Archive for differences

Feeling stuck

Couples often come into counselling feeling frustrated and stuck. They feel trapped and confused at certain painful and negative patterns in the relationship. They know it seems counter-intuitive not to just change the reactions which are causing such distress, but it is not that simple.

Therapy can offer a couple the space to reflect on the emotional tangle and gain insight into the dynamics of their particular ‘couple dance’ of hurt and resentment.

Often a set of ‘limiting’ beliefs is uncovered. These are beliefs which influence the way we think about ourselves and our partner, the way we understand the world around us, and affect our reactions to events and situations. A limiting belief is not always obvious. Like the fish who says, ‘Water? What is water?’ we do not realise we are swimming in it – but the evidence is in the stuck interaction. Their ability to accommodate, change and develop has become inhibited and stifled.

Each of us has sets of values and beliefs that we absorbed in our early years, and that are shaped by experience, but sometimes we assume they are human ‘Truths’. We tend to discount information that challenges our ‘Truth’, and focus on information that confirms our belief. We feel reassured by a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, if confronted by our partner’s contradictory and opposing belief, we feel disturbed and unsettled. We may feel betrayed. We may feel disconnected.

For example, in one family anger flares and is expressed loudly and vociferously, but then swiftly repaired. In another family, anger is suppressed and internalised, raised voices met with strong disapproval. A couple can get drawn into arguments about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, both feeling absolutely right, and a fractious and brittle relationship develops. The couple assume polarised positions and negotiating the difference seems impossible.

They engage in what Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor describes as the ‘Walking the Devil’s Circle’. The limiting belief is the ‘Circle’. The couple walks, and keeps walking, convinced they are on the road to somewhere (convincing the other of what is right/wrong). But then, when they look down, they see the same footsteps going round and round in a circle. Because the interactions and counter-reactions have been repeated and repeated, there is no forward-moving path. Now there is a well-worn, and deepening, groove of a cycle which is difficult to escape and which makes the habitual patterns even more difficult to break.

However, the counsellor can support and encourage the couple in the challenge of thinking creatively about their differences. Counselling can help couples explore what it is that they experience as threat. What do they imagine they will lose by compromising? Why do they become so defensive with the person they love the most? When faced with difference of opinion, why does the relationship suddenly feel so vulnerable and insecure? When there is love and connection at other times, what happens in those moments of disagreement?

Empathy allows a flow of well-meaning understanding. The couple can experience ‘togetherness’ again. There is a mutual engagement in managing the difference. It is a relief to learn alternatives to the sticky web of distress, anger and destructive criticism. A softening of attitude establishes generosity and compassion and a process of turning towards instead of turning away. An alternative mind-set can take root and the stranglehold is broken.

Kathy Rees

Pre-marital Counselling

Coupleworks’ counsellors have found that couples, planning a wedding and making a commitment to share their lives together, can really benefit from a time to reflect on their hopes and expectations. It is wonderful to relish the feeling of being known and understood, to revel in shared similarities, and experience being in love with a soulmate, but every couple has to accommodate their differences too.

It may feel scary and challenging but acknowledging, embracing and understanding the differences between each other can lead to a deeper sense of connection. Negotiating different perspectives, viewpoints, and outlooks can be liberating and enriching. Pre-marital counselling contains no suggestion of incompatibility, and is not a matter of letting go of one’s own values, but is a means of increasing the ways partners invest in collective decisions.

The safe environment of the counselling room allows an opportunity for deeper listening and empathy. Checking out with ‘Is this what you mean?’ and ‘Is this what you are saying?’ questions assumptions and avoids the danger of second-guessing and any attempt at mind-reading. An ability to see where the partner is coming from creates a relaxed flexibility in the relationship. There is also the curious paradox that when we accept each other as we are, we allow the possibility of change

Often it is a feeling of being misunderstood that builds frustration or resentment and can create a defensive couple dynamic. However, if it is too cosy the relationship can feel suffocating or too constricting. A fear of opening Pandora’s Box, or a fear of rejection, can then lead to an avoidance of ‘difficult’ issues. If issues feel too risky partners can withdraw. So, opening up takes courage – but can result in closeness, acceptance, and reassurance.

The following questions are not a test. There is no right or wrong. They should be used as a way of encouraging curiosity, and beginning dialogue and discovery.

1. Where was I born and where did I consider ‘home’?
2. What does ‘Home’ mean to me?
3. What were my favourite holidays?
4. What country/place is on my bucket list?
5. When I am old what would I regret if it hasn’t happened?
6. What personal improvements do I want to make in my life?
7. What does money mean to me?
8. What would I consider my ideal job?
9. How do I manage stress and what stresses am I facing right now?
10. How do I self-soothe?
11. Do I want children? Why? When? How many?
12. What does ‘Family’ mean to me?
13. Do I have a secret dream?
14. In which ways am I an extrovert/introvert?
15. What is one of my favourite ways to spend an evening?
16. What type of film/book/TV show do I enjoy?
17. What turns me on sexually?
18. What are some of my most important values/beliefs?
19. What is one of my favourite desserts?
20. How important is tidiness/cleanliness at home?
21. What was one of my best childhood experiences?
22. What do ‘friends’ mean to me?
23. What do ‘presents’ mean to me?
24. What does living in the city/countryside mean to me?

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

Benefits for Couples who Exercise Together

More and more people are making time to exercise on a regular basis and spend hours committing themselves to going to yoga, spinning, Pilates, the gym or a run in the park.

It makes us fitter, healthier and look better. We do it for ourselves and for our partners. Yet, I wonder why couples don’t see that working out together can provide their relationship with a wealth of opportunities to get to know each other better.

Couples who make a conscious decision to work out together are investing in their health and wellbeing but also in one another. Some of the positive effects include spending more time together, spurring each other on to reach fitness goals, helping and supporting each other with challenges like injury or motivation, noticing the improvements in physique and ability, feeling proud of each other and enjoying the endorphin rush exercise brings.

How to start:
1. Decide what you want to do together to get fit. Keep in mind the different abilities you both start with but don’t be put off if one of you is stronger or more flexible. Work with the differences and notice what feelings come up for you both and then talk about it.
2. Find realistic times you are both able to commit to exercising together. Again, keep in mind each other’s time constraints, decide and then stick to it.
3. Set goals together. Treat each other when you reach a goal. Book a double message, a special evening out or cook something together.
4. Encourage one another. When beginning new fitness programmes sometimes feelings of not being good enough can creep up, this is when we need support. If there is a tendency to give up, this is the opportunity to push the other to keep going.

Added Benefits:
1. Newfound Attractiveness: When we feel better about our bodies and about our partner’s we feel more attractive and more attracted to our partners.
Exercise also allows us to tune into our bodies and our bodies sensations.
2. Exercise tends to have a knock on effect: We feel better, have more energy and are generally happier. This has to benefit our relationship!
3. Embarking on something new together gives us the opportunity to learn about our partners in ways we don’t often see. The experience adds to our relationship by learning how each person copes with challenges and obstacles and allows us to know each other more deeply.
4. Committing to spend time with one another lets you both know that the relationship means something and that making the effort is a concrete way of letting each other know this.

So get those trainers on and start improving your fitness levels and your relationship. It’s a win win proposition.

Shirlee Kay

Taking the next step..preparing to move in together

In her novel, ‘You Should Have Known’, Jean Hanff Korelitz explores the idea that we deny problems in a relationship in order to maintain the belief of a great partnership. We ignore niggling anxieties because we feel so in love. Not allowing the doubts to surface we find ways to serve away from the warning signs. We deny differences and find ways to ‘unknow’. It can feel a betrayal to focus on the flaws and there can be an unconscious fear that naming the difficulties may be irreversibly destructive.
However, Coupleworks counsellors are experienced in exploring issues with a couple preparing for the delightful prospect of living together. Not to drench with an icy shower of pessimism, but a realistic look at how to effectively manage differences.
When everything seems rosy we can resist exposing negative fault-lines. We glory in feeling understood and revel in sharing the same values, so it can feel unnecessary to admit to the irritations, the contradictory perspectives, and the opposing points of view. But it is the successful navigation of these problem areas that indicate a harmonious loving relationship.
We have different family backgrounds and different life experiences and these shape us and create a unique pattern of personality traits and characteristics. Our specialness is exciting and enthralling to the other – but we also long for ‘sameness’. Differences can feel threatening to the security of the relationship.
What happens when our needs clash? For example, one can be extrovert and the other more introverted. One can have a need for savings and financial security while the other seems spendthrift. One can long for children while the other does not see it as part of life’s plan. One has a higher sex-drive than the other.
We can know these things and imagine that issues will sort themselves out in the fullness of time. Love will be enough. But, unfortunately, they can remain sources of conflict until they are accepted, spoken about openly and negotiated. Couple counselling really can help to avoid a difficult polarisation of opinions.

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