Archive for conflict

The Course of Love Alain de Botton

‘Love means admiration for qualities in the lover that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances; love is a search for completion.’

This quotation, which in many ways both expands and focuses Plato’s search for your other half as described in his Symposium, comes early on in the book by the contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton. The Course of Love is by no means a dry and academic dissertation on the theme of love – still less a series of speculative notes detached from human realities. Rather it is a delightfully written novel, following the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten, which takes the time to unpack what is happening for them along the way.

Listen to him again…

‘In reality, there are rarely squabbles over ‘nothing’ in Rabih and Kirsten’s marriage. The small issues are really just large ones that haven’t been accorded the requisite attention. Their everyday disputes are the loose threads that catch on fundamental contrasts in their personalities’

Botton explores and unpacks the ordinary everyday issues that many couples struggle with and are common themes that come into our consulting rooms at Coupleworks. Through the engaging and compelling narrative of Rabih and Kirsten’s lives, interwoven with profound and thought provoking commentary, he covers issues of conflict, sulking, sex, blame, children and parenting, staying faithful and aging parents.

Underpinning his understanding of the couple relationship is the way in which we are shaped by our early attachment figures – our parents – and how this script forms a pattern for us in our expectations and actions towards our significant partner. On the one hand we expect our partners to respond in ways that are familiar to us, whilst on the other hand we can find ourselves reacting powerfully or seemingly irrationally to certain behaviours. This can lead to conflict, misunderstandings and a growing distance between a couple.

One of the themes he highlights which I find to be one of the most common features of couple therapy, is working with the disappointment that our partner is not going to be the person we would like them to be. But this doesn’t have to mean an unhappy ending. In working through the disappointment and letting go of a sometimes idealistic dream, there is much contentment to be found in an acceptance of the fact that our partners are different and other, and finding an intimacy and connection through that difference.

A final quote from Alain de Botton.

‘The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste, but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace’

This book is accessible and a recommended read for all those who face the joys and challenges of being in a relationship!

Sarah Fletcher

Wedding Season

It’s wedding season and there are thousands of newspaper articles, magazines and blogs advising couples on how to plan the perfect wedding.
Most couples focus on the big day but neglect the bigger question of what they’re expecting from their marriage. Couples would be wise to invest time and energy
in their marriage as well as their wedding day because the day will pass but the marriage, hopefully, will last a very long time.

More and more couples are finding it helpful to have counselling before their big day. Taking time to invest in a relationship’s future enables a couple to move into marriage with their eyes wide open. It allows them to ask the hard questions before tying the knot. Exploring issues both in the present and anticipating those that might pop up in the future, gives couples a better understanding in communicating clearly with each other as they begin their lives together.

Some questions couple might be asking themselves before entering into marriage are:

1. What is communication like right now?
2. When conflict arises how do we address issues together?
3. What are our expectations for the future?
4. How will finances be managed together?
5. Are sexual expectations compatible?
6. Have children and parenting ever been discussed?
7. What are the roles in the marriage going to be?
8. Are your lifestyles compatible?
9. How do you visualise your lives in the future?

If these questions are difficult to talk about, perhaps taking time to have a few sessions with a couples therapist can help address these concerns and provide the best possible start for a new marriage.

Shirlee Kay

Blame or Acceptance and Understanding in a Relationship

Zen master Buddhist, Thic Nhat Hanh, writes:

When a plant does not grow well, you do not blame the plant. You look for the reasons that it is not doing well. You may need to do something differently: it may need feeding, or more water, or less sun – but you don’t blame the plant.

Yet, very often, if we have problems with our family, or with our partner, or with friends, we blame the person. Frequently, however, the blame has little positive outcome. It rarely results in the desired change in behaviour, or attitude, or belief and, more often, prevents the possibility of dialogue and discussion. At worst, a blaming culture in a relationship has a corrosive and destructive effect. We all know the feelings of frustration and resentment that arise when we feel misunderstood and unfairly blamed and we can become closed-off and angry.

The counsellors in Coupleworks often work with couples to learn the most effective ways to take care of their particular relationship so that it can ‘grow well’ and thrive. Sometimes a couple can get stuck in a culture of blame – and each partner needs to understand their own role in that dynamic and what they need to do differently. Why are they stuck with feeling that the other is not good enough or, somehow, should not be the way they are? Each needs to reflect on this anxiety and their urge to criticise and attack. How can each take responsibility for getting needs met with compassion and generosity, and what has to happen if they are both to make the choice to ‘tend’ and not diminish?

Of course we can be upset and distressed when our idea of what reality should be confronts a different reality understood by our partner. But a conflict in a relationship is a couple problem that needs both parties collaborating to resolve. Alienating one another prevents a shared creative thinking.

If a relationship is to flourish and deepen it needs to feel safe – and acceptance and understanding is fundamental. Acceptance does not mean approval, consent, permission, agreement, aiding, abetting or even liking what is. But it does require each partner seeing the other and accepting ‘That’s the way it is’ and ‘That’s the way they see it’.

As a therapist I am alert to when a couple begins to talk in absolutes: ‘You always…’, ‘You never…’ and when perceptions are filtered through ‘should’s, must’s, and ought’s. An insistence on wrong-doing, of being ‘right’ or wrong’, then requires a respectful exploration of value-systems, perceptions, and beliefs.

A challenge to our expectations can make us anxious and rigid and there is a danger that love can then become conditional: ‘I’ll love you if you are different’. The need to ‘walk a mile in your shoes’ to find understanding then becomes more critical than ever.

Kathy Rees

Resilience in the Couple Relationship

Couple therapist Esther Perel writes that ‘we each come out of childhood with a greater need for either separateness or togetherness’ and, as a result, managing our adult relationships is a constant challenge. Very often a close couple relationship is one of our principal sources of emotional sustenance, reassurance and intimacy, but a difference in our levels of need can be disconcerting and frightening. Feelings of abandonment from what seems like a lack of concern can create panic. Feeling engulfed by what seems clingy over-dependence can feel smothering. At the start, balancing is not seen as a problem, but major life-events, stresses, and crises can cause ripples in the smooth surface and a once-stable relationship can suddenly feel unsafe. Each partner’s response to a feeling of disconnection will be individually shaped by past experience, but the differences can cause both a worrying confusion and insecurity: ‘I feel I don’t know you anymore!

Disagreement can flare into destructive conflict and anger. Repetitive, stuck behaviour patterns begin to emerge with downward spirals of protest and defensiveness. The couple can feel helpless and lost and come into counselling fearing their relationship is broken. The concept of the relationship as a safe haven has been challenged and they are wary, reluctant to trust. Suspicion has replaced good will.

Counselling, however, can offer a restorative healing experience. If a couple can be ‘brave-hearted’ and engage with the process of discovery and understanding, they can find the motivation needed to turn a stressful experience into an opportunity for growth. Transformational coping-strategies- such as working to change ‘Automatic Negative Thoughts’ (ANTs) into ‘Positive Alternative Thoughts’ (PATs) – allow for a discovery of powerful emotional resilience.

From the brain’s perspective, it is usually safer to stick to what is familiar, deeply ingrained, how we always react (even though we also know it does not serve us well) rather than risk the vulnerability and uncertainty of doing something different. Change is uncomfortable. So, resilience is a quality that needs to be developed – it is not a fixed character trait.

In order to feel the confidence and safety to strike out for change we need to feel buffered against what we pessimistically see as potential disappointment. Counselling, then, gives the opportunity to set events into the required broader perspective. Optimism is not helpful unless it is realistic – and realism is the ability to assess the situation clearly and challenge negative distortions.

For those traumatised by past relationship wounds, trust can be difficult. However, significant gestures of reassurance and ‘turning towards’ make for a relaxation of tension. Renewed closeness has a soothing reparative effect that goes towards healing hurt. Shifts and accommodations are evident and a recognition of a partner’s love, care and concern allows for significant recovery and hope for the future.

Kathy Rees

Lighten the Darkness

In the London Borough of Hackney where I live, the twinkling fairy lights decorating the trees and street lamps are switched on at the end of October, just as the evenings get darker and winter sets in. They mark the start of the winter festivals of light that are celebrated over the next couple of months. The first is usually Diwali, followed by Hanukkah, Advent, St Lucia’s Day, and Christmas. London is a vibrant, diverse, multi-cultural city and, even for those with no faith, there is something symbolic and uplifting about piercing the gloom with the glow of candles, lamps and lights as we approach mid-winter and the end of the year.

 
Sometimes it is hard to remain hopeful. For too many it has been a difficult challenging year. Our hearts ache at the plight of Cumbrian communities plunged into darkness by the floods. Refugee camps are frightening, cold and dark. Many will have experienced the dark times of loss. For others relationships have ended and feelings of certainty, safety and security have been shaken.

 
Often the people I see for relationship counselling are in despair. Yet I am struck by their courage in reaching out to make that first appointment. Somewhere, amongst all the distress, anger, fear, frustration or resentment, is the idea that changes can be made and things could be different.

 
Alongside the painful description of conflict and disappointment, and alongside an exploration of the difficulties, I ask clients to remember the beginning of the relationship: how they met, how they fell in love, what it is that was so special and valued about their partner. So often a couple will look at each other and smile. Faces will light up at the recall of a particular intimate memory.

 
I am privileged to work with people who dare to believe there could be a light at the end of the tunnel – while simultaneously overwhelmed at the risk of daring to hope. It can take resilience to tolerate the feelings of vulnerability as they dare to lower defences and reach out to each other. I try to encourage them to stay in touch with the good things they share, the love, the strengths of their relationship, however fragile they may seem. They need those thoughts to balance the darkness when confronting the toxic elements of the relationship, the painful differences, the hurt, and where they are stuck.

 
‘This too can pass’ – if we keep hold on to the light!

 

Kathy Rees

What’s irritating about your partner?

In the Times newspaper last Friday there was a report of a recent survey on the top ten irritations that people named in relation to their partners. These were:

• Leaving clothes on the floor
• Leaving wet towels around the house
• Bad bathroom habits
• Always using the phone
• Disagreeing about what film to watch
• Messy eating habits
• Deciding who is cooking
• Picking your nose
• Drunk sexting
• Looking at your ex’s Facebook page

From my experience as a therapist I would agree that many of these are expressed as points of conflict in the counselling room.

However I was interested there was no mention of such things as mothers-in-law, finances, housework, child care or sex, as the couples who come to see me more often talk about these as the major points of friction in their relationships. Perhaps it is a matter of what questions the survey chose to ask.

Being in a relationship means accepting your partner’s differences as well as enjoying the ways in which you are similar. Sometimes you have to let go of your preference to fit in with your partner and sometimes it’s the other way round. As an example the Times highlighted the number of men agreeing to watch ‘rom-com’ films rather than their preferred action movies. “Indeed, it is possible that Hugh Grant’s entire film career is based on half his audience wishing they were somewhere else”.

So what to do when you feel irritated with your partner’s bad habits?

• Take a deep breath
• Decide whether it is of real importance to you or whether it is something you can live with
• Wait, (if possible!) until you can have a calm chat about it
• Try not to bring it up in an aggressive way
• Use ‘I’ statements (e.g. when you leave the towel around the house, I feel like you are expecting me to clear up after you)
• Be prepared to listen to how they see it.

At Coupleworks we see people for couples counselling or psychosexual therapy who are not managing to resolve issues, often finding themselves arguing over irritations when there are deeper issues that are troubling them. We see clients face to face, by telephone or Skype.

Sarah Fletcher