will allow you to stay with it and not get caught up in any negative thought patterns: “she’s cheating on me”, “I’m not enough for him”. etc. Once you feel more comfortable with the feeling you can begin to enquire what is triggering it? With this information, you can begin a conversation with your partner. Be patient, it might take a while! 

Recognising that our partner needs more than us is key. We can’t fulfil every aspect of our partner’s need just as they can’t ours.    Logically, we understand this but our wounds of not being enough often triggers us into jealousy and we end up condemning ourselves and then the relationship.

We are all attracted to other people besides our partners, physically, spiritually and emotionally. The more we’re able to normalise this reality the better. When we start to develop a stronger sense of who we are, we begin to live and feel comfortable with the parts of ourselves that ‘are not’ and we become more. 

Be patient and kind with yourself during this process, it’s not easy. Staying with the discomfort is part of the process of getting there. Have faith. 

Shirlee Kay

Relationships – which ‘season’ are you in?

A friend of mine was recently facilitating a group of people from the Voluntary and Community Sector.  In seeking to assess where they were at in their work, he talked about how organisations often go through different ‘seasons’ in their lives: Spring, with its fresh shoots and burgeoning new life, Summer, in its abundance, Autumn with its fruitfulness and drawing back, or Winter a time for retrenchment, but also of subterranean activity.  He began by asking them where they felt we are as a nation, before beginning to get them to think about where their organisations were at, and where they themselves were professionally.   Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority felt that we are currently in the season of ‘Winter’ as a nation. 

For clients who are not used to analysing their relationships it seemed to me that a similar exercise might provide a useful way in to considering them. At Coupleworks we see individuals and couples in enormous conflict and distress in their relationships.  So often too many people come blaming almost exclusively their partners for their problems, arguing it’s they who need to change, rather than beginning by stepping back to take a look at themselves in the midst of their distress.

Helping couples to look at the dynamics in their relationship and what each partner as an individual contributes to the pattern that is currently being lived out between them is a complex task.  Often it is hard for people to begin to think about – they become very fixated about the particular problem of an affair, sex, money or how their partner has let them down, doesn’t do enough with the children or whatever. Very often the break through in the log jam begins to occur when each one starts to realise how they are contributing to what is happening in their relationship, rather than focusing solely on their partner’s shortcomings.  Then by working with that realisation we can help to explore a new or shifted dynamic between the couple.

But getting to that starting point is a challenge in itself – as it was for my friend facilitating the group that day.   Putting some context to people’s lives by beginning to identify ‘seasons’ can open up a conversation when things have become very stuck.

So why not try for yourself, or with your partner, some of the following questions.

Which season are we in as a nation?

Which season are we in as a family?

Where am I in myself?

Where do I think my partner is at?

Which season might my partner think I am in?

Where are we as a couple?

Where were we 5 years ago?

Where would we like to be in 5 years time?

I hope that using this might open up a deeper dialogue for you and your partner.

Sarah Fletcher

Couples: Healing and Reconnection after Betrayal and Infidelity

Coupleworks’ counsellors frequently witness the acute distress of a couple dealing with the aftermath of a betrayal when there have been secrets and lies and boundaries breached. Trust has gone, the relationship no longer feels safe, and there is the possibility of separation.

At the beginning of a relationship there can be explicit discussions, or sometimes just unspoken understandings, about what a committed relationship means to both. For some this will mean monogamy. For others polyamory is accepted. Each relationship will contain its own set of expectations about loyalty, values, needs, hopes, dreams which coalesce to form the couple’s contract with one another. This may evolve into co-habiting, or engagement, or marriage/civil partnership (with the very public declaration of vows and promises). Having children together links the couple in an extra dimension of commitment: co-parenting.

So it can feel devastating when one partner unilaterally does not adhere to the agreed promises and understandings. Affairs, online sexual addictions, gambling and risking financial security, alcohol or drug addictions, can shatter the stability of a relationship and a sudden loss of trust can create profound feelings of shock, grief and rage.

Pia Mellody in ‘The Intimacy Factor’ describes boundaries as protective not punitive; with the relationship boundaries created by a couple felt to be a comfort and not a limiting straight-jacket. It may seem paradoxical, but relaxing into the safe place of a ‘couple bubble’ can be liberating. A soothing relational security can encourage openness, the sharing of vulnerabilities, and the confidence to drop masks. Feeling the true ‘you’ is accepted and understood lessens the need for a false self. The connection is with a ‘soulmate’ and a relationship becomes life-enhancing not restricting or suffocating. 

However, problems arise when one partner, for whatever reason, chafes against the boundaries and acts out (with sex, alcohol, drugs, money) – rather than engage in renegotiating the terms of the relationship. 

The relationship is no longer a safe and even playing field when one person is in the dark about the reality and there is often a feeling that ‘something is wrong’. They may have been feeling anxious, confused and uncertain but when a betrayal is eventually exposed it can still come as such a blow that the distress is experienced as an actual physical reaction of shock (feeling faint, nausea, disorientated, breathless).

A couple coming to counselling at this point have an urgent shared need for containment and reassurance, but it is possible that each has a very different agenda. The betrayed partner, driven mad by not-knowing, is desperate to understand what has gone on. They seek facts, truth, and detailed information in order to regain a sense of control. 

However, sometimes the offending partner is frozen. Having lived a double life for so long, they cannot see a way of giving up either existence. Particularly if there is an addiction, the dilemma is acute. There is a simultaneous attachment to both worlds and the loss of one or other cannot be faced. 

The partner’s distress can lead to an abrupt reckoning and a concomitant terror of losing the relationship. But while there is real remorse and abject apology, there can also be an attempt to diffuse the situation. A desperate need to minimise the damage leads to a continuation of the lies and fudging. Wrongly, it is reasoned that deception lessens the impact and protects the partner from further distress: ‘What you don’t know can’t hurt you.’ They fear the full truth would mean they would lose the love and respect of those closest to them. It could mean public humiliation and everything falling apart. The prospect encourages obfuscation and the keeping of secrets.

With trust shattered, the hurt partner is disorientated and disempowered. The ground has given way. They require honesty, openness and truth from the other in order to gain understanding and insights into what has happened. However, this can come up against the betrayer’s reluctance to disclose and their stifling shame, guilt, and panic manifesting as denial, avoidance, and delusion.

What to do?

The counselling sessions will move through a number of stages involving painstaking exploration. At the beginning there is the need to work with ‘first order change’ in order to create new rules of engagement. It is essential that life regains a balance, terms are renegotiated, behaviours change, requests are respected, and a new pathway into the future is agreed. 

However, new foundations need to be built on rock and not on sand and Michelle D Mays in ‘Partner Hope’ explains that this requires a move to ‘second order change’;

‘’Second order change is when we go below the structures and change the foundational beliefs, feelings and thinking that guide our behaviours…It is deep and long-lasting. It changes things at the core, and these changes then weave and wind through our lives, rising up to create all kinds of additional changes in different areas. Second order change takes time and is experiential… It is not a quick fix and it and requires us to leave our comfort zone.’’ Change is challenging.

When a couple despairs and all feels hopeless it is sometimes the counsellor who understands the possibility of recovery and who holds the hope of repair and regeneration. Counselling offers the time and space necessary for the couple to begin the process of reconciliation, but the possibility of rebuilding from the rubble comes only when there is an authentic intention to engage in change and growth. Discussions about accountability and the taking of responsibility will be necessary. Genuine regret, heartfelt apology, acknowledgement of the hurt, will be part of the step towards healing. The development of a new trust is not easy but loving reconnection can aid forgiveness. 

Michelle D Mays describes ‘The Authentic Hope Process’ as a development:

1. Devastation (Feeling broken and in pieces)

2. Realisation (Surveying the damage, destruction and open wounds)

3. Stabilisation (Keeping afloat and clinging on to the wreckage)

4.  Reimagining (Visualising the shape of a different relationship)

5. Creating (Working together to build a new future)

6.  Flourishing!

Kathy Rees

Mind the Age Gap

Getting back into work after the summer break is always a varied and an interesting time. Some couples feel the break has been far too long and can’t wait to resume their weekly sessions.  Other couples feel the summer break has been good for their relationship and decide to end their sessions. It is often a time to reflect and be curious as to what new clients may present at an initial session.

Interestingly a theme that has already presented is – navigating couple relationships when there is a big age difference of over 15-25 years?

Traditionally these relationships have been the subject of many clichés – ‘It’s a mid-life crisis’, ‘toy boy’, ‘old enough to be your mother/father’, she’s only after his money’.  Now due to more celebrity relationships being in the public eye age-gap relationships are more common and acceptable and not always regarded as negative and suspicious!

Before beginning a relationship with someone much younger or older it’s important to consider your motivations.  Someone who dates an older person may be seeking a more parental figure than a romantic partner. They may be firmly established in a career and will be able to provide financial security. 

Someone who dates a younger person may be seeking more fun and excitement in their lives plus the sexual connection is more energising and exciting.

Does Age Matter?

Research suggests that the success of a relationship depends on the extent to which partners share values, beliefs and goals, trust and support each other and if there is a strong physical and sexual attraction.  These factors have little to do with age.  It is acknowledged that as long as couples can communicate and work at their relationship, age should not pose a barrier.

Make sure your values, morals and life goals match up.  That doesn’t mean they have to be the same but to understand where the other is on these issues and to be able to work on them together.

However what brings age-gap couples into therapy is often they are at a very different stage in their relationship where the age gap appears to be more significant and they are finding it very difficult to talk about how they feel and start to behave very differently with each other.  This starts to make the relationship feel insecure.

Issues that present in age gap relationships and questions we should ask each other:

Do we share future goals, where and how we live?

Do we want a family?

Do we fit in with each other’s family and friends?

How does it feel to be the older and more mature of the couple?  

How does if feel to be the younger and more of the caretaker?

Does it feel as if the relationship is equal and one partner doesn’t hold power over the other?

At the start of the relationship, the age gap can feel exciting and something couples don’t make a big deal of.  It’s often after many years of being together that cracks can start to appear. 

An older partner can slow down and have less energy for the younger partner.  They may be happier spending more time at home than previously.  The younger partner starts to feel resentful and can decide to lead a separate social life, not wanting to be a carer and no longer showing much interest in sex.  This in turn triggers feelings of anxiety in the older partner who feels he may be rejected for a younger model.

Alternatively a younger partner may be wanting to start a family of her own but now realises this is not what her older partner now wants to engage with as he already has a previous family and does not want to start again with a young baby.

Having said all this, the age-gap shouldn’t become the total focus of your relationship.  Sometimes unnecessary dwelling on this can turn things negative when they don’t need to be.  Whenever there is conflict we tend to go to our vulnerable spots, which in this case may be the age difference, but it might not actually be the issue at all. 

Taking time out to understand these feelings is vital to maintain a successful relationship.  Each partner needs to understand themselves as well as understanding their partner and what they need to keep any relationship alive and growing.

Its good to remember:

“When you truly love someone, age doesn’t matter, whether it is a difference of 2 years or 30 years, 

Love is Love.”

Dawn Kaffel

How to avoid an Affair and Curb that Wanderlust

Let’s start by acknowledging that all long term relationships will have their rocky moments. Watching elderly couples on tv sitting side by side and celebrating 50 plus years of ‘happy marriage’ needs close examination.

When they cheerfully state that they’ve ‘had their ups and downs’ it’s unlikely that they are remembering an amusing tiff over the tv remote back in the day.

Long term relationships will have seriously jittery times. Life deals us unexpected events and we will all go through some dramatic highs and lows as well as periods of flatness and resentments.

At the Getting To Know You start of relationships it can seem that we never stop talking to each other. There is so much curiosity and so much mutual interest that it can feel as if the closeness is bulletproof.

Interestingly, the two main reasons that bring couples to counselling, are often a breakdown in communication or trying to cope after an affair.

How likely then is it that these are linked….

If we can’t talk to each other, it leaves a vacancy and makes it easy to find someone else who seems to take a real interest in us.

Communication in any relationship is vital. And it’s so easy to take each other for granted.

Set aside time to talk about what each person wants. Ask questions and find the curiosity that has been lost. We can forget the sense of importance that was set up at the start of a relationship, so don’t allow this validation to just be found in work, families and friends.

It’s not the grass on the other side that’s greener, it’s the grass that gets attention that will flourish.

Be playful within the relationship. People are inclined to confuse childish with childlike. Having fun and a bit of silliness will keep things fresh. Age doesn’t have to be a slide into predictability and boredom. Surprise each other sometimes with a treat, an unexpected experience. This is good barrier against one person finding too much fun and attention elsewhere.

Have a relationship M.O.T every so often.

Take a little time out to get an overview. Discuss petty resentments in a non-accusatory way. Remind each other what you really value in the relationship. And remember to articulate the positives. Compliments flow so easily in the romantic early days. Keep that link to the past.

If at all possible take a day, night, weekend away. No friends or hobbies to fill the time, just a few hours to concentrate on each other. Always keep shared goals and dreams in mind. And keep talking about your hopes and fears.

Don’t neglect your physical closeness. Sex is a great way to communicate. Most relationships will hit patches of overwork and tiredness that can make sex feel like a chore.

But don’t let this become habitual as it can start causing the tiny cracks between couples which become draughty chasms.

Sex then becomes a no-go area even for conversation. If intimacy gets lost it becomes extremely tempting to notice that it can be found elsewhere.

Non-sexual contact is vital too. A hug, a kiss and a stroke especially at an unexpected moment can create closeness.

Acknowledge that there will be others that attract us. We are human and sometimes vulnerable.

But, we also know and can recognise when this starts. Encourage these flirtations and that way danger lies.

It can feel painful to avoid the ‘accidental’ times when you may be alone with someone who ignites emotions that seem buried in your own couple relationship.

Remember you have a choice, maybe not over how you feel when drawn to another, but there is a pivotal choice over what you do with those feelings. It can be hard to resist the heady rush of feeling a mutual attraction to another, but that’s the decisive moment.

Your choice. Always.

This song was written in the aftermath of a destructive long forgotten affair

 

Wanting to not cheat in these circumstances is a tough call. Take the need for validation and romantic love and bring it back to breathe some of the energy and spice into your tired partnership. The results may surprise you.

Christina Fraser

Body Language

The social psychologist Amy Cuddy has given a TED Talk (June 2012) entitled ‘Your body language shapes who you are’. She discusses how our body language influences how we are perceived by others – but that it can also change our perception of ourselves. More than that, we can even affect our own body chemistry by adapting the way we sit or stand – and consciously alter our mood by shifting our body shape.

(Try it now…
Stand up and fling your arms wide apart.
Hold that position.
Now smile with your eyes as well as your mouth.
Hold that position.
How do you feel?)

When we feel confident of love we metaphorically and actually spread our arms out wide.
Think of greeting someone you love. We fling open our arms in a gesture of welcome and acceptance and envelop them in an embrace – bring them close. Our bodies feel full of energy, loose and relaxed
However, when feeling vulnerable we curl into the foetal position. When feeling defensive we fold our arms across our bodies. We shut out the person who might cause us pain and harm. When feeling hurt we can become cautious and wary. We withdraw and become emotionally unavailable. The face becomes closed, expressionless and unrevealing and we avoid eye contact. If we are angry our bodies hold a tension and stiffness and we become unapproachable – ‘don’t touch me!’

Our mental state mirrors our physical state. When feeling under attack, we become defensive and shuttered off from the feelings of the other person. It is a state of mind that is the opposite of ‘open wide’. We struggle with empathy or curiosity. Concern and intimacy, interaction and connection, can be lost.

In her book ‘Marriage Rules’, Harriet Lerner describes defensiveness as ‘the archenemy of listening’.
If you cannot listen without interrupting then, effectively, you are blocking your partner. Dialogue breaks down. There is no room for an acceptance of difference, or an engagement of ideas.
Sentences that begin with ‘Yes, but….’ and ‘No, no…’ are rebuttals of the perceived reality of the other. Both feel unheard.

But how to step out from behind a defensive barricade and start a conversation – not an argument?
Consciously choose to change position from passionate fury to ‘passionate listening’ (Harriet Lerner)
Change the body chemistry. Alter your mind’s position and lower the flood of adrenaline released by the ‘flight, flight, or freeze’ reflex reaction.

Pause.
Breathe in deeply.
Exhale slowly.
Metaphorically stay present (mind open wide).
Say ‘tell me more…’

Counselling with a Coupleworks therapist offers a safe environment to begin to take this first step towards change.

Holidays – A Dream or A Nightmare

Holidays are usually seen as a break from the stresses and strains of everyday life, a chance to take a deep breath and have a change from everyday routine.

Going away with your significant other can be joyful and a great time to spend more time together to relax and reconnect. However for others spending a period of concentrated time together can be difficult and stressful and not always a bed of roses!

Perhaps it is taken for granted that because we go on holiday it means that we should get on better, but if there are issues that are unresolved at they are going to come on holiday with you!!

So as we approach a time in the year where thoughts go to planning a holiday here are a few guidelines to avoid some of the common pitfalls:

1.Plan the holiday together. Make sure you are both going somewhere that you both want to visit. This can eliminate disappointment and frustration of the others choice of destination.

2.Make it clear and discuss what you both want to achieve from your holiday.

3.If you want to sit in the sun and your partner prefers to explore and sightsee, just make sure there is enough time and space to do the things you both want to do, both separately and together.

4.Don’t make the mistake of doing too much running around on holiday and replicating what happens at home. A holiday is the opportunity to do something different from the normal. Doing nothing and just being comfortable with this is part of relaxing on holiday.

5.It’s important that we feel that we have our partner’s undivided attention, so avoid constant use of mobile phones and laptops. If you need to be in touch with the office, make sure it is the minimum and at a time that suits you both and quickly return to holiday mode.

6. Don’t use the holiday to bring up past arguments and resentments. It will be much more beneficial to focus on the positive bits of each other to help relax, reconnect and achieve closer intimacy so you can deal with the niggles and annoyances better when you return home.

Enjoy!

Dawn Kaffel

Couples who live apart together. LATS

When setting out on any kind of committed couple, the hope is for a long lasting relationship. With long levity in certain areas of the world becoming more normal, it may be time to take a fresh look at how we perceive couple life. Most would agree that 24/7 together for possibly 50-70 years needs constant re shaping and re evaluating in order to stave off over familiarity and irritation ignited by habit.

The kind of couples people choose to be in has evolved from marriage, a law created to build up the population and a safeguard against lack of structure and safety, into all kinds of coupling, and if chosen, rearing a family. People choose to make their own unique couple without the more childlike safety of rules and regulations hampering their creativity.

One of the changes two people choosing to stay together from formation to death has to think about is longevity. People living to 100 is now no longer a rarity, rather it is becoming something which no longer is discussed as astonishing.

If a couple who choose to be together for life reach these bigger age numbers, certain prices have to be paid. Their bodies continue to age and their brains tend to lose short term memories which hitherto have been clear. Exercise and diet play a part in a long and healthy life but also peace of mind, caring for or being cared for in a kind and loving way can enhance a sense of well being and energy.

There are no set ways for these necessities to be achieved, it is up to the couple to work out a way to continue to want to be by each other’s side through good and bad times.

Living apart together is an option. This, of course, requires enough financial backing to put into place. A decision to live apart some of the time and together for the rest of the time can bring back what was present when the couple chose each other many years before.

Trust has to be one of the biggest assets to make this work. It enables each person to pursue outside interests, different groups of people, ideas, types of holiday, food, ways of running a home and where to live without loosing trust and admiration.

They can then be together for the things they love about each other and apart for the sometimes irritating differences. This can build up renewed respect and sense of self before the time comes when they may have to care for each other permanently.

This will allow them to use what they have built together over the years to be a reward at the end of life.

Clare Ireland

Working with Older Couples

Recently, I have found myself working with couples who have been together for a long time. Sometimes for decades.  They often come to see me not because there is something horribly wrong with their relationship but because they are struggling to find meaning and a deeper connection they long for.  It’s as if having got through their professional lives, raising a family together and managing the difficulties life presents, they are left with a profound disappointment that begs the question “What has this all meant?”

Helping couples to find their way back to one another can be challenging, but I have found that couples who are invested enough to want to come into couples therapy to explore their relationship are far less likely to walk away and better able to work together and find one another again.

When couples begin to sense their disconnected from each other, some common issues tend to come up, such as not feeling supported, leading separate lives and not making an effort to do the things the other likes. Feeling unloved, uncared for, and unappreciated often are what hurt and make couples think that their entire relationship has been meaningless.  Acknowledging this hurt and disappointment doesn’t need to translate into blame but can become an opportunity for understanding and healing.

By going back and better understanding the “unconscious agreements” couples make when they first meet (these are the expectations that are bought into present relationship that are informed by unconsciously witnessing their parent’s) couples are better able to consciously see the part they bring into the relationship. This awareness can help reframe their narrative so they can begin to clearly state what their needs are now.

At the heart of a long-term relationship is the ability to see the value of staying together through thick and thin (despite it not being perfect) and appreciating that “we all learn as we go” and usually have done the best we could at that time.
Accepting each other’s flaws starts with us accepting our own. Learning to forgive ourselves teaches us the compassion to forgive our partner for sometimes letting us down (and knowing we are capable of letting them down). Our own consciousness gives us the tools to be more compassionate, kind and appreciative of our partner and brings us closer to having a loving and authentic relationship which is essential for a long term relationship.

Some things we can do to sustain long term relationships:
Make contact with each other. Say good morning, good night etc.
Take time to ask the other how they are, how they feel.
Leave each other sweet messages.
Do unexpected things, book a favourite restaurant, arrange a special night out.
Run a bath for your partner
Make physical contact daily. Kiss, touch one another often.
Be sweet and playful with each other.

Shirlee Kay

Balanced Living in Relationships

‘There is an Indian belief that everyone is a house of four rooms: a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual room.

Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not complete’. Rumer Godden

I was reminded of this piece of ancient wisdom just the other week. It was in the context of helping couples to think about their relationship and how much they inhabit these different rooms in that relationship. But before we think about these different rooms as they affect couples, let’s focus back on the individual.

As the belief states, human life has different aspects and in order for us to feel whole and balanced, finding contentment in our lives, we need to have these different aspects in balance.

Physical – we need our bodies to go about our daily lives – to work, eat, sleep and survive in the world. But how much care do we take of our body? How well do we feed it, enjoy exercise, or enjoy our sexuality?

Mental – our intellect is our ability to think and reason. We need it to think clearly and to be open-minded as that helps us to build up knowledge and develop skills. It can lead us to a place of profound understanding where as a mis-aligned intellect can be the source of terrible confusion.

Emotional – this is about our ability to experience the world and what drives us to seek connections with others. Are we able to feel the full range of feelings – anger, love, hate, disappointment… but also to set boundaries for ourselves.

Spiritual – this is about our soul – our inner being – perhaps a feeling of belonging to the universe. It doesn’t have to mean a religious belief but perhaps how we make meaning of our lives.

If we then broaden this notion of the four rooms to think about our couple relationship the same questions can be asked – how much time as a couple do we spend inhabiting each of these rooms? Which do we inhabit more frequently and which rarely gets even an airing?

According to Wikipedia ‘Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together’. Closing down any room or never really looking in there, will inevitably limit intimacy between partners. To really experience a deep and meaningful intimacy will mean connecting to all four rooms in our own house and then to those of our partners.

Ask yourself and your partner these questions..

1. Which room am I/we most comfortable in?
2. Which room do I/we tend to neglect?
3. How can we begin to live a more balanced life as individuals and as a couple?

Sarah Fletcher

Getting a better understanding of the problem

When a couple starts relationship counselling the therapist spends time trying to get a clear idea of the issues that are causing strife. Often the couple is stuck in a repetitive pattern of blame and complaint and feel frustrated that they have not managed to break out of a corrosive state of disappointment. Sadly, when trapped in a fog of negativity, each partner can get in their own way of happiness. Dissatisfaction causes a perpetual own goal. Although the intention of criticism is an attempt to revive the relationship, create change and reconnect lovingly, instead it creates resentment and is almost destined to fail.

An added difficulty is that a couple often comes with the perception that the other is the cause of the problem. They hope their partner will see the error of their ways and will be the one to make the necessary changes

However, there is optimism in the hope that the relationship can be more loving, lighter, more relaxed and less fraught. They long for ways to soften the hostile interactions.

But Michael Stanier* warns about the ‘Advice Monster’. Fixing the other is not the answer. ‘If only he/she was different everything would be fine.’ Instead of getting caught up finding solutions to the myriad of surface irritations, it is important to spend time investigating the root of the problems. The need to search more deeply is always flagged when a couple admits ‘It seems so trivial but…’ These trivialities become significant because of what they reveal about a hidden more serious issue.

The counsellor will continue to explore the meaning attached to the behaviour that annoys and upsets. It is not until the ‘raw spots’ are revealed, when the wounds and hurts are acknowledged, and the core anxiety understood, that change can be addressed. Very often unpeeling the layers can expose a deep attachment insecurity or fear. There can be a direct line from wet towels left on the bathroom floor, to then feeling taken for granted, to then feeling not seen and cared for, and to then feeling alone and not loved.

The couple therapist Ellyn Bader suggests experimenting with an ‘Initiator – Inquirer’ process to begin a more effective style of communication. It may seem rigid and artificial but, in fact, it can help to create a freer more open dynamic. The couple take turns in each role.

The first aim is to give the upset partner (the ‘initiator’) the space and time to explain and feel heard

The second aim is to gain understanding. This partner (‘the inquirer’) is to try to manage any reactions of resistance or urges to dismiss and minimise, and stay listening. This should be helped by keeping to a script of questions:

1. ‘What’s upsetting you?’ ‘What’s worrying you?’ ‘What’s on your mind? The ‘initiator’ is limited to choosing one specific issue only. Keeping to ‘I’ statements they explain what it is they find upsetting. This is an attempt to break a loop of criticism/self-defensiveness. Instead of the ‘inquirer’ leaping into retaliatory tit-for-tat argument, the requirement is for ‘passionate listening’. It is not about refuting or agreeing at this stage. There will be an opportunity to explain reactions later.

2. ‘Tell me more.’ ‘What is it about that?’ ‘How does it make you feel?’ ‘Is there more about it?’ ‘Is there something else?’ Expressing an intention to listen and understand shows concern and this, in turn, encourages the other to be more introspective and self-explanatory. Name-calling, character assassination, critical blame or a negative list of complaints is not allowed. The one explaining has to explain the specifics of their struggle and pain. The listener needs to remain curious and avoid either flaring up or shutting down.

3. ‘What is the real challenge about that?’ ‘Why is that uncomfortable?’ The focus is on the person feeling hurt to identify specifically what they find disturbing. Are they making value judgements? What links and associations are being made? What if they reality test? What are reasonable expectations? Are the expectations shared? Is it possible to make a request (but not dictate or demand)?

4. ‘What do you need right now?’ ‘What are your needs in our relationship?’ ‘If we begin to make changes how will things feel better for you?’ ‘In which ways do you think it will be better for me?
The couple then reverse roles with the hope that mutual understanding allows the possibility of negotiating change. Keeping to the script is an attempt to break the deadlock of antagonistic emotional volatility and avoid the usual critical attacks. Previously, despite the couple feeling desperate for relief, the more hostile a relationship the more each partner remained fearful of letting go of the self-protective responses of hot anger or cold silence.

Their challenge is to see themselves on the same side and relax into becoming the safe loving team once again.

Kathy Rees

(* ‘The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever’)

Couples Emotional Attachment to Money

In a session recently a client disclosed to her husband that she was in a lot of debt but had been too afraid to share this with him. This came as a complete shock to him and he questioned what sort of marriage they had if his partner didn’t feel able to share this with him. Yet again this made me acutely aware of just how difficult it is for many couples to talk about money and their finances. It seems to be even harder than talking about sex.

Even when there is a lot of love and connection in a relationship, money issues are high on the list of subjects that couples argue about and cause conflict. This is probably why couples avoid the topic, particularly in the early stages of a relationship. Couple arguments about money tend to be more problematic and more likely to remain unresolved.

We come into our relationships with inherited attitudes, emotions and beliefs about money from our family backgrounds. We may not be fully aware of what we bring to our relationships about our own feelings about spending and saving, but it often gets acted out in our relationships. If we experienced parents who were careful with money, we often want to emulate that if it was a good experience. However if it wasn’t, we may want to do the opposite and be frivolous with money.

Understanding that we have an emotional relationship with money helps make sense of our feelings and behaviours around it. How we feel about money is often tied up with our need to feel secure, in control and independent.

Money can be challenging in a relationship when partners have contrasting relationships to money for example if one wants to spend and the other to save there is the potential for conflict. What happens if one wants to spend in a certain way and the other to save in a different way? Having polarised views can be challenging if not talked about and understood. Our individual emotional relationship with money often gets projected into our relationships. For example if we see ourselves in the role of a care giver and provider which makes us feel secure, how will this effect a partner who may not be used to being provided for and highly values their financial independence.

We don’t like to acknowledge that money can cause a power imbalance in our relationships. This is more likely to happen when there is a big difference in a couples salary and how money is spent and bills paid. Do you have separate bank accounts and/or joint accounts?

Money doesn’t have to be a wedge in your relationship. Learning how to talk to a partner about finances in a healthier more satisfying way is hugely beneficial for a growing relationship.

The key to dealing with this complex issue is to be open and honest with each other about how you feel about money, what money means to you, your attitude and values and where money fits into your relationship with each other. The need for clarity in how you plan to share finances, manage your spending and pay bills will enable you to have a better understanding and connection to one another’s perspective.

Useful questions to ask each other:

*How important is money to you?

*What messages did you get from your parents about money?

*How do you feel about spending money?

*What are your thoughts about saving money?

*Do you identify with being a spender or saver?

*Do you budget?

*Are you worried about money?

*Do you manage money well?

*Have you ever been in debt or had gambling problems?

If you feel money is an on-going issue that is contributing to conflict and distancing in your relationship, you may find it useful to take time out to talk to a Coupleworks counsellor in a confidential safe setting.

Dawn Kaffel

Self Care – looking after number one

We need to allow clients, whether coming as a couple or individually, the time and space to better understand, and have empathy for, an other whose opinions or outlooks they don’t always share. This can often be can be a real challenge.
One of the primary factors referred by clients as a reason to need therapy is described as ‘bad communication’. And observing them finding new empathy is a rewarding part of the work.
But an often overlooked factor can be how hard it often seems to find this same level of compassion and understanding within ourselves.
It’s a given that on every airline safety procedure, we are asked to put on our own oxygen masks in advance of attending to others.
Before we can look after those around us, we need self care, and it can be tricky to better understand why we can sometimes be so critical or judgemental of our own thoughts and responses.
Self compassion needs to be seen as completely different to self pity which victimises the self. Here, we’re looking at coping strategies to overcome very human feelings of shame and self punishment.
How much easier is it to listen to a good friend, or someone we really care about, and find ways to explain and forgive traits or mistakes that we should dwell on if thinking about them in the context of our own experience.
How often do we reflect on long-gone situations and still feel twinges of shame or embarrassment.
Wikipedia suggests that ‘we need to recognise that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience’
See? It’s not only you….
we can’t eradicate our feelings, thoughts or past actions but we can learn to look at them with a more gentle and thoughtful mindset. Making a bad call on some decision doesn’t make you a bad person. Doing the right thing when you can, and giving yourself permission if you slip sometimes, is key.
Most spiritual beliefs centre around a concept of a universal love.
Self-criticism while being thoughtful towards others outside, makes for false distinctions that can only bring isolation. Buddhist thinking suggests that the way of relating to the self is with kindness – not to be confused with arrogance or conceit which can be an indicator of a lack of self love.
Learn to love ourselves unconditionally isn’t easy but here’s India.Arie doing it her way.

An empty or depressed sense of self will look externally for ways to find validation. Feelings of unworthiness can mean depending on others to fulfil us. Sadly, this is likely to lead to disappointment. We can’t ask another person to complete us – we can only ask that they accept us.
There are tried and tested ways to self nurture. Mindfulness, therapy, and the ability to allow ourselves to be good enough.
Remembering that Excellence is the enemy of the Good.
If we strive for perfection then ‘good’ will never seem enough. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes at times and understand that others have felt this way too.
Small treats, time outside, space to think and the confidence to explore creativity will all help,
Good, empathetic therapy that can give the time to further explore all this shows a real degree of self compassion.
Take a little time to treat yourself with as much care as you would give to a good friend, partner or child. Support yourself with as much kindness as you would offer a loved one. Compassion for our self is often a forgotten element of our busy lives. Go on – give yourself a hug, no-one is watching.

Christina Fraser

The advantage of difference.

I have written about the difficulties of difference in an earlier blog (posted on August 4th 2011 filed under Relationships) and looked at ways to include them in a couple rather than allow them to become something which pushes the couple into feeling the thread between them has broken.

I am now looking at the advantages of difference .. how valuable it can be in strengthening the thread of intimacy.

At Coupleworks we see so many couples where difference has set them apart to the point of feeling the damage to the couple is irreparable. We work with the couple to explore why this has happened and if there is another way of looking at difference which is actually part of the glue that they need.

It is important to hear why each person chose the other at their first meeting. What made them feel that here was someone who could repair difficulties encountered in their previous experience. Often each will insert into the other a hope for change and a feeling of security, safety and acceptance which were perhaps missing in earlier years.

It is often difference that features more than sameness; difference of culture, social positioning, religion, language, looks and ideas. Depending on the early story, this can be a good choice but after really getting to know each other, it can become the difficulty which brings a couple into Coupleworks..

Interestingly, cultural difference can be easier to tolerate than social difference within a culture. So much can be put down to cultural ways without offending, yet anything highlighted about social difference can be received as insulting and hurtful; an attack on their family, upbringing and root.

Tolerating the differences and making them work rather than hinder is a loving and giving thing to do for a partner and if well received is felt as acceptance and admiration rather than the end of love. I try to encourage the couple to allow their differences and even borrow some of them without fear of reprisal, hopefully encouraging more warmth and respect.

Raising children can be the time when difference becomes highlighted and for the sake of the children’s future these issues need to be carefully discussed before starting a family. Compromises need to be made without each parent feeling the loss of part of themselves. Different views can enhance the way children learn as long as a feeling of antagonism is not present between the parents. They learn about how to have different viewpoints without them becoming ammunition. Negotiation becomes a valuable asset for the children’s entry into adult life.

Following the last blog posted by Shirlee Kay about the latest Royal Wedding, difference can now be seen as an advantage and not a cause for shame and humiliation leading to argument and discourse. This new light can be seen as a triumph of positive thinking and tolerance.

Clare Ireland.

A Modern Wedding

This past weekend, the nation and the world witnessed yet another Royal Wedding with all the familiar sense of excitement and commentary that goes along with this joyful event. Yet, this wedding was different. Harry, born into royalty and 6th in line to be King married an American actress of mixed race, divorced and with a less than traditional family. Yes. This is the modern family!

It is far easier to define what we have known as a traditional family; two parents of different genders, sharing the same religion, same colour, same class. The difference was only seen when couples strayed from these expectations. Divorced families were stigmatised, mixed race couples reacted violently against, homosexuals ‘jailed’ and so on. These diversions from the norm put couples and families outside the realm of the traditional family. Saying this, the word ‘traditional’ has evolved through time and has brought about more acceptance of difference.

It is far more difficult to define the modern family. It transcends these external differences and becomes a new paradigm of thinking. Still, this can create confusion and a sense of not “being normal” for individuals and couples. We see this in our work with women deciding to have babies on their own and couples choosing not to have children. One gay couple I work with still struggles with visiting his parents with his partner and their children at the family home. From the outside, his family ‘accepts’ his relationship but the underlying discomfort he feels when they visit creates difficult and unresolved feelings between him and his parents. These issues need to be brought into the open and worked through in order to help change these outdated views.

The modern family can create problems within the family and couples have difficulties managing their own family dynamics such as divorced parents, step-parents and half siblings let alone factoring in their same sex or mixed race marriages. Making sense of unresolved feelings often send couples into conflict with one another. Harry and Megan modelled this well when her father decided to pull out of the wedding party. No dramas here, Prince Charles walked Megan down the aisle with love and grace. Of course, we aren’t privy to the conversations that preceded this!

Families are no longer straightforward and no longer look the same. These changes require us to reflect, adjust and evolve. This Royal Wedding hopefully might help make the modern family easier to accept and at some point help it move along a little faster.

Shirlee Kay

OMGYes – breaking the taboo of female sexuality

In my work as a psychosexual therapist I am always on the look out for new articles, books or websites that might be useful for clients in their journey to improve their sexual relationship. The area of women’s sexual pleasure has always been a rather taboo subject. It has been much less well researched and written about than men’s with the result that it has remained shrouded in secrecy, if not shame.

When clients first come to sex therapy we look at their individual sexual histories; this includes exploring areas such as how they found out about sex, what sexual messages they were given in their early life, any religious and cultural influences, and any experiences of inappropriate sexual advances or sexual abuse. Part of this history taking is also about talking through their own feelings about their bodies. Many women grow up feeling less positive about their own genitals than other parts of their bodies. This can lead to insecurity about their own sexuality and also a lack of sexual responsiveness.

One of the great new websites that I have come across recently and which clients have been talking about is called OMGYes.com.

It has been on the web for a couple of years now but was picked up the media when Emma Watson, the Harry Potter star, described it in this way
‘ I wish it had been around longer. Definitely check it out, it’s an expensive subscription but it’s worth it.’

The founders of this site collaborated with researchers from Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute, to interview and do a large scale study on sexual techniques that lead to greater pleasure with 2000 women, aged between 18 and 95. This resulted in 62 short, down to earth videos, and also interviews with ordinary women talking about different techniques for sexual pleasure. There are also11 interactive videos that you can use with a touch screen to ‘practice’ your techniques.

I think what is so helpful about this site is that it really gives specific instructions and techniques to help women with their arousal. Although very explicit in that the videos show women masturbating, it is not in the least pornographic; in fact it is educational and fun. The messages are all portrayed honestly and with no shame and that helps to break down the barrier that women’s sexual pleasure is something shameful and that they should keep quiet about.

Whilst the main aim of the site is to give insight to women and break down the taboo of women’s pleasure, it also offers insight to both men and couples. In my therapeutic work I find that increasing knowledge of the body’s capacity for sensual and sexual pleasure enhances a sexual relationship. As the OMGYes site states

‘Couples who constantly explore new ways to increase pleasure are 5 times more likely to be happier in their relationships and 12 times more likely to be sexually satisfied’

Clients I have worked with have found it really helpful (and no I am not getting paid to write this!). At £29 for a one off subscription it can be money very well spent.

Sarah Fletcher

Couple Counselling and Ending a Relationship when there are children

‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity/Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.’ [W.B.Yeats]

Sometimes relationships come to an end.
And sometimes couple counselling is not about resolving issues, repairing the relationship, or reconnecting the couple.
Sometimes a couple starts therapy in order to manage their separation. Endings of any kind can unsettle, disturb and be profoundly upsetting. Couples seek counselling aware that they need to steady themselves and find a new equilibrium. They hope to uncover a different way of relating that will be as respectful and as amicable as possible. Recently Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were open about their commitment to the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of their relationship.

The old order has gone. Lives are different in so many ways and the repercussions ripple out. Moving out of ‘home’; dealing with the wider family and in-laws; managing old and shared friendships; stress; lack of sleep; health issues – all have an impact.
Lawyers will deal with the legalities. Mediators can help with finances. But the hurt and emotional disturbance needs to be addressed too.
In the face of the upheaval and feelings of vulnerability, there can be a preference for individual therapy. But, particularly when there are children involved, couple counselling can also be an important resource.

There is always a risk that children can get caught in the crossfire of unpleasant hostilities if a couple become adversaries. Frequently children overhear arguments when anger, frustration and resentment erupt and spill over. There are untold benefits in taking the time to communicate more calmly and effectively in front of them. Counselling can offer strategies for avoiding the open negative conflicts that have the potential to frighten a child.

Pulls of divided loyalties, feelings that they have to choose sides, can distress a child already confused and upset at the splintering of the family; and they certainly should not feel any responsibility to repair or be an intermediary.
Committing to keep in mind the best interests of the children, and to control any urges to score points, inflict hurt, or gain revenge, can be important agreed aims in the counselling when the future organisation of the family is being decided.

‘The point is not to end a marriage in some ideal or virtuous way… When breaking up… you need to do it in the best way you can. It is not in your interests to be still caught up in bitterness and anger ten years after breaking up, nor in passiveness and hopelessness… The more you can digest the emotional impact of a break-up, the freer you will be to move on… and it will leave you more emotionally open to help your children.’ [‘Breaking Up Blues – A Guide to Survival and Growth’ Denise Cullington]

The counselling room can be the ‘safe space’ where difficult conversations are contained so children are not overwhelmed by a fraught tension. They love both parents and it is frightening to witness parental hate and attack and difficult for children to evaluate and process adult rage. The separation may have already rocked the foundation of their world, they may feel shattered by the loss of the usual security, but they should not feel everything is out of control. Both parents have a role in supporting and guiding the children to manage the unavoidable grief and loss, and to navigate the changes in their lives as they know it.

However lives are organised after a separation, and however much the couple continues to see each other, their parental role means they will forever remain interconnected. It takes courage and resilience but, along with supportive couple counselling, the couple can find the resources to engage their adult parts in order to make that as flexible and as constructive a connection as possible.

Kathy Rees

The Legacy of Growing Up with an Alcoholic Parent

It has recently been reported that current government investments are looking at funding some proper support for children of alcoholic parents, and recognising the long lasting effects of this legacy.
Finally, there’s some formal acknowledgement of the ongoing devastation caused to children growing up in a family where one, or both, parents are addicted to drink.
As therapists working with adult relationship issues, we usually ask clients to outline their family backgrounds. As soon as the phrase ‘my mother/father was an alcoholic’ comes up, this will give a lot of clues as to how this person may have been raised and what difficulties they could have faced while growing up and trying to make sense of family and relationships.
Many of these alcohol dependent parents will have no idea of the effects their habit has on their families, but the fall-out is generally profound and long-lasting and can impact on their children well into adulthood, if not forever.

Trust
Growing up in the family of a drinker is likely to involve secrecy, there’s the possibility of not knowing how the parent will react as there’s often no consistency in their behaviours. Unpredictability becomes the norm. They may be unreachable, or break promises. Sometimes one parent will cover for the other and truth becomes a fluid concept. The children will have no ongoing feelings that trust and safety are a given. If you can’t trust the people that are your role models, then hope of future solid relationships becomes a lost ideal.

Normality
Well, there just isn’t any, but for the children in these household, chaos or change is their normal, as this is the way that family life continues for them. They may view other ‘ordinary’ families, but we are all mostly affected by our own day-to-day life, and if this is a helter-skelter of experiences, then that’s what we shall accept as reality.
It can be hard for these children to grow into adults who can accept a smooth path, it can also be hard to differentiate between good and bad role models or to integrate into a ‘normal’ family model.

Conflict
Ideally, children should grow up in a situation where anger can be seen as an ordinary part of any loving relationship. Parents can row sometimes, that’s a normal part of couple life. Parents can get cross with children, that’s pretty normal too. But it only works when it doesn’t get out of hand and the child sees that an occasional heated disagreement doesn’t break the caring bond between people. The knowledge that a hug, a kiss and a loving attachment underpins annoyance and is the stronger part of any connection will render reasonable anger as safe and negotiable. The child of an alcoholic is likely to fear any conflict and find it tricky to safely express negative emotion in a healthy way. Assertiveness can later be interpreted as anger and the legacy may be that of constantly seeking the approval of others and hiding their own feelings. Showing need can be dangerously disappointing.

Self criticism
Growing up in these unpredictable environments will often lead a child to become an adult with an over sensitive view of themselves, lacking self compassion and with low self-esteem. Always having to cautiously fit around another, powerful figure leads them to lose their own sense of robustness and identity.

Intimacy
This is a real loss for these clients, as safe intimacy relies on vulnerability. We have to be able to trust another with our deepest feelings and allow them to know our fears to be in an authentic relationship. For the child of an alcoholic, expressing fear can be an alien concept. Losing control will feel massively unsafe. This can also lead to a raft of other, seemingly soothing or distracting habits.
Addiction, eating disorders, co-dependent relationships, or other compulsive behaviours – not inevitable, but if necessary these are important things to be able to express in a safe, therapeutic situation.
Often, these clients have been assigned the role of ‘rescuer’ as a child – this can mean confusing love with pity.  Finding a partner they can concentrate on ‘helping’ to avoid looking after their own needs will repeat this pattern. Alternatively, many will find a partner who is emotionally unavailable, thus repeating the absence of feeling special in their original family.
Staying alert and vigilant was often their natural defence against the fear of the nameless dread that exists when a child feels unsafe on a deep level. Taking this  mindset into adult relationships will undermine the safety and easy companionship that we all need in adult couples.

This might seem a depressing list, but as couple therapists it’s our job to help our clients acknowledge their past. Nothing can change the places we all come from and few of us have a perfect upbringing, but by naming the fears and looking at the full context, together we can begin to make sense of the patterns they may have inherited.
It may be important to look at the unhappy, chaotic parental situation with some compassion. People with addictive personalities are usually suffering themselves and easily afflicted by distorted thinking.
In a safe therapeutic situation we can begin to think about helping clients to distance themselves from this past drama and understand that it need not control the present. Learning to let go is a difficult but rewarding task. Future relationships need not echo those that have gone before.
Let’s hope that the investment in helping today’s children to achieve a healthier childhood will lead to more adults finding loving family relationships of their own in the future.

Christina Fraser

The Mistakes that Couples make

A recent article in the Times entitled “you’re doing it wrong! the 60 mistakes we all make” made me reflect on how often couples can make mistakes in the their relationships without even realising the potential damage this can cause.

Here are some of the most common mistakes that couples repeatedly make that are avoidable:

1. We’ve known each other for so long, we don’t have to work on our relationship
Too many couples are falling victim to Complacency. Content with rushing through life and maintaining a certain life style, couples are oblivious to the reality that their most important relationship is missing out on the effort, attention and care it so desperately needs.

2. Work and children take up all of our time
It’s too easy to allow work and children to become the centre of your universe. It doesn’t hurt to reflect on the time when you were the centre of each other’s universe and how that’s been lost. How important it is to recognise that you both need to show more interest, concern and affection towards each other.

3. Trying to change the other person
Couples are often attracted to each other because of difference but after a while we can be tempted to try to change them to be the same as us. This often leads to a build up of on-going disappointment and resentments which contributes to emotional disconnection
Try to take a step back and remember why you fell in love in the first place.

4. Trying to control your partner
We are often driven crazy by our partner’s behaviours. Being told what to do and how to do it consistently can drive a wedge. Do not treat your partner like a child, who has to be told what to do you are a partner not a parent!

5. Criticising and complaining about your partner
Couples get into bad habits of often using always and never statements that criticize the whole person. When this happens we often feel distant and pull away. This in turn creates feelings of uncertainty and insecurity that triggers the complaining behaviour.

6. Not feeling listened to
Being able to communicate well with your partner is an essential component of a close loving relationship. By paying closer attention to how you talk to each other the tone of your voice, your body language is likely to make you feel that you are being heard, valued and understood. It is more likely to elicit more empathy and understanding from your partner rather than a defensive and negative response.

7. Not feeling understood
Its important to recognise that men and women communicate so differently and getting through to each other in a meaningful way is often a struggle. Women often feel misunderstood by their partner’s emotional disengagement and their offer of a solution. Men often feel overwhelmed with partners changing and often challenging emotional needs.

8. Bringing unresolved issues from our past
Often our past experiences in our families can get re-awakened and projected into our current relationships and its important to take responsibility for what belongs to us as individuals and what belongs to the partnership. This shared understanding can bring empathy and closeness.

9. Depending on each other for happiness
Being completely dependent on the other for your own happiness will only lead to disappointment. Its important to stay connected to who you really are and what you need for yourself to bring happiness both inside and outside your relationship

10. We never argue
Never arguing is often seen as a badge of honour for some couples. In fact couples that argue effectively are more likely to have a stronger more secure attachment than those who avoid arguments out of fear.
Couples who argue tend to be more passionate

11.Spontaneity is the only way to have sex
How difficult is it to bring spontaneity into any aspect of our busy lives let alone our sex lives.
It is argued that putting aside set times to enjoy sex takes away any excitement. However planning sex can help couples maintain their sexual connection and feel closer and intimate.

12. Coming to couples counselling is a last resort and will make our relationship worse
Couples often put off going to couples counselling because for some there is shame in having to ask for help and others believe the therapy process will end the relationship.
In reality counselling offers a safe non-judgmental space to understand and explore our relationships better, in the same way as we use a gym to help us improve our bodies.

Being more aware of these common relationship mistakes means you have a much better chance of happy healthy relationship

Dawn Kaffel