Archive for couple therapy

Relationships and Stress

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Fletcher

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

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

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

Making the Most of Couples Therapy

I’ve often wondered why some couples find couples therapy a ‘Life ‘Saver’ and others find it less than helpful or a waste of time. I’ve made a list of the ways to come into couple’s therapy to help maximize the process.

The truth is, couple therapy is not easy. It was only until I went to a
Couple’s therapist with my own husband a few years back that I truly appreciated what a difficult process it is.

Unlike individual therapy, there is nowhere to hide in couple’s therapy. Despite this, couple counseling provides a safe space to say things to one another, honestly and directly. It also provides an opportunity to learn about yourself with your partner as witness.

Couples who find therapy helpful are often the ones….

Who come to therapy before their problems get so bad that they are unable to address them without very hard feelings building up inside them.

Couples who are clear that couple therapy is a way to work through their issues and who feel comfortable with knowing what might be discovered within that process.

Couples who saw their parents argue but who also saw them work through issues in a civil and respective way.

Couples where, from the beginning of the relationship, felt able to express themselves and were able to listen to their partner’s point of view.

Who see an issue as an issue and not the end of their relationship.

Couples who can see they have a part to play in the relationship and don’t automatically blame their partner.

Couples who work together and see their partner separately from themselves and who accept that their partner thinks differently, feels differently and reacts differently.

Couples who are able to see that going to couple therapy isn’t a weakness but actually a way to strengthen their relationship and give them the tools and resources to make them stronger.

Couples who don’t find it useful feel the opposite!
Note: The above list suggests that couples that come into therapy with this template wouldn’t actually need therapy (a valid point). This list is more of a guideline to work towards and to keep in mind.

Maximizing Couple Therapy:

Very simply, the way to get the most out of couple’s therapy is exactly the same way as to make the most of your relationship. Be present, be honest, be kind, listen, reflect and be open. Ok, it sounds easier than it is but relationships take effort, time and risks.
Without opening your heart to your partner the possibility of being truly known will not happen.


Shirlee Kay

Summer Holidays and How to Survive Them

It’s no coincidence that couple therapists get a wave of phone calls before and after the summer holiday season. Anxiety levels increase and tempers flare just planning the holiday. We often find ourselves overloaded with work and commitments, leaving us exhausted before we even step on to the plane or into our cars. So how can we prepare to turn our holiday expectations into realistic ones, which will leave us feeling relaxed and enriched.

We spend the winter thinking about our summer holiday: where shall we go, where shall we stay, what will we do? We dream of how relaxing it will be and how much fun we are going to have. Yet, the reality can be very different. Spending time with our other half every minute of every day is often challenging and can sometimes be more than disappointing.

Deciding with your partner where to go starts with being clear about the kind of holiday you want. If you want a city holiday and your partner wants a beach holiday, for instance, there is no point in giving in, it will only cause resentment. Don’t be a martyr. Negotiate and compromise and see your partner’s point of view, this will give you both the opportunity to get at least some of the holiday you’re looking for.

Slow down:
Take care to slow down before leaving. Have early nights, that proposal can wait until morning. Eat well and exercise regularly to keep balanced. Don’t over commit with friends or take on extra work just before your trip. It will only stress you out.

Spontaneity is not helpful when travelling. The better prepared you are the more seamless and less anxious your experience will be. Do your research: Book reasonable times to depart and arrive at your destination so you are relaxed not exhausted. Don’t take that 5.45am flight to Istanbul or arrive bang in the middle of a New York rush hour. Doing packing at the last minute while searching for misplaced travel documents are also not recommended. Being well organized helps to lower stress levels and allows us to start our holiday on an even keel.

Your Trip:
Remember, this is an opportunity to let go and spend time with each other without the pressures of work and daily commitments. It’s also a time when things that need to be addressed and have been ignored tend to come out between couple. Agree to limit your discussion to issues that aren’t historically explosive and only when you haven’t been drinking.
Turn off your phone and IPad when together and agree to be present with one another and listen to your partner. This is a great opportunity to remember why you fell in love with them in the first place.

Hopefully, now you won’t come home from your holiday needing another one to recover from it! Have a wonderful trip.

Shirlee Kay


Date night

Couple therapy can do a lot at difficult times to help with insights into troubling situations. It offers an unbiased and creative space to clarify confused or tangled feelings and habits.
But it is just 50 minutes a week.
Clients sometimes seem surprised that the real work needs to go on between the sessions.
Life gets busy and, once the heady days of early romance become a fading memory, people often allow life’s distractions to get between them. Subsequently, filling the couple gap with ‘other stuff’ is where distance begins and we start to lose sight of that which was once our firm priority.
Closeness and sex cannot exist in a vacuum, but foreplay is more than just pressing the right buttons under the duvet.
Men need sex to feel close; women need to feel close to want sex, is an old cliché, but applies to many of the couples that come for therapy.
When questioned about their day-to-day life, it’s no surprise that for busy people, sex can sometimes become yet another pressure on an already overlong ‘to do’ list. And subsequently it often gets postponed or forgotten altogether until it isn’t even talked about.
Anxieties at work, tiring family duties and individual worries all play their part in allowing what was once a technicolor vibrant couple intensity to fade into, well, certainly not shades of grey, more a faint monochrome memory.
The couple underpins the family and really needs a boost on a regular basis.
This is where Date Night becomes essential. Self conscious and contrived it might appear, but without prioritising each other it’s so easy to stop feeling special and this path leads to disappointment and often an increasing lack of desire.
Make a plan – if possible go out at least once a week. Not with friends or family, but just as a twosome.
If a meal is too complicated or pricey, then just go for a drink or walk.
The vital thing is to switch off those screens, stop fretting the small stuff  – to talk and to really listen to each other. To feel important again and to remember when it was the two of you against the world.
If Cameron and Obama can manage this with their hectic schedules, then the rest of us should have no problem. Book your Date Night into those busy diaries without delay.

Christina Fraser

Election fatigue

Q. How many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?

A.  None. They will just spend the time blaming each other for the failure of the dud one.

As couple counsellors, we are often called upon to try and better understand the power struggle that erupts when partners don’t feel heard or understood by each other.
Couples can talk over one another, score points by attacking each other and loudly dismiss each other’s concerns until a situation becomes so loaded that it is hard for them to understand how they can ever find a peaceful middle ground.
If they reach the point of dissolve, they then often also disagree how best to parent their children.

Employing the same tiring rhetoric, the Dave and Ed election sessions appear to be getting just as fruitless as the couple desperately intent on trying to impress their audiences with just how right they are and how the other is completely muddled.

We, the poor kids in the middle of all this, now have to decide which parent gets our vote. They are both promising lots of treats and explaining how much better life will be if they are the parent making the big decisions about our health, wealth and safety.
Professional rivalry disintegrates into personal rivalry. Currently it’s all getting grubbier by the day. Playground politics rule.
Their couple sessions on TV and in the media are accompanied by each other’s back up friends and relatives. Leaders are only ever pictures clinging onto their spouses to ensure we understand how empathetic and family orientated they both are. Everyone is desperate to show their golden side. The shadows will come later.
Accusations, insults and assassination by media spin. It all gets in the way of the truth which is the same here as it is for our couples.
There is no ‘right’ way. There are two viewpoints to each truth. Sometimes more than two. Reason and compassion should be the main helpmates, but these are in short supply.
Counselling could help, but that would involve the tricky business of really listening, not just waiting to speak.

Currently it’s getting childishly competitive. Voting for the best parental guidance will be a confusing choice for many.  Mudslinging just gets tiring and messy for the audience. Will the victor sadly just be the biggest and loudest and the one that can throw the most dirt?
For many in couple therapy feeling victorious can be more important than caring about the other.
The winner takes it all. But will it make them happy?


Christina Fraser

Easter – a rebirth and resurrection of the couple relationship

Regardless of what your religious beliefs are, Easter can be seen as analogy for our relationships. Easter is the most important festival in the Christian calendar. Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus was said to come back to life after being crucified. At Easter, Christians remember the ‘Holy Week’. It also marks the end of Lent, the traditional time of fasting in the Christian calendar.

At Coupleworks, we see Easter as symbolising the ‘rebirth of the couple relationship’:
Reflecting on the ‘rebirth’ of our relationships is one way of rediscovering what it was that we were drawn to in our partner and the strong connections we felt when we first met. Taking the time to reach out and spend time with the people we love over the Easter holiday allows us to reestablish contact and remind one another that our relationship is meaningful and valuable.

The Resurrection of the Couple Relationship:
Whether our relationship have been fractured and bruised through reactive behavior or neglected, Easter provides the opportunity to let go of hard feelings, past hurt and other difficulties most relationships accumulate. Talking things through and learning to forgive one another and ourselves allows us to see the ‘new’ relationship emerge. This requires us to learn to take responsibility for our behavior and begin to understand the impact we have on one another.

Couple therapy is one way to explore and work through issues that get in the way of finding the love and care from one another that we need as human beings. Easter is about resurrection and redemption that can be seen as heralding a new era between people. Love and generosity is a Christian
teaching but whatever religion we are it most definitely serves our relationships well (and an enormous chocolate egg doesn’t hurt either).

Shirlee Kay