Archive for Relationships

Being a couple therapist.

Why choose to be both a couple and one to one therapist?

In my experience, the endless examples of human interaction between a couple are a privilege to witness. Working with couples is challenging yet rewarding.

The challenge lies in three people in the room. The dance of the trio has intricate steps, each movement becoming either harmonious or out of step.

With two people in the room, the therapist and client – the story told has to be imagined and believed as the client’s sense of self and history which can be an edited version of fact. This is not lying, rather it is the client’s inner story; their version of who they are and why. Working to resolve their difficulties is also rewarding yet it often feels there is a missing link. There is often a couple of some sort in the individual’s story, yet the other half is absent in the one to one space.

When a couple is present they challenge each other, often argumentative and critical. The therapist has to listen to what is being said to be able to mediate and gently translate what is heard into an acceptable and working interaction between two people.
Anger arising from desperation, loss of connection and resentment dance around the room. The therapist waits for an opening to inject a hitherto lost but still there memory of why each person chose the other in the first place.

I find asking each person to think about five things they want in their couple in order to co-habit in love and tolerance. This helps to create the dance of intimacy which they feel is lost. I ask them to write them down between sessions and without sharing them, bring them to the next session.

I look at them first and usually there are at least three similar things both want. The ones they feel are impossible are the reasons for seeking therapy. We work together to find a way to manage these difficulties which enables more interaction and harmony. Neither have to sacrifice a part of themselves, but understanding each other more, they try to manage the disparities and accept them.

It takes time and patience to form a workable liaison bringing back lost respect, tolerance, love and acceptance of difference.

Most importantly, the difference can be slowly seen as a benefit. It may have been difference which was a large slice of the original attraction. We use this valuable ingredient to re-couple the lost connection and see it as a healing tool to lower their defences and react to each other in a different way.

Clare Ireland

Can Long Distance Relationships Work for Couples

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Since the start of the new year it has been noticeable how many more clients are requesting counselling sessions via three- way Skype (the couple are in two different places) or trying to arrange face to face sessions weeks in advance for the few hours or days that they know they are going to be together.

There are many reasons why couples find themselves in long distance relationships and it appears that the geographical distance is often seen as the reason why these relationships can be so problematic.
It is often suggested that long distance relationships (LDR) are less happy and satisfying and bring more difficulties and problems than couples’ that are geographically close. In fact recent studies show that those couples that have a strong emotional connection will function better with distance than those couples who are in a regular relationship and lack emotional connection. Only today I heard a couple describe their 30-year marriage as very lonely and emotionally disconnected despite having worked and lived together for so long.

What is it like for a couple to be in a long distance relationship?

Choosing to be in a long distance relationship can be tough and challenging and is often not a choice that is taken lightly. Long distance relationships can be short in duration or go on for years. In some cases it is not a choice but a necessity due to work commitments, job enhancement, opportunities, family commitments etc.
What is clear is that we can often find ourselves in long distance relationships without realizing the huge amount of patience and understanding being in one requires.

Here are some crucial points that clients bring to their counselling sessions that they have found useful to think about:
*The need for a very solid base to a relationship when you are long distance. To feel you can be open, honest and trusting with each other is vital in order to be able to manage the difficulties that you will encounter.
*Be prepared to work harder on your relationship than if you were together. Don’t take things for granted and show each other respect for the roles you find yourselves in.
* Feel confident in sharing any insecurities or shaky times you may have with each other
*Make sure you take time out to work out together the best way and times to communicate even if you are in different time zones. Make each other feel you are interested in what they are doing and care about them even when you are miles apart?
*The importance of knowing when you will next see each other and to take time planning where that might be and what you will do.
* Having a schedule for when you text, skype or call is essential. Checking that whichever mode of contact it is it works for both of you. It’s often easier to get caught up in text messages than take a risk and spend time talking on the phone.
*The pressure of being together again and what are your expectations? Do you spend all your precious time together or do you use the time to catch up with friends? Do you have close family who also expect to see you? If there is often a lot of pressure to feel the time you have together has to be “perfect” this will bound to lead to massive disappointment.
*Do you tend to put off talking about difficult things because you don’t want to end up rowing but then get resentful that you don’t feel that close?
*When you finally meet up knowing you are going to be apart again, don’t waste precious time fretting about the impending good-bye as this will prevent you enjoying every precious moment you have with each other.
*Always make time to check in with how you are both managing with the distance itself. At times it will feel manageable and at other times not. What’s important is you feel you can be honest with each other about how you feel otherwise this can build up into resentment.

So yes long distance relationships can be challenging but certainly with closer communication and shared understanding, couples can make it work
“Contrary to what the cynics say, distance is not for the fearful; its for the bold.
Its for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love”

Dawn Kaffel

Stuck Couples

All therapists will know the feeling when the air in the therapy room feels thick and heavy. For both clients and counsellor, everything can seem to be slowing down to a tiring pace which defies logic. This is often the ‘stuck’ moment.
As a couple therapist, one of the signs of a static session is when I start imagining bright ideas that could ‘help’. This is quite a different feeling to that of sharing a conversation about creative ideas that can encourage clients to try to find new ways of interacting.
No, this is where I start to imagine nice places they can eat, or cheap locations for dates, even holiday destinations – when, of course, they are perfectly able to find these solutions without their counsellor acting as their social secretary.
This is often a clue to the ‘Yes, But’ moment, when one half of a partnership will stymie anything the other suggests. All ideas get blocked before they can be explored.  Offering up any therapeutic reflections in the counselling room can be quickly shut down too. We are all caught up in the defensive process and  ‘Yes, But’ is really taking a hold. The thoughts of the therapist are also pushed aside and there seems every logical reason why there is no space for reflection or insight.
This will also be part of the stage in many relationships when the couple report back week after week that they have been just ‘too busy’ to spend any time together, that they have ‘hardly seen each other this week’ (or last week, or next week)
This often evolves into a neat system of procrastination.
Ideas get deferred, babysitters can’t be found, snoring is keeping their bedrooms separate, the list can be endless. It’s a clever tool for resistance. But dig deeper and often ‘Yes, But’ is just a useful method for avoiding something that we are truly afraid to examine in case it won’t be how we imagine, or want, it to be.
Now it’s time for the big challenge and for the therapist to try and look at this situation in a way that will not feel critical, but can begin to acknowledge that the underlying problem is fuelled by deep fear.
We, as therapists, have to open up this dilemma and find a route into the clients anxieties that will tread a safe line between any possibility that an intrusive comment could feel unsympathetic or harassing, and that of being in tacit agreement, which colludes with them, but blocks any possibility of a shift in the status quo.
Intimate relationships open us all up to the fear of great vulnerability, and by continuing to find good reasons to stay put in their confusion, clients can find it easier to hold onto their defences rather than risk change
Allowing the challenge of being truly curious about how the other feels and reacts, can seem dangerous. We may not like what we hear in response if we expose ourselves to ask honest and interested questions.
‘Yes, But’ can be just one way to disguise the dread when clients feel they can’t really cope with the anxiety of accepting the other, and their differences, without it becoming a serious challenge to the bedrock of their relationship.
In therapy sessions, we can point out that listening does not necessarily mean agreeing, but it means better knowledge of each other. Listening without judgement is an art, and not always an easy one to master. We can all fear being criticised and a couple therapy room should be a safe place to find ways of open discussion and the space to play with new thoughts. It can allow couples  to better know their differences and for them to believe they are both still loveable in spite of examining these tricky parts of the couple relationship.
Change is risky, but being stuck leaves couples in a gloomy and frustrated place.
Clients invest in therapy with hopes for change.
Turning ‘Yes, but’ into ‘Yes,  …. and?’ can be a good start and brings hope of rebooting the impasse of the stalled relationship.

Christina Fraser

The Four Agreements: Simple Rules for Good Relationships

Ok, I hate to admit it but I started listening to Super Soul Conversations, a podcast by Oprah Winfrey. I have always strayed away from commercial spiritual teachings, with the exception of Eckart Tolle because he is The Real Thing but after Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globe Awards, I became a fan.

 

After listening to Oprah’s talk

with Don Miguel Ruiz I began to think about his simple idea of The Four Agreements and how relevant they were in everyday relationships. As a couple’s therapist, I try to break issues down as simply and concisely as possible. This enables me to help bring as much clarity and understanding to the entrenched issues many couple find themselves in.

Using The Four Agreements is a simple reminder of the internal resources we all possess
but may not have developed very effectively. When we do start to remind ourselves to pay attention, to
be impeccable with our word, to not take anything personally, to not make assumptions and to always do our best, our relationships have the opportunity to transform into something more satisfying and loving.

Below are the Four Agreements…

1) Be impeccable with your word.
“Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love…”.

Ruiz believes that we should speak with integrity. Hurtful words only create distance between couples and deepen wounds within the relationship. Choose your words carefully and be clear with precisely what you want to say. If you feel hurt, just say that and try not to react by saying hurtful words back to your partner.

2) Don’t take anything personally.
“Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality,
their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the
victim of needless suffering…”.

Couples frequently fall into this pattern and end up feeling wounded by their partner. The secret is to know ourselves well enough to be able to know what belongs to us and what doesn’t. When we accept all parts of ourselves, we can clearly see that something might be going on for our partner and it has nothing to do with us.

3) Don’t make assumptions:
“Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life…”.

Many of the couples I work with recognise this to be their biggest default in their relationship. It takes alertness, a conscious mind and real curiosity to enquire and shift through our assumptions. We need to be honest with ourselves and be flexible enough to see that we might be mistaken.

4) Always do your best:
“Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as
opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment,
self-abuse and regret”.

Doing our best doesn’t always mean doing things right. We can make mistakes and learn from them and try not to get caught up in judging ourselves. Our best is the best we can do at that moment and our relationship can act as a platform for us to grow and develop if we learn to accept ourselves. These simple Four Agreements should be looked at as a guide to deepen our relationship, not as a narrative but about who we are. When we start paying attention to these agreements, the relationship transforms into the the relationships we want.

Shirlee Kay

12 Rules for Life

A couple of weeks ago I was at the latest of a series of evenings organised by the How to Academy.

The speaker – Jordan Peterson – looked intriguing and I was particularly interested to learn about his new book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos’. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the standing ovation that greeted him in a lecture theatre holding more than a thousand people – even before he had started speaking.

His ‘rules’ are fascinating in themselves and have a great deal to say both to individuals and to couples. Rule 4 ‘Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today’ is advice that could save a large number of people from a great deal of grief. People I see are often comparing themselves with what they think the ‘norm’ is or what they perceive other relationships to look like from the outside.

What also really intrigued me was his willingness to talk frankly about the capacity ‘nice people’ have to become something different. Writing in the Observer Magazine 10 days ago Tim Lott interviewed Peterson and commented on him saying – ‘The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they are capable of being’. To support his case Peterson looks to Nietzsche though he could equally well have quoted William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. He reflected further in his talk that it was so-called normal people not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, said Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic, and capable of great malevolence.

Whilst I wouldn’t want to express what Peterson is saying that bluntly nevertheless I am well aware as a couple therapist at Coupleworks of the problems and challenges faced by a couple when one member of the partnership has a seemingly immovable belief in the fact that all the darkness – or problems or difficulties – are located in their partner. Helping a person to see a different perspective and to move to a more realistic understanding of themselves and their contribution to the problems in a relationship is part of the challenge of couple therapy. Change can happen in a relationship when each partner realises how their ‘darkness’ is contributing to the issues.

Peterson’s 12 Rules has some interesting ideas to offer both to individuals and couples. However what will be of real help to the many people I work with, is to discover that in acknowledging their personal darkness they need not fear chaos but will in fact find its potential as a liberating route to life.

Sarah Fletcher

A Couple Check List for the New Year

We are already three weeks into 2018 and how many of us are still going strong with our new year resolutions to do more exercise, eat less sugar, have a dry January? How many of us have given up already and prioritised on refocusing on work? How many of us have resolved to improve our relationship this year?

Judging from the amount of enquiries that Coupleworks have received from clients wanting to make appointments to see a counsellor, its very clear that many couples are struggling to make the significant changes that they need in their relationships to ensure that 2018 brings them more contentment, excitement and connection.

Relationship patterns are hard to break, but if you start to think more and use some of these strategies there is a strong chance your relationship can really improve this year:

Here are some things to think about:

*It’s the small everyday things that can make the biggest difference: how we greet each other, show kindness, respect and appreciation. What tone of voice and words do we use with each other.

*Can you let go of past hurts and focus on sharing your goals for 2018 to help each other achieve what you want.

*If you really want to make your relationship better, you both have to focus on making time to put energy and commitment into overcoming your problems to make your relationship the best it can possibly be. It won’t happen without this.

*How well do you know yourself and what you are looking for in your relationship? What do you bring to the couple? Is it what your partner needs?
How often do we check this out?

*The importance of feeling you come first for your partner.

* Do you feel supported by each other? Couples who feel they have each other’s backs and see each other as team-mates are usually more positively emotionally connected and see a future as an exciting time for growth.

*Are you still curious about your partner or do you think you know and understand everything about them and how they work?

*Recognising we have different needs and drives in our relationships that change over time. When was the last time you checked this out?

*Focus on your partner’s strengths rather than their weakness. Start by complimenting more and criticising each other less

*Taking responsibility for what each of you are bringing to the relationship and is that what you want?

*How good are you at making compromises that will help strengthen your bond?

*Recognising that we all make mistakes and the need to rebuild our trust in each other. Can we forgive?

*The importance of keeping your sexual energy alive and growing

*Take responsibility for your own behaviour in the relationship and how it makes your partner feel.

*Instead of closing down and turning away from your partner, turn towards your partner to share how you feel.

Of course the New Year will bring challenges – that is part and parcel of being in a relationship. With a shared desire to put more effort into spending time focusing on what you both need and what needs to change, you are on your way to a more loving and fulfilling relationship for 2018.

Dawn Kaffel

Present giving between partners.

If money is no object or every penny counts, getting present giving right is tenuous at best… an accident waiting to happen at worst.

Trust comes into the equation of giving.  Defined as: care–duty–hope–assurance and expectation, trust is paramount but so often precarious, tentative and uncertain.

Money is often referred to as ‘means’.  An interesting definition.  What does money mean?

The successful present is not about monetary value, it is about listening throughout the year.  Hearing, not telling or knowing.

Listening, perhaps the greatest gift in a couple’s demonstration of intimacy and being placed as number one to each other, is about taking notice,hanging on words, pricking up your ears and remembering.

Often in the consulting room, money becomes a representation of unspoken yet deeply felt hurts/joys, anger/pleasure, resentments/closeness, rejection/inclusion and other opposites.

Presents given with love rather than apology, showing power, conscience ridden or a bribe will be cherished for life.  Car boot sales are full of present disasters.  The trained eye, however,  will spot one given with love, buy it and feel the aura of a loving couple’s history. The feeling will then spread to an unknown source.  This, in turn will become part of a chain of listeners and lovers.

The most revealing programme of late about lasting couples was about how similiar the selected couples were –  despite privilege and entitlement for some and hardship and struggling for others.  Both put family, home, understanding by listening and kindness at the head of their priority lists.  Duty and hard work is a by-product of these needs.

One of the few times the Queen has been seen to shed a public tear was at the decommissioning of The Royal Yacht Britannia. The only place when not on official business the couple could really be off duty. As near to ordinary as possible. Even in their carefully chosen furniture and possessions on board, a more ordinary and less opulent existence was apparent.

The more cocooned money makes couples, it can, at the same time rob them of awareness about and trust in the other.

A simple paperback book, picture, gadget, tool etc seen and admired by a partner from January onwards, may be the most intimate and loving present to turn up on 25th December or at a birthday or anniversary.  Hints will be dropped along the way.  Listen, take note and file them in your mind for the next present giving day.

Clare Ireland.

Give thanks on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my very favourite holiday (you’ve guessed it, I’m American). The annual tradition and ritual of celebrating Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends brings a profound feeling of gratitude for our life and people we love. It’s a day to register and observe the things we are grateful for and to embrace those around us in grace.

When I was training as an Imago therapist, the most useful exercise I took away was the appreciation/gratitude piece, where couples spend time hearing and mirroring back what their partner appreciates and values about the other. Couples would do this in the session and what always took me aback was how surprised the other was to hear their partner’s appreciation. I noticed how difficult it was for some people to hear the positive things said about them. When I ask them to take time to ‘take these words in,’ often it felt quickly dismissed as if it was too unbearable to hear. With others, I noticed how little they needed to feel appreciated.

Couples often forget to remember to be grateful for the relationship they have and acknowledge to themselves and to their partners of this fact. As time goes on, couples can lose touch with this appreciation and in turn, notice that their partners are no longer making the effort they once were.
This pattern between couples can erode a relationship and leave couples feeling neglected and unloved.

Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful, readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
What Couples can do to develop Gratitude for one another:

1. We need to start with cultivating gratitude towards ourselves before being able to develop appreciation for others. Taking the time to reflect what you appreciate and value about yourself is your starting point. It might be helpful to journal your thoughts.

2. Take time to notice what you appreciate about your partner. It may be as
simple as your partner making you a cup a tea before work or asking you how your day has been at the end of the day. Take note, make a list and remember.

3. Acknowledge these appreciations to your partner. Tell them what you value and ask them to tell you what they heard. This can be transformational for both of you.

Couples find it hard to share their appreciation for many reasons ranging from not growing up hearing it themselves or assuming their partners should know. Whatever the reason, it is important to reinforce this thanks to one another so the relationship can start to change and deepen. Saying and reinforcing affirmation is not a pointless exercise, it’s what we all need to hear to feel valued and cared for.

Shirlee Kay

Are things what they seem?

In his latest blockbuster, ‘La Belle Sauvage’, Philip Pullman graphically describes a group of people who have lost touch with the realities that surround them. They live in a make believe garden of abundance and pleasure, whilst the ‘fog’ that envelops them hides the truths of their world. As one character comments ‘That fog’s hiding everything they ought to remember, if it ever cleared away, they’d have to take stock of theirselves, and they wouldn’t be able to stay in the garden no more’ (p491).

This led me to think about my experience at Coupleworks where few people come into therapy with the deliberate intention of trying to hide some part of their current or past experiences, but for many the therapeutic process does uncover some part of their story that ‘they ought to remember’. Part of the therapist’s task is to help them face up to this process of remembering, whether individually or as a couple.

In couple therapy few things are more important than looking at the patterns internalised in early childhood and to help people see how these continue to affect them in adult life. For each individual it is helpful to think and understand about his or her early childhood patterns and ‘scripts’ – how their family dealt with emotions – how they got to feel valued and loved.

What is particularly important to ‘remember’ is what they then might expect from their partner. For example, a person who has experienced a very disciplined and rigid parenting style, might then perceive any request from a loving partner as controlling, and therefore respond with stubbornness or antagonism. It is important that they can learn to recognise what is being ‘projected onto’ and therefore expected from their partner. They need to learn to trust that this new relationship can be one in which their wishes and desires will be thought about.

In relationships where there have been years of acrimony and mistrust, it can be hard to ‘remember’ the good parts and why the couple got together in the first place and how they had fun and connected. The build up of hurts and disappointments that go unrecognised cloud the relationship and someone who has been knocked down time and again can get to the point where they simply do not want to take the risk of it happening yet another time. Holding those fears, moving away from a culture of blame, and working through the hurts and having them understood and valued, can help lead the couple to ‘take stock of theirselves’ and to begin the journey into a new phase in their relationship.

Sarah Fletcher

Stress and the Couple

Two news items caught my attention this week: how stress impacts relationships and whether there is a stress gender divide.

The first is new research released for National Stress Awareness Day on 1 November 2017 shows that many more women than men are feeling stressed and anxious.

Data showed that more than half of women (54%) experiencing stress or anxiety are struggling to sleep – while less than 4 in 10 men do (39%)

More than half eat junk food due to stress compared to a third of men

Nearly half (45%) have taken out their stress on partners or family – in contrast to less than a third of men (31%)
Almost a third (29%)have had panic attacks due to stress compared to less than one in in five of men (31%)

Do women juggle with more caring and parenting responsibilities which need to be juggled with their careers?

The second is the BBC 2 programme Trust me I’m a Doctor Mental Health Special who were testing out some of the claims that can help to reduce stress of which only some are supported by scientific evidence.

Working with couples it is becoming more evident how big a part stress can play between partners and how difficult it is to stay connected amid the difficulties.

When conflicts arise, it’s much easier to blame our partners –how could you have done that? Why didn’t you empty the dishwasher? You never ask me about my day.

These are all everyday examples of annoyances, disappointments and criticisms that can easily lead to the blame game with our partners. It seems simpler to focus on these negative interactions than to consider how much stress may be a major contribution. Do we even realise how much stress can be the cause of our relationship distress?

Many couples continually juggle with busy work schedules and parenthood and run a hectic lifestyle. This can be difficult enough. Throw into the mix lack of sleep, financial worries, illness and family issues – it’s not difficult to appreciate stress’s constant presence in our lives.

How does stress affect a relationship?

When a stressed partner does not get the support they need from their partners, this often leads to feeling isolated and ignored in the relationship and the tendency is to withdraw or fight. If we confront our partner for not supporting us, they often feel misunderstood – not even realising their own behaviours.

Even if we aren’t stressed ourselves, we are often not very responsive or miss the opportunity to provide comfort and help to our partners. We often don’t want to admit to ourselves that everything and everyone is making you irritable.

If both partners are overwhelmed with stress at the same time, which often happens, the situation worsens. We use each other to vent and take it out on our partners by picking fights over little things and being overtly critical. This often becomes a competition for who is not cared about the most.

How to stay connected under stress

Some partners chose to keep stress to themselves in order to protect a partner. Other partners chose to off-load at every opportunity making it difficult to find any relief. Neither way is ideal. Use this situation as an ideal opportunity to connect with your partner and really try to understand what they need in the way of support from you right know and how to give it. It may be as simple as practical hands-on assistance or it may include more physical comfort and emotional reassurance.

Learn to be more aware of just how much stress your partner may be experiencing. Don’t just look at the negative behaviour but try and understand together what might be going on below the surface.

At times we presume our partners should know when we are stressed and get reactive when they don’t respond in the way we want them to. Perhaps the answer to this is to ask for help when it is needed in a way that will get the response you need from your partner.

Take time out to support your partners stress head on. By sitting down together, taking time out to listen and offer comfort and understanding rather than focusing on yourself are not only key factors in managing stress but show our partners in those important moments that we are truly there for them side by side no matter what.

Stress doesn’t need to threaten our connection to our partners, it can bring us closer together when our stress hormones activate our brains systems to respond with compassion, love and cooperation.

Dawn Kaffel

Illness and the Relationship

Tough times are likely to invade all relationships at some stage, and unexpected challenges can come upon us very suddenly. Life will sometimes deal unforeseen blows that appear with shocking suddenness.
When ‘Sickness/Poorer/Worse’ replace the ‘Health/Richer/Better’ options that we hoped would be our lot, we need to find fresh skills and understanding in order to learn how to cope in any new situation.
A sudden diagnosis of illness in one partner can prove a serious challenge to even the most solid of relationships. Resilience will be needed by any couple faced with the prospect of having to cope with unexpected adversity. The person with the diagnosis may well react strongly to the changes they are experiencing, some of these changes may be temporary, although it may seem a mighty mountain to climb when the process is being endured.
The supporting partner needs time to adjust to what may seem a situation unfairly imposed upon them, too.
Loss of control around the established pattern of our lives is a situation likely to bring difficult emotional responses of helplessness and unfairness leading both partners, at times, feeling trapped and out of control.
It’s so vital to talk to each other, to exchange feelings and reactions, to listen with empathy to the world in which the other is now caught. The traditional family patterns will need to adapt. A turnaround in established roles may mean they now become a patient and a carer. It takes time to discover how habitual ways of relating could be now at odds with the new needs of both parties. 
Tricky feelings left unexpressed will stick and it’s easy for grievances to spiral. Remember that the frustration is with the illness or impairment and not with each other. Keep ‘the enemy’ on the outside, it’s so much easier to fight this in tandem than allowing it to come between you.
Talk and explore together, take time to find out how each partner feels, learn as much as you can about the situation you face – information gives feelings of control. Knowledge in this, as in so many other places, is power.
It’s very easy for couples to get locked into a cycle of competition – who is the most hard done by – and get enmeshed in the feeling that neither can ever truly understand the burden the other carries.
Illness and impairment can be lonely and isolating. Unfairness rankles and anger is an understandable response. It’s normal to be sad or overwhelmed and both people will need to find outside places to talk and offload a little.
New contacts or fresh interests can emerge from a need to sometimes break free and it’s possible to believe that we can still enlarge a life that might start to feel smaller and more insular.  It is so important to find new connections, as well as nurturing existing relationships.
It may be difficult at first, but explore groups, local resources and ideas that fit in with the different pattern of your lives.
Reach out. People, even those closest to us, often just don’t know what could help, so never be afraid to ask. We have no influence on what happens to us, but we do have choices around how we respond to these changes. Resilience is not a static situation but a life long and ongoing project. 
Facing adversity is a big challenge and needs some self-compassion. It’s easy to for couples to neglect themselves when life overwhelms. Always remember to look after ourselves as well as each other. Treats, sleep, good food will all help, but are easily pushed aside when we struggle. The patient and the carer both need to make sure that they know how to find, and use, all resources open to them – physical, emotional and spiritual.
After the sudden death of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put her energy and grief into the book ‘Option B’, a good resource for anyone experiencing loss. Here she explains how it took a painfully long time for her to face the dreadful truth that what she yearned for, the normality of her life, was just not there any longer. 
She offers up her truism that:
‘if option A is no longer available, then let’s kick the shit out of option B’
Change is inevitable for us all, and will bring loss. There may have to be substantial adjustments in all areas of couple life. But the best defence is to change our defences and adapt to new situations.
Find that option B and use it to the best advantage of your new selves. Accepting the new normal takes time, and it’s sometimes hard to hold onto hope, but try defying gravity, and don’t let adversity bring you down.

Christina Fraser

Rubber stamping.

 

 

When couples come in for the first time there are one or two common questions which they ask.  How many sessions will they need and how long will it take are both very familiar to me.

This is very helpful in terms of trying to listen and hear their story and how they perceive themselves.  It seems an obvious and necessary question but it tells me many things.  Some of which might be a clue as to their couple’s sense of self.  The couple being the third client in the room.

Do they see their partnership as unique or do they see themselves within the couple as they hope others will see them?  Do they realise how valuable they both are and how precious their couple is?  They have built it by themselves and formed it into many shapes and sizes to fit their story.  It is all their own work, not a copy of other couples or a ‘normal’ couple.  There is no rubber stamping of a  couple.  It is their couple and the shape of it is how they formed the way to be together, often with great difficulty.

I tell them this right at the beginning so we can refer back to that question and see how the answer changes as a result of what we are all learning about their couple.  Some, feeling under pressure to change quickly, find this hard to bear.  With time, however, and with careful listening and hearing each other we all begin to understand how much is invested in their case..

Following the start of the work when the questions were asked they begin to value themselves in a much more personal way.  We learn how they have negotiated, compromised and tolerated the difficulties they have encountered and how each individual has found it intimate to carefully wend their way through the difficult episodes they encounter.  At the beginning when things became unmanageable they felt compromise  might be a sacrifice and loss of a part of themselves.

As we journey week by week through their ups and downs, we are all surprised by either the length of time or by the little time it has taken to arrive at a more manageable place.

I marvel at the ability of two people coming in, sometimes in despair, reaching a place where they feel closer and how they get in touch again with the origins of why they chose each other at the beginning.

Clare Ireland

Couple Relationships and the Importance of a ‘Safe Haven’

Couples often come into therapy anxious that their relationship has developed a disturbing negative dynamic. They are unsettled and ill-at-ease and have lost the sense of each other as an emotional safe haven. They have become less confident in their future together and cannot access the usual soothing reassurance from the other that all is well. They feel resentful that their partner has become so difficult. They blame and complain and are focussed on the frustrations.

An affair, most classically, attacks the belief in the safety of the ‘couple bubble’. However, trust and dependability (once the bedrock of the relationship) can be eroded in many ways. There can be ‘death by a thousand cuts’ when a relationship has been neglected and each partner no longer feels special and prioritised. Addictions, over-focus on work, on children, even on screens, means attention feels minimal and perfunctory. Sometimes the sexual relationship is affected and the old relaxed intimacy is missing. The couple mourn the loss of the delight, acceptance and intense focus that marked the beginning of the relationship.

Sometimes there can be difficulties managing life’s transitional moments that change an established relationship rhythm. Managing loss, or moving in together, the birth of the first child, differing career ambitions, illness, redundancy are times when significantly different personality traits come to the forefront. It can feel disconcerting when, under stress, a partner takes a different perspective or has unexpected heightened reactions: suddenly becoming withdrawn and unavailable, or with irritability and angry outbursts.

There is real confusion when faced with such behaviour: ‘Why are you reacting like this?’ The differences become threatening and upsetting. Feeling under attack, each becomes defensive. Listening stops and there is ’push back’ against opposing opinions. The implicit message becomes, ‘If I am to trust and relax I need you to agree with me and see it my way.’ Disconnection and tension ripple out. Louise Evans describes being like ‘a vigilant meerkat on sentinel duty’ searching for behaviours that confirm the mistrust.

Entrenched in conflict, the usual relaxed couple interactions become rigid and uncomfortable. They each feel the victim, deprived of understanding, and challenged by any concept of: ‘I have my way. You have your way. As for the right way, the only way, it does not exist’.

There is little inclination to understand or embrace complexity or contradictions when they create such anxiety. ‘We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product while we give ourselves the grace to evolve’ (Jakes). But the more we judge someone, the less space there is to love them.

Lincoln is quoted as saying, ‘I do not like that man – I need to get to know him better’ and counselling offers the opportunity for explanations, listening, being heard, understanding, and calming reassurance. It can help with reparation, allowing the couple reach out and regain the compassion and generosity that became somewhat lost. They agree, once again, to be the safe harbour in the storm.

‘Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, But you and I know what this world can do… If, as we’re walking, a hand should slip free, I’ll wait for you. And, should I fall behind, wait for me…’
Bruce Springsteen: ‘If I Should Fall Behind’


An interesting listen:
Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Natural Predisposition to Suffering: Amit Sood (Ted Talks)


Kathy Rees

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

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.