Mental Health and the Couple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Support

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

Take time to talk

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

Educate yourself

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

Finding the right help

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

Finding Individual and Couples Therapy

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

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

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

Looking after self

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

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

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

Dawn Kaffel

Can you stay friendly with your ex?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Fraser

Managing time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland

Understanding Changes in Sexual Frequency

Many couples we see at Coupleworks come into therapy feeling as though there is something fundamentally wrong with their relationship when their desire starts to wane and the pattern of their sex life changes. It can sometimes be difficult to help couples normalise these feelings and avoid getting caught in an internal narrative that if their sex lives slows down the relationship is no longer viable. 

When couples come to therapy, it is usually because the difficulty has gone underground and been around for quite some time. There is a tendency not to address sexual issues with one another (it’s uncomfortable and awkward), and the gap tends to widen to a point where it is difficult to see a solution. Couples seem able to talk about ‘the fact they aren’t having sex as often’ but less able to talk about their feelings of hurt and rejection. In my mind, it’s when couples bury their feelings that toxic thoughts start to surface between them. Couples usually begin to feel a sense of relief after the initial discomfort of actually starting the conversation.

Common reasons why couple’s sex lives change:

Work

Pregnancy

Children

Stress

Tiredness

Illness

Depression

Tension between Couples

Outside Factors 

As couples get caught up in their daily lives, the attention towards their partner changes and a pattern begins between them. The key is to name the issues and more importantly tell the other how they experience these changes. I had a woman tell her husband in a session that his lack of desire for her brought up strong feelings that the relationship was over. These feelings triggered memories of her father leaving her mother for a younger woman. Her internal narrative didn’t allow her to be curious about what might be going on with her husband or the relationship and allow her to address the issue with him.  As we worked through this, she discovered he was overstressed and exhausted, and we found ways to help him lower his stress levels and find his way back sexually to her. Disentangling these stories helps couples see one another separately and not personalise the experience. With this couple, it helped them to see that there were external factors contributing to the man’s change in desire and allowed them to find ways of addressing them.

What Couples Can do to Reconnect Sexually:

-Name the Issue. 

-Tell each other how they experience it.

-Take time to spend more time with one another.

-Make physical connect with one another on a daily basis.

-Make eye contact.

-Kiss each other.

-Be present when speaking to one another. 

-Touch one other regularly even when not having sex.

-Express your appreciation of the other often.

-Do special things for each other. 

-Explore others ways of being intimate (sex is a way but not the only way).

-See a psycho-sexually trained therapist. 

Long-term relationships naturally change and evolve. Accepting these changes and keeping an open dialogue is key to a couple’s intimacy.  When they can see that their sex life is unique to them and not be influenced by what they ‘should be doing’ they are better able to understand what works for them. Being open and honest about these issues helps to generate a conversation. It’s not always about finding a definitive answer but more about understanding and living with the issue differently.

Shirlee Kay

The Yes Brain Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

The idea of a ‘Normal’ Relationship

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

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

(Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cause all of me

Loves all of you

Loves your curves and your edges

All your perfect imperfections’

John Legend ‘All Of Me’

Kathy Rees

Secrets and Lies

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

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

Definition of Secrets and Lies

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

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

*Trust and vulnerability are blocked

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

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

*Jeopardises sexual intimacy

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

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

Secrets that hurt a marriage

Unhappiness

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

Finding intimacy outside a marriage

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

Financial Decisions

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

Dishonesty 

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

Past relationships

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

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

If you tell me the truth

I’m going to get mad but

I’ll get over it.

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

able to trust you again.

Your choice!

Dawn Kaffel

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

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

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

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

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

Children will pick up tension

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

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

Never allow a row to become a fight

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

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

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

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

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

Never bring the children into the row

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

Don’t raise voices in front of the tinies

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

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

Don’t use the silent treatment

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

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

Resolve is Imperative for everyone involved 

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

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

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

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

The Legacy

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

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

Christina Fraser

Denial versus exposure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland

Valentine’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

Working with Transgenders

transgender

/tranzˈdʒɛndə,transˈdʒɛndə/

adjective denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity of working with two transgender individuals. It has challenged my assumptions, my unconscious prejudices and my ignorance about what it means to be transgender. 

There has been a lot of discussion the past few years about the rights of transgenders and attention on the difficulties of being transgender. 

I remember being on a yoga retreat a few years ago with a group of older and younger women discussing this. Needless to say, the divide between the generations was vast and polarised. What I noticed was how at the root of the discussion was fear… fear of difference, fear of not understanding and fear of engaging with another way of thinking.

Working with Transgenders: 

Jade* walked into my consultant room 5 years ago. The minute I went to meet her in the waiting room I had two conflicting thoughts. One was that I had never seen a more stunning women and the other was an odd feeling ‘something wasn’t quite right’. Throughout the initial session, I was waiting for Jade to tell me a secret I suspected was around but I had no idea what that secret might be. When finally, in the last 15 minutes she told me about being a transgender woman. Suddenly, everything made sense and yet…it didn’t.

As I continued to work with Jade I found myself experiencing her as a man, then a woman and then I was just confused. I started to think about this in terms of Jade’s experience of becoming a woman and how confusing it must have been and still was for her. Often, therapists use the countertransference to understand what their client might be feeling but I was in unchartered territory and I stopped myself from assuming this might be the case. I found myself asking a lot of questions and admitted I was ignorant and didn’t understand anything about being transgenders. 

What I gradually understood was that it was my discomfort not Jades and the frustration of not being seen and accepted by others is at the heart of the transgender experience. Suddenly, I was the one required to challenge my own narratives. I started to do more reading about transgenders and listen to what Jade’s experience was so as not to get caught up in my own assumptions. This enabled me to more fully appreciate Jade the person she was and work with the issues she brought as a woman. Without a doubt, accepting a new paradigm is essential to create changes in attitudes in regards to understanding transgender and to see that there is no them and us but we. 

 

  •  Helpful things to know about Transgender people  
  •  Know that transgender people have membership in various sociocultural identity groups (e.g., race, social class, religion, age, disability, etc.) and there is not one universal way to look or be transgender.
  •  Use names and pronouns that are appropriate to the person’s gender presentation and identity; if in doubt, ask. Language is important.
  •  Don’t make assumptions about transgender people’s sexual orientation, desire for hormonal or medical treatment, or other aspects of their identity or transition plans. If you have a reason to know, ask.
  •  Don’t confuse gender nonconformity with being transgender. Not all people who appear androgynous or gender nonconforming identify as transgender or desire gender affirmation treatment.
  •  Keep the lines of communication open with the transgender person.
  •  Get support in processing your own reactions. It can take some time to adjust to seeing someone you know well transitioning. Having someone close to you transition will be an adjustment and can be challenging, especially for partners, parents, and children.
  •  Seek support in dealing with your feelings. You are not alone. Mental health professionals and support groups for family, friends, and significant others of transgender people can be useful resource.

*Jade is not her real name

Shirlee Kay

Anxiety and Negativity in a Relationship

Relationship therapists often note that there is an increase of enquiries in January and it seems that 21st January was designated ‘Blue Monday’ – the most depressing day of the year. Is there a link? Apparently a mixture of the dark evenings and grey weather encourages Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and post-festive/party season depression. There seems not much to look forward to and Spring appears a long way off. Dissatisfactions in a relationship can breed, negatives become a focus, and joy feels in short supply.

However, booking an appointment for couple counselling, making New Year Resolutions, committing to Dry January, and even choosing Veganuary, can be seen as ways of recalibrating, attempting recovery, making improvement, and getting back in charge of ‘Life’. But how to manage the despair and hopelessness when motivational levels drop and good intentions stall?

‘Blue Monday’ may be a cynical PR ploy by the travel industry but the response by the Samaritans was interesting. Rather than accept a general blanket of gloom, they renamed the day as ‘Brew Monday’ and suggested a solution: Talk. Take the opportunity to reach out, share, and chat over a cup of tea – open up to vulnerabilities and CONNECT.

With a similar understanding that empathy can be reassuring and effective in soothing anxiety, Brene Browne, in her book ‘Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love and lead’, describes viewing  vulnerability as ‘the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and comfort. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity.’

John Gottman, the American relationship therapist, said that, ‘I believe that every person has areas of enduring vulnerability. For a relationship to succeed, these vulnerabilities need to be understood and honoured and an empathetic exploration of vulnerabilities offers a couple the opportunity to strengthen their relationship.’

Anxiety can be isolating and leave us feeling misunderstood and alone. We can feel shame and humiliation that we are perhaps overwhelmed and that we are not coping as everyone else seems to be. A flash of envy created by an Instagram picture can spiral into FOMO, then a feeling of being not-good-enough, then worthlessness. We can internalise dark thoughts and get stuck in a toxic place of harsh criticism, disappointment and blame. We are super vigilant to the possibility of threat and reactions of ‘flight, fight, freeze’ play out destructively in our relationships. 

‘Some of the worst things in my life never even happened…’ wrote Mark Twain when describing his tendency to catastrophism and worry and, to varying degrees, we are all programmed to be alert to the presence of danger. Tara Brach explains that it is as if, at birth, the brain received the telegram, ‘Start worrying. Details to follow.’ An emotional trigger, a perceived attack, can strike at any moment. Insecurity wreaks psychological havoc in relationships and can result in reactions of deep despair, or hot fury, or icy withdrawal – creating confusion too. 

So, American therapist, Rick Hanson, encourages clients to change the FBI motto of ‘Follow the money’ (when detecting organised crime) to ‘Follow the anxiety’ when unpicking the cause of relationship distress.

Counselling can help this process and offers an opportunity to reflect on how disappointments and irritations are filling a field of vision. A couple can understand how they have become habituated to a focus on the difficulties and differences. Choosing to lift their heads, feel the warmth of love and core connection, can change perspective. The couple can explore why they have continued stuck in negative behaviour patterns of mistrust, defensiveness and hostility – counterintuitive when faced with the resulting hurt and sadness. Of course it can be difficult to break a loop of chronic pessimism when it has become a default relationship dynamic. But it is true that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ positively too. Creating kinder, gentler, more generous and compassionate interactions can offer an optimistic alternative way of relating.

Counselling can help challenge the negative beliefs that drive fear – and help a couple to wake up out of a trance of anxiety. Although beliefs can be deeply ingrained, they are not ‘facts’. A challenge of ‘what would you think, and who would you be, if you did not believe this?’ offers the possibility of explanation, understanding, discussion and choice. The realisation that we all have agency helps us to get in touch with our own resilience and determination. We are then free to embrace empathy and choose affection, admiration, consideration, loyalty, respect which can be transformative and healing. Do we dare to be happy?

‘Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…’

Kathy Rees

January can be a difficult month for Couples

What is it about January that sees such a surge in petitions for divorce and triggers a spouse to decide, out of the blue to up and leave their marriage, walk out and file for divorce, leaving partners feeling shocked, abandoned and betrayed?

In my practice this month I have witnessed both men and women struggling with being left, often with children, with no explanation from their partner.  They believed their relationship was fine and they never saw this coming.  They are devastated at being abandoned and feel on an emotional rollercoaster as they struggle to come to terms with understanding how the partner they had spent so much time with building a life and family together could start the new year by walking away from their life in this destructive harmful way. Everything seems to happen so quickly – one minute they are celebrating a family Christmas together, the next they are gone. Often there is no opportunity for discussion or to process what has happened.

Why spouses decide to walkaway so abruptly?

*For a start it is never ‘out of the blue’ for the partner who chooses to leave

 *Problems in the relationship have probably been bubbling over for a very long time and have not been addressed.  Spending enforced time over the Christmas break with extended family and friends can be hard and often contributes to emotions running high which can push us to breaking point.

*A prolonged period of non-communication, arguments and distancing leading to feelings of loss of emotional connection and falling out of love

*Work and children become the focus not the couple

*Strong feelings of having nothing in common 

*Prolonged periods of time doing most things separately

*Complacency and boredom have become the norm

*Your partner feels more like a flat mate than a partner

*Sex has become a thing of the past

*Your partner feels ignored and unappreciated

The author Tony Parson suggests that men now have a greater sense of entitlement than women.  Years ago a man would have been happy to spend a lifetime providing for his family – now a man wants children but also wants and expects a passionate affair with the mother of his children.  

 *You no longer share your thoughts and feelings and when you do you often feel not listened to and misunderstood.

*Some spouses will do anything to avoid conflict fearing talking about their feelings will evoke an angry response.  It’s easier to stay silent about how you feel.

*Putting on a good front is no longer an option

*There is often another relationship waiting in the wings and wrapping up a marriage speedily allows no break in the new relationship

*It takes enormous courage to walk out of a marriage and family but for some doing it so abruptly and coldly avoids having to work through something difficult or face days and weeks of pleas to stay and work on things.

When a partner walks out on a marriage it seems as if it is the end of your world and the end of a marriage. Sometimes it is but sometimes it’s an opportunity to get professional couples counselling and start a conversation that can help you rebuild and reconnect in ways you used to do when you first got together. 

Walking out on a marriage in this way can be devastating and causes long-term consequences for the whole family.  If a marriage has to end there are better ways of ending it by showing a more respectful and calmer approach 

“Why did we divorce?  I guess you could say we had trouble synchronizing. You know that carnival ride where two cages swing in opposite directions, going higher and higher until they go over the top?  That was us.  We passed each other all the time, but we never actually stopped in the same place until it was time to get off the ride.”  – Diana Hammond, Hannah’s Dream.

Dawn Kaffel

Retirement and Couple Life

Watching Andy Murray struggling with the aftermath of his performance this week gave a searing glimpse into the pain of the forced ending to a career in which he has worked tirelessly to gain a place of supremacy.

His current suffering is a sad example of what many of us may have to endure in our own way and hopefully in a less public arena.

Sportsmen and women know that physical fitness is a definition of what they do. The realisation that this will wane has to be an accepted view of a professional life that has a finite time span before hopefully evolving into an area where these skills can still be celebrated in different ways.

For many of us, a career can be a large part of our identity.  ‘What do you do?’ Is often an opening question in social or business interactions. And the need to feel valued and competent is knitted into many of us from childhood.

Somehow we do know that this must end, but it may not always be within our control.

Even the word ‘retirement’ has a negative context – there can be whiff of helpless oncoming frailty around it.

Work gives many of us status and structure.

Its financial benefit can often be the means of gaining a better life than the one we came from.

It is likely to offer companionship, social interaction and identity.

That’s an awful lot to lose. And this change will throw a real grenade into the structure of couple life.

What a huge shift it is for the partner when an outworker becomes a homebody.

Suddenly there’s another voice that needs attention, lunch and companionship where they both used to find this elsewhere.

For some, it can be a gradual and planned retreat into a world they long to enter. Time and space for thought, hobbies or new interests. But for those like Sir Andy, it’s a shock and played out in a very public arena.

Sudden forced redundancy or ‘being let go’ is a massive loss and needs time to settle.

The new pattern of couple life will need big adjustments. Before irritations set in, take time to discuss how each of you sees the next phase.

All change brings loss and for some, who loved who they were in their careers, it can be a kind of bereavement to be stripped of this and have to grow a new identity.

Kindness and patience will be needed. And the partner who has to assimilate An Other into their daily life will also need tolerance.

A lot of sympathy will be extended to Andy around the massive and unwelcome shift in his daily life. Spare a thought for Kim, his wife, who may have a totally different life thrust upon her, too.

It’s important not to rush changes, but to take a while in building fresh contacts and different habits.

Think about how rethinking time together can create an interesting new phase, but couples  also need to allow time and space to stay with their own individual structures and identities.

Be aware that previous time apart may have protected against petty irritations that are now put into sharper focus.

Stay tolerant. This is a process of negotiation for both and will take a while to settle. It can also be a period of renewed ideas when there’s an opportunity to prioritise what is really important to us.

Discovery of new interests, deeper involvement in established hobbies, time for family and friends and less pressured hours for couples to share new experiences can be a boon after years of slog or commuter travel.

So, dust off those freedom passes, check out a new passion or move up a grade on a favoured pursuit.

Stay curious and remember that we all need endings before we can find new beginnings.

Best wishes to Sir Andy for the next stage in his new career options and his family life.

And equally good wishes to Lady Murray for hers.

Christina Fraser

Friendships and health.

Coupleworks.co.uk has read in the last few weeks that friendships are beneficial to mental and physical health.
Coupleworks, formed in 2004 is a non profit making group of skilled therapists who between us have gathered approximately 150 years of couple counselling and one to one therapeutic knowledge. That in itself is remarkable but the significant side effect which we are beginning to learn about is the benefit to our physical and mental health.
We are all women ranging in age, talents and learning. We support each other when one of us has a difficult time and feel good when one of us has something personal to celebrate.
Dr. David Spiegel, head of Psychiatry at Stanford University in California, emphasises that girlfriend time helps women to create more serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression. This can create a general feeling of well-being. I think that men also benefit from their friendships but tend to bond in a different way. When men meet they often form relationships around activities and work problems or success. Dr Spiegel believes that spending time with a friend or friends is as important to our overall health as jogging or ‘working out’.
It is said that men need sex to experience intimacy and women need intimacy to experience sex. This shows that either from nature or nurture, men and women even in this enlightened age still need different bonding skills which they seek in a myriad of ways.
In the years of existence, Coupleworks has grown from 6 totally different women, passionate about our profession to something both valuable and of benefit to our health.
These kinds of face to face meetings, where the benefit is now medically recognised, flies in the face of social media connection which is two dimensional and risks anxiety and stress as a side effect. The third dimension, when two or more friends are breathing the same air, may well be an antidote to anxiety and depression. Whichever genders form a couple, the trust between the two helps to enable separating out to meet friends without resentment or fear of rejection. The benefit of this, in turn, fertilises the couple and makes each person more exciting to be with.
Technology has made our lives more convenient and some believe, more connected. Psychologist Dr Becky Spelman, however, said: ‘With all our technology we mustn’t overlook the importance of honest, from the heart, human interactions with one another’.
Being in the same space at the same time is productive in so many ways that technology cannot replicate.
Clare Ireland.

Finding a therapist isn’t always easy

Finding an individual or couple’s therapist should be straightforward and yet it can sometimes be a complicated process for people.  Asking for help can be difficult and finding the right person that you’re comfortable with requires the ability to be clear about what your needs and expectations are. Some useful things to ask yourself and ask the therapist you are thinking of working with are:

Useful questions to ask yourself:

  1.  What location, time and day can you realistically commit to on a weekly bases?
  2.  How much can you afford to pay weekly?
  3.  Do you want short or long-term therapy?  Is it a specific issue you want to work through or are you interested in doing deeper work?
  4.  Do you want to work with a man or a woman?
  5.  Are language or cultural differences an issue for you? 
  6.  What do you want to get out of the therapy?
  7.  Are you hoping that the therapist will solve your problems?
  8. Are you really ready to start therapy?
  9. Ask a professional or friend if they know of a good therapist.

Useful questions to ask a therapist before committing to working with them:

  1. Are you a qualified/accredited therapist?  What kind of training did you have?  If you are looking to see a couple’s therapist they should be trained in couple work.  It’s ok to ask specific questions.
  2. How many years have you been seeing clients?
  3. Do you specialise in a particular area?  If you have a specific concern ask if they have worked with others on this issue.
  4. What is the average number of sessions you normally see clients for?
  5. What is expected of me?

It’s important to listen to your instincts when interviewing a therapist.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them over the phone you probably won’t feel comfortable working together.

Tell them you will get back to them and ask if you can contact them if you have further questions.  The time and effort you put into finding a therapist will help ensure you find the right person for you.

Shirlee Kay

Relationships and Stress

As a therapist I often see how powerfully external factors in life can influence the stability of a couple’s relationship.  Sometimes these can stem from events happening to a friend or family member – illness, death or marital breakdown can all have significant knock-on effects.  Redundancy and financial pressures of course can impact the couple directly.  But at other times the pressures can come from much further afield – Brexit may be causing a particular tsunami in Parliament at the moment but the shock waves of dis-ease seem to be being felt by pretty well every individual in this country, and as a result, by couples as well.

A key question that emerges therefore for every couple is how they deal with such pressures and how they can build resilience to ride out the low patches of life.  Here it is vital that each partner can recognise what strategies they resort to in times of trouble for themselves initially and, mirroring that, in their partner’s reaction as well.  Behavioural patterns often come from learnt strategies in our family of origin, or ways in which we adapted to survive difficult or traumatic times when we were young.  Did it feel safer for a person to withdraw to what seemed like a calmer place within themselves?  Or did they prefer to fight and express distress by being angry?  Or did they freeze and hope that whatever was causing their discomfort would simply go away?  

All of us respond to external pressures in different ways and there is no ‘right’ way of doing this – but sometimes differences in how each partner responds to such pressures can set up a negative cycle of interaction within the couple. For instance if the cycle is one of both being withdrawers, or a combination of a fighter and one who freezes and denies the problems, then this can lead to alienation and distress in the couple relationship.  By being unable to understand another’s reaction to stress effectively prevents the couple from supporting each other and providing comfort.

The fight, flight or freeze responses to external threats can easily result in negative communication and don’t in themselves lead to good connections in a relationship.  In the immediate threat, these are often our innate and learnt responses – we cannot avoid these but it is crucial that we appreciate them both in ourselves and in our partner.  To build a more solid and sustaining relationship through such troubles each then needs to express their underlying feelings of vulnerability.   This means owning their own fears and anxieties and talking them through with their partner.  The relationship can then become a supportive and caring place rather than one that simply adds to further distress. 

When things become too overwhelming, couple therapy can help relationships to regain stability and become a source of comfort for each partner to survive the lows, as well as to enjoy the better times in life.

Sarah Fletcher

Relationships and Commitment and ‘Why You will Marry the Wrong Person’ (Alain de Botton)

‘The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she does not exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently – the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘’not overly wrong’’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its pre-condition.’ (Botton)

Relationships are complicated and yet, at the beginning, can feel so simple and so intoxicating. Partners feel they ‘fit’ together. There is a powerful mutual attraction and there seems so much agreement. There is a delight in the similarities of shared values, interests, ambitions, outlook, or sense of humour.

The glow that emanates from feeling so understood and accepted helps establish a unique and intricate web of inter-connection. Each feels in safe hands and senses the relationship has now established a secure base which can be trusted. The couple dares to feel optimism and hope for the future. The decision to commit to one another, (get engaged, move in together, make their vows in a civil partnership or a wedding), is cause for celebration. 

Yet it is a sad fact that, despite such early promise, many relationships end and 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. 

Of course, couples are aware that life can be challenging and that the glossy romantic dream sold by celebrities, the movies and the media, is not the whole story. 

It is also accepted that preparation for a big event can be of benefit and pre-empt misunderstanding. Many couples seek pre-marital counselling before the ‘big day’. Couples who are pregnant generally accept that attending ante-natal classes will be helpful in preparation for a birth. 

However, classes that prepare for parenting over the next twenty years of a child’s life are less common. And, similarly, discussions that consider and explore our convictions and expectations of long-term relationships are rarely offered in school. We can be ill-prepared to deal with the complexity of a long relationship, for a life-time spent with a partner, and we can so often end up confused and disappointed.

There can be an assumption that we, ourselves, are quite easy to live with so, when things get difficult, it must be the other who needs to do something differently. However, if the partner is then resentful of the critical complaint and resists the demand for change, feelings of unease, distress and even panic can seep into the relationship. 

We are confused: ‘Why did this happen?’

Their reaction was unexpected and bewildering: ‘Why did you think/say that?’

Something feels contradictory and not right:  ‘How could you do that?’

They can feel unaccommodating and provocative: ‘Why can’t you listen to me/ just do as I ask?’

Suddenly the partner seems not as trustworthy and as reliable as had been first thought. They seem not as easy to live with after all. We are confronted by their differences and the bits that do not ‘fit’ with us. We want them to be ‘normal’ like us. Interactions can become conflicted and fractious. They have fallen from the pedestal and they are not as loveable. In fact they are infuriating!

However, De Botton writes that, 

‘The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person’. 

There will always be things wrong. The concept of the perfect partner is, of course, a myth. No-one is normal. In fact, the only normal people in this world are the people you don’t know very well. (Adler)

When a couple does get to know each other very well, ‘we mustn’t abandon him or her, but abandon the founding romantic ideal upon which the Western idea of marriage has been based for the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning… Every human being will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.’ (De Botton)

But what to do when a couple becomes stuck and at breaking-point when faced with this dilemma? The choice to stay or leave can feel agonising.

There is an urgent need for bypassing the stalemate and allowing a different conversation, one that is challenging and creative, to begin. The question is whether this relationship has legs?

First, create three columns

  1. 1. Write a list of 50 positives about oneself (It is very important to start with oneself)
  2. 2. Write a list of 50 positives about the partner
  3. 3. Write a list of 50 positives about the the relationship

And I mean 50!

Now, with the intention of a softer interaction, create the time and space (with phones and screens switched off) to share the lists.

Circle where you find agreement. 

Describe the items that leave you feeling most relaxed and satisfied?

Highlight items from the list to which you would like more attention paid.

On which items would you like more focus so they can flourish?

Which items have been neglected or not prioritised and, as a result, have left you feeling disconnected and anxious?

Which ones reassure you that you are loved?

What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Tina Turner)

It’s complex – so start the conversation!

Kathy Rees

This Can Happen

It’s not very often that attending a conference leaves such a buzz and positive energy amongst the participants.  This is how it was at the This Can Happen Conference on Tuesday 20 November 2018, the inaugural corporate mental health event where companies address mental health in the workplace and highlight solutions and innovations to support the mental health of their colleagues and staff.

Over 750 Delegates from 120 companies were present to hear the warmest and informative welcome speech by the founders of This Can Happen, Zoe Sinclair, Neil Leybourn and Jonny Benjamin MBE.

This was followed by a series of innovative presentations and experimental workshops.  With I in 4 employees experiencing mental health challenges this year, never has it been more important for companies to offer the right kind of support for their staff.  Research shows that mental health challenges are the leading cause of work absence in the UK and can significantly impact on a person’s ability to grow and thrive at home and in the workplace.  

The conference was honoured to have in attendance HRH the Duke of Cambridge, a passionate mental health campaigner.  He joined a panel session facilitated by BBC News Presenter Tina Daheley and shared openly and movingly of his time working with the air ambulance service.  How he was often involved with children dealing with life and death situations and families that were destroyed. The relation between the job and his family life took him  ‘over the edge’. His Royal status gave him no immunity from these overwhelming feelings and he learnt to distance himself from the job in order to appreciate that this happens in his work life but not all the time and all around him. He really appreciated having his crew around him to debrief with give him the support he needed.

60 other speakers from a diverse range of companies and organisations all contributed emotionally and passionately about their own personal experiences. They offered knowledge and insights to provide solutions for workplace mental health.

Hopefully a Conference like this will help remove the stigma of having a mental health issue.  There should be no difference in how mental illness is managed in the work place as with physical illness.

Lyssa Barber, founder of the mental health network at UBS, following her own breakdown believes passionately that “good levels of mental health and wellbeing are needed for everyone to really thrive and has seen the results in her company of putting in place meditation, mindfulness, quiet rooms and Mental Health First Aiders are all in the pipeline”

There is no doubt that businesses are waking up to the scale of poor mental health, but there is still a long way to go.  Conferences like This Can Happen offer companies practical toolkits and solutions to take back to their work place.  Hopefully the buzz and energy that permeated throughout the day will be carried back to companies and organisations.  It will be vital to explore at the next This Can Happen Conference how companies have put some of these ideas into practice to make a real difference to the work place.

Dawn Kaffel

Couples Therapy can help with Mental Health Issues

This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness week was ‘Surviving or Thriving’. 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.

Watch out this week for The Duke of Cambridge who will be attending the inaugural This Can Happen Conference highlighting solutions and innovations in the workplace to support mental health.

Dawn Kaffel