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.