Coupleworks, Counselling, Difference and Sex

Couples often come into counselling describing their struggle to manage the conflict provoked by manifest differences.

The beginning of a relationship is often a time of revelling in the similarities: the shared values and interests, the feeling of being known. Differences are minimised and can even seem exciting and enriching. The reassurance of connection and understanding is more important.

As the relationship grows and deepens the demands made upon it reveal the complexities and intricacies. The complexity of the partner’s character also becomes more apparent. Anxiety can arise when certain needs of each partner seem in opposition. The couple can get stuck in a negative behaviour pattern of trying to get the other person to change and fit in.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sexual relationship.

In her recent book ‘Come As You Are’, Emily Nagoski stresses the importance of accepting differences instead of being negatively judgemental and critical (of oneself as well as the partner). She suggests that a basic assumption should be that everyone’s body is different and everyone’s reactions are different. They are what they are!

She also draws the conclusion that, in a heterosexual relationship, there are basic gender differences which should be celebrated and not denied. Men and women are different! Her research shows that a woman’s sexual response often does not follow the same pattern as a man’s sexual response. And it can be so liberating when that is understood and accommodated. Women can frequently be more context sensitive. She may be more open to experiencing desire when there is closeness, connection and acceptance. She finds pleasure as a result of responsive desire. Sex is not context dependent. But pleasure for a woman is often context dependent.

Nagoski debunks many of the myths that can cause confusion, misunderstanding, and distress in a couple’s sexual relationship. The most destructive myth is the existence of a standardised ‘normal’. ‘‘Sexual arousal, desire and orgasm are nearly universal experiences, but when and how we experience them depends largely on the sensitivities of our ’brakes’ and ’accelerators’ and on the kind of stimulation they are given… We’re all made of the same parts, but in each of us, those parts are organised in a UNIQUE way that changes over our life span.’’

‘’In the right context, sexual relationships can be pleasurable, bond us with partners, flood us with happy chemicals, and satisfy deep biological urges. But the brain’s perception of sensation is context dependent. If you are stressed you tense and your brain is vigilant to threat. When you are relaxed you are open to erotic reaction. Same sensation, different context, and different perception and reaction.
Nagoski describes the best context as high affection, low stress, and concordant eroticism. She suggests that we all need to be cognizant that sexual arousal is the process of both turning up the ‘’ons’’ and turning down the ‘’offs’’.

Differences can be celebrated when it is not how your sexuality functions, but how you feel about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your partner. The context determines whether sex is characterised by confidence and joy. Context also can create anxiety as you become the ‘spectator’ to the event, focussed on ‘not good enough’, ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and preconceptions of ‘normal’.

Coupleworks works sensitively with clients when discussing sexuality and the sexual relationship that is uniquely right for them.

Kathy Rees

The Importance of Fathers Day

After the election chaos, the atrocities of the London bombings and yesterdays fire disaster in Grenfell Tower, Fathers Day on Sunday comes as a welcome relief. A celebration first observed in Washington in 1910 to honour fathers and father figures, step fathers, grandfathers and fathers in law. Many families go to great efforts to make special plans, send messages, cards and gifts, to celebrate fatherhood up and down the country.

Fathers’ day provides an opportunity for children to express their love and respect for their fathers’ and acknowledge the important role they play which strengthens the father child bond. However it can also be a time of mixed emotions where there may be an absent father or one who is only seen occasionally. Other male role models may be more reliable and present than the real father.

In our counselling rooms Fathers’ Day gives clients an opportunity to think of the significance of fathers in their lives and perhaps take time out to remember fathers if they are no longer around.

The role of father is often relegated to secondary status compared to a mother. But a father is just as important for a child as a mother is. However research shows that fathers are engaged in caretaking than ever before due to mothers working, longer hours, and there is more recognition of the importance the role of a father plays in family life

Role of fathers
Children depend on a father for emotional physical financial and social wellbeing. For daughters a father is the first man they love and for sons a father is the man they aspire to.
Fathers are central to the emotional well-being of their children. Having an affectionate supportive and involved father can contribute greatly to a child’s language and social development, self-confidence, academic achievement and positive opinions of men.

What a father means to his daughter
A fathers ‘influence on his daughters life shapes her confidence, and her self-esteem and sets an example to her about men.
In her book Women and their Fathers: The Sexual and Romantic impact of the First Man in your Life, Victoria Secunda suggests that those women who grow up with a remote and aloof father and do not feel affirmed by their father, tend to respond to men in their lives like they responded to their elusive father: they seek out the intimacy they didn’t receive from their father, but are unable to believe they can trust their partners to deliver.
Working as a counsellor I see many clients of both sexes whose sense of worth as an individual is rooted in their experience of their fathers. How some re-enact their struggles with their fathers onto their adult partners and how having an absent father can remain such a significant influence.

What a father means to his son
The father-son relationship can be complex. Boys tend to model themselves on their fathers. They look for their fathers’ approval in everything they do. They copy those behaviours that they recognise. Boys who have an actively involved father tend to develop securely with a strong sense of self.

If a father is loving and supportive, boys will want to be that and if fathers are controlling, and dominating those could be patterns that boys take into their adult relationships.

So on this Fathers’ Day, especially after the turmoil of the last few weeks take this opportunity to recognise and reward fathers for being there and playing an important role in your lives. Fathers’ need to feel they are special too!

Dawn Kaffel

Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Addictive behaviours draw in other family members. There will be instinctive reactions in concerned onlookers of anyone with an eating disorder. The Maudsley Hospital in South London have developed a range of descriptive animal metaphors to clearly illustrate the likely responses of carers, and better help them to recognize their natural and typical reactions.

How do you react? There are three basic BEHAVIOURAL types that carers may adopt as a result of the confusion and anxiety they feel.

KANGAROO CARE is the response to a loved one’s seemingly fragile, physical state. It may feel tempting to try to draw them in, to protect them as if in a safe pouch. Kangaroo carers do everything they can to support. They will do anything to try and coax or tempt their loved one, with tenderness and special treats. Sadly, the downside is that it infantalises and can remove the challenge of the difficult return to reality.

RHINOCEROS RESPONSE is the understandable frustration that leads to analyzing, persuading and convincing. This so easily ends in a loss of tolerance and patience and then to arguments – as if trying to charge at, and smash, the disordered behavior.
The negative side is that force brings up all the distorted, eating disordered thinking of counter-agreements as a defense – or it allows the person to feel they could never overcome their situation without assistance

THE DOLPHIN illustrates the most helpful approach. Eating disordered people can feel all at sea, and the condition is their life belt because they feel the world is a stressful and dangerous place. The dolphin sometimes swims ahead leading and guiding the way, sometimes just being encouragingly alongside, nudging from time to time.

The other dimension of the relationship is the EMOTIONAL response, and again animal metaphors can illustrate these.

THE OSTRICH covers the family members who find any kind of challenge or confrontation too tricky. The temptation is to ignore the behaviour or absent themselves completely from the situation. This way they don’t have to admit the seriousness of what is happening.

THE JELLYFISH is engulfed in an intense and transparent emotional response. Sometimes it is just through fear that accompanies misunderstandings or false interpretations. It is only too easy to still hold the historic belief that somehow they have failed as parents or siblings, leading to sensitive or tearful reactions.

ST BERNARD DOG is the emotional ideal. Consistent, reliable and dependable in all circumstances. The St Bernard stays calm even when feeling threatened by the situation. He is warm and nurturing.

Most people will weave in and out of these behaviours – sometimes understandably succumbing to extremes, but it can be helpful to remember that intense emotional reactions are normal when dealing with situations that touch us deeply. Keeping in mind these goals can help when options feel limited.

Christina Fraser

Beware of the safety of Echo Chambers

We are probably all guilty in some way about only reading opinions which back up our thoughts on issues most of us can do nothing about anyway. We read the same newspapers and watch the programmes which back up our standpoint. We stick to our opinion on subjects which we only partially know about. We argue among friends about controversial happenings around us and in the world with often little hands on experience or knowledge about the subject or cultural practices we are discussing.

We feel comforted by and veer towards the friendships of people who seem to be of the same mind. By doing this we enter an echo chamber where opposing ideas are not welcome and where we feel safe. Without the echo, the feeling in the space can become hostile.

When this begins to happen with couples, it is a warning signal that all is not well. Coming up against a brick wall becomes the norm and echoes fade into a forgotten land.

In our consulting rooms this can be a signal that certain important bonding factors have become lost. This can tell us that the sexual side of the couple has somehow vanished, or one side of the couple is more successful in their presentation to their world than the other. Or respect, admiration and acceptance of difference has become lost and been replaced with spite, hurt, detachment and loss of attraction. Interested curiosity about the other’s difference…so seductive at the outset of a relationship disappears and is replaced by criticism, competition and argument.

The lost sexual passion in the couple becomes replaced by opposite opinions and ‘telling’ without discussion. Voices raise in order to be heard and ears shut to debate and reception of alternate possibilities. The discussion turns into a heated fight. Profound statements are made with no other foundation of fact than what has been written by a journalist, writer or film maker who shares the same approach to a subject, often based on hearsay and seldom by hard facts and experience in the first place.

The safety of an echo chamber is longed for but it may not be the place for resolution.

The early seduction game played by both sides of the couple which used to be about listening, learning and admiring your partner’s knowledge, turns into automatic disagreement and fighting corners. Being interested even if not converted and learning from the different approach encourages attraction and intimacy. Ugly and antagonistic slanging matches kills the couple trust and containment. Intimacy comes when there is someone who bears you in mind making a special place for you and your different viewpoint.

It can be very attractive to listen and hear what your partner feels about outside events which affect the world, yet all the time blending and moving with ideas as opposed to laying down the law and killing dialogue. Bringing back a remark you have thought about but not entirely agreed with by saying, “What you said to your friend made me really proud of you. I don’t follow that view but it has made me think and I am grateful for that”.

Other couples can pick up on their friends who have maintained the early respect for each other’s difference and often quote their envy of this seemingly natural flow between them. When in the presence of this atmosphere it can spread to others who have lost that
exchange and find they can regain that link to each other without either entering the safety of the echo chamber or descending into vitriol. They find the middle way.

Clare Ireland

Adulting

The term Adulting has been thrown around on social media for the past few years and many of the definitions are often ladened with their own inference and judgement. One definition defines Adulting (v): to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as, a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups. Used in a sentence: Jane is Adulting quite well today as she is on time for work and appears well groomed. The Oxford Dictionary defines Adulting as the Practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks: As Modifier: I finished all my Adulting requirements for the week.

‘Adulting’ over social media, for instance, seems to be at the heart of most people’s irritation with the young, fuelling their contempt, adding to the argument that the young are unable to cope with discomfort and struggle with the challenges life throws at them. I admit that I bought into this narrative for years. However, I have recently revised my opinion. Now I see willingness by this generation to admit their struggles and take steps to address the situation in a way that best makes sense to them: seeking help. This is important; going to a therapist translates, to some, as “not being able to cope” or more scathingly, “weak and pathetic”. It misses the point that the Millennials have different way of seeing things and a very different experience growing up from that of their parents. These differences, in themselves, are not the problem; it’s the acceptance of these differences. Parents don’t want to be judged by their children and neither do the young.

It’s easy to be disparaging about Millennials and ridicule them as they struggle to cope with the realities of being an adult. But this approach quickly becomes a cliche; isn’t it far more useful to take time to understand what is going on? I sometimes wonder if much of the cynicism directed at the young has more to do with the fact that they actually voice the feelings of how challenging being an adult can sometimes be because the reality is that most young people are hardworking and responsible adults. Perhaps it is the older generation’s need for the young to struggle in the same way they did. It might be more useful for that generation to take into account that the challenges of the young are very different from their own experiences.

The couples I see in my practice are hard working and responsible. Do they struggle? Yes, but what I walk away with is a sense that their struggles can be known, not hidden and ignored. They don’t feel as though they need to ‘suck it up’ and suffer in silence perhaps the way their parents did. Do they sometimes go on about it too much? Absolutely. But like all change, the swing of the pendulum sometimes sounds extreme. The secret might be to look at the grumblings as part of the process the young are going through. As most adults (finally) learn, acceptance is at the heart of being fully grown up!

Shirlee Kay

Depression and the Couple Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

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

Trauma and the Couple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Rees

Couple Therapy can help with Mental Health Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give therapy a try

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

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

Dawn Kaffel

A Spender or a Saver?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Fraser

Spring brings new possibilities.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Ireland

The Value of Knowing We Can Be Wrong

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

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

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

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

Here are some tips for healthy Intelligent Humility:

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

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

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

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

Shirlee Kay

Rituals and Relationships

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

Issues of Anxiety and Control in a Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Rees

Is giving up on marriage easier than working on it?

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

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

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

Today we are living in very uncertain times and I have wondered for some time how these feelings of unease and disquiet impacts on our couple relationships.
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Is it a mere coincidence that for some time now many more couples are coming to counselling wanting to give up on their marriages without really trying to understand or work on their relationships?

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

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

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

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

Letting Go by Dorit Oliver-Wolff

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

 
Dawn Kaffel

Let’s have a good row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Fraser

 

Talking in tongues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some different ways to communicate can be tried:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Clare Ireland.

Valentines Day Every Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirlee Kay

Mistakes in communication, memory and perception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

Couples: Communication and Conversation

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

‘You’re My World’ Cilla Black


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

‘Where Are You Now…?’ Justin Bieber


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

‘Mind the gap…’ Nabiha


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

‘Love Hurts…’ Nazareth


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

‘Working my way back to you…’ Four Seasons


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

‘Talk To Me…’ Stevie Nicks


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

Kathy Rees

Difficulties with Commitment in your Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of the causes of Commitment Anxiety?

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

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

Treating commitment issues in couples therapy

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

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

Dawn Kaffel