Archive for fear

Getting a better understanding of the problem

When a couple starts relationship counselling the therapist spends time trying to get a clear idea of the issues that are causing strife. Often the couple is stuck in a repetitive pattern of blame and complaint and feel frustrated that they have not managed to break out of a corrosive state of disappointment. Sadly, when trapped in a fog of negativity, each partner can get in their own way of happiness. Dissatisfaction causes a perpetual own goal. Although the intention of criticism is an attempt to revive the relationship, create change and reconnect lovingly, instead it creates resentment and is almost destined to fail.

An added difficulty is that a couple often comes with the perception that the other is the cause of the problem. They hope their partner will see the error of their ways and will be the one to make the necessary changes

However, there is optimism in the hope that the relationship can be more loving, lighter, more relaxed and less fraught. They long for ways to soften the hostile interactions.

But Michael Stanier* warns about the ‘Advice Monster’. Fixing the other is not the answer. ‘If only he/she was different everything would be fine.’ Instead of getting caught up finding solutions to the myriad of surface irritations, it is important to spend time investigating the root of the problems. The need to search more deeply is always flagged when a couple admits ‘It seems so trivial but…’ These trivialities become significant because of what they reveal about a hidden more serious issue.

The counsellor will continue to explore the meaning attached to the behaviour that annoys and upsets. It is not until the ‘raw spots’ are revealed, when the wounds and hurts are acknowledged, and the core anxiety understood, that change can be addressed. Very often unpeeling the layers can expose a deep attachment insecurity or fear. There can be a direct line from wet towels left on the bathroom floor, to then feeling taken for granted, to then feeling not seen and cared for, and to then feeling alone and not loved.

The couple therapist Ellyn Bader suggests experimenting with an ‘Initiator – Inquirer’ process to begin a more effective style of communication. It may seem rigid and artificial but, in fact, it can help to create a freer more open dynamic. The couple take turns in each role.

The first aim is to give the upset partner (the ‘initiator’) the space and time to explain and feel heard

The second aim is to gain understanding. This partner (‘the inquirer’) is to try to manage any reactions of resistance or urges to dismiss and minimise, and stay listening. This should be helped by keeping to a script of questions:

1. ‘What’s upsetting you?’ ‘What’s worrying you?’ ‘What’s on your mind? The ‘initiator’ is limited to choosing one specific issue only. Keeping to ‘I’ statements they explain what it is they find upsetting. This is an attempt to break a loop of criticism/self-defensiveness. Instead of the ‘inquirer’ leaping into retaliatory tit-for-tat argument, the requirement is for ‘passionate listening’. It is not about refuting or agreeing at this stage. There will be an opportunity to explain reactions later.

2. ‘Tell me more.’ ‘What is it about that?’ ‘How does it make you feel?’ ‘Is there more about it?’ ‘Is there something else?’ Expressing an intention to listen and understand shows concern and this, in turn, encourages the other to be more introspective and self-explanatory. Name-calling, character assassination, critical blame or a negative list of complaints is not allowed. The one explaining has to explain the specifics of their struggle and pain. The listener needs to remain curious and avoid either flaring up or shutting down.

3. ‘What is the real challenge about that?’ ‘Why is that uncomfortable?’ The focus is on the person feeling hurt to identify specifically what they find disturbing. Are they making value judgements? What links and associations are being made? What if they reality test? What are reasonable expectations? Are the expectations shared? Is it possible to make a request (but not dictate or demand)?

4. ‘What do you need right now?’ ‘What are your needs in our relationship?’ ‘If we begin to make changes how will things feel better for you?’ ‘In which ways do you think it will be better for me?
The couple then reverse roles with the hope that mutual understanding allows the possibility of negotiating change. Keeping to the script is an attempt to break the deadlock of antagonistic emotional volatility and avoid the usual critical attacks. Previously, despite the couple feeling desperate for relief, the more hostile a relationship the more each partner remained fearful of letting go of the self-protective responses of hot anger or cold silence.

Their challenge is to see themselves on the same side and relax into becoming the safe loving team once again.

Kathy Rees

(* ‘The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever’)

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

Longevity and long term couples.

We are told that in some parts of the world people are living longer. This may be due to the increased population figures, better health facilities in some areas, better diet in the West or more attention to self care in terms of health issues. This, in turn brings with it more long term couples. Couples can now find themselves in partnership for 70 plus years and not be a subject for discussion or amazement. This is a wonderful thing in some cases but in others can bring problems never faced before except in exceptional circumstances.
I am seeing more and more long term couples in my counselling room bringing diverse problems which, hard to define, are nonetheless presenting difficult situations for which there is little outside help. These are couples who have stuck together for whatever reason, many of which are good for both parties, but carrying with it some feelings of helplessness and estrangement.
Passions, rewarded in previous life stages, by sexual contact, are acted out in quite angry ways. Taking strong and opposing sides on present day situations which they cannot solve or in any way be a part of the solution. What used to be known roles have blurred. Women re entering the work place just when men have peaked and are looking towards retirement. Men who have been in positions of authority, suddenly flawed by a world increasingly run by technology and new generations of people who speak a different language and feel little of the respect shown by previous generations towards age and experience.
This can be isolating for the aging couple and in turn it throws them onto each other’s mercy. Instead of this strengthening them, it seems to cause a split. They become competitive and snubbing about the other’s isolation and they fight from different corners.
Often, I find that one side is passive aggressive, feeling they never press buttons thereby taking the position of the victim. The other, always on the attack, becomes more and more volatile yet ends the round feeling exhausted yet with nowhere to go and no one to explain how alone they feel.
Fear of death begins to take a leading position yet often remains unspoken. The fear is exposed by the accusation and denial, yet remains a ‘don’t go there’ subject. All the fear is released in useless repetitive arguments leaving each side feeling isolated
Never before have so many couples been in this situation yet the rules and regulations around them seem to have no boundaries or grounding common to all. They have to work out their own pathway and either weed the verges of their life together or live in loneliness in each other’s presence.
In many cases, their life is good. They often enjoy travel where the everyday is forgotten, they enjoy their mutual friends and families and seem happy to separate out into interests unshared without envy or mistrust. Their sexual contact alters and becomes something precious to both.
When lack of communication slowly seeps into their lives, feeling special to the other seems to have disappeared replaced by carping or shutting down which becomes the language. Even tactile language has gone.
It helps to go back to the beginnings of the couple and what they found in each other which felt so special. What they fell for at the outset will still be there somewhere buried under life experiences and time. When gently looking at who they were, what expectations they had about the other and the feelings of security and safety in each other’s presence, they can find it again. This brings a kind of mature strength which helps to find the bond and makes them a duo when facing life’s new challenges and inevitabilities.
Their joint history becomes the unique tie between them and is like a comforting place from which to cope with and care for each other. This could become the safe place to go to with kindness and understanding giving them back a unique partnership.
Clare Ireland

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

Let’s have a good row

Couples coming to counselling will usually describe communication problems as one of the main reasons for seeking outside help.
A magnetic twosome that starts in a glowing bubble of love, fuelled by a powerful cocktail of chemical reaction is likely to have some disappointing moments as realism and disappointments begin to sneak up on the happy couple.
Psychologists describe this first stage in the passage of a relationship as the Romance Stage which generally lasts around 18 months to 2 years before life cruelly pushes us into the Power Struggle stage. 
Often, the higher the hope the deeper the disappointment when our ‘other’ transpires to be just that … No longer our twin soul, but another who just doesn’t see things the right way (that is, the way we see them)
This is where couples endeavour to point out to each other, often not with much gentleness, exactly where the other one is going so very wrong.
The partner who had seemed so kind and understanding can often become an enemy who just doesn’t get us at all.
Now, when momentarily disenchanted with our beloved, all we see are the flaws and the differences instead of those glowing attributes and understandings that seemed to blind us at the start.
The power struggle is a hard system to shift, but when I ask in a first session how a couple argues, it’s the answer ” O, we never row” that makes me know the work will probably be long and hard.
It is often the ability to have a creative row that can lead a couple to some better understanding of each other and show there is passion in the dynamic between them.
There is, however, a big difference between abusive anger which is unsustainable and cruel, and a good barney which often leads to repair and an affectionate re-entry into the safety of the loving side of our partner.
Here are some tips for A Good Row.

1. Pick your battles 
It’s pointless to keep moaning about unloading the dishwasher (aka ‘nagging’) unless you can recognise what is really being said. Are you actually asking for more help around the house, or maybe it’s about just feeling generally unheard and unimportant. Think it through and try to explain your feelings. Behind most power struggles is fear.

2. Avoid accusatory language
This one is easy. So when describing some issue of contentiousness, don’t use the ‘you’ word, as in ‘you always..’ Or ‘you never…’ And instead, own the feeling that it evokes in you.
‘When X happens, it can make me feel …..’  (Fill in your own reaction)

3. The impact of childhood 
Ingrained issues often come from past experiences. Think of where you may have felt this way before you ever met your partner. Ask how anger was dealt with in their family. Conflict averse families don’t help kids to learn how to process difficult feelings. Critical parents can breed critical children – often they grow up to be hard on themselves and will dole it out because they can’t bear their own feelings of not being right.

4. Try to listen
This one is tricky in the middle of heightened emotions. But do try to think about what is being said rather than just waiting to speak. If people feel heard, they are more likely to listen to your point.

5. Not in front of children
Sounds so obvious, but often doesn’t happen. Children can be really scared by continual rows. Never include them or confide in them. Sometimes gripes are bound to become public, but make sure they also see you hugging and close so they grow up seeing that anger isn’t a deal breaker, but can be successfully and lovingly negotiated.

6. Keep it clean
However bruised we feel it’s important to keep to the relevant issue and not allow anger to take over and become a character assassin. Hurting because we feel hurt can only cause deeper pains that take a long time to heal.

7. Don’t use sulking as a weapon
Sometimes confused feelings cause people to withdraw. It’s ok to discuss this at a quiet moment and explain that we need a period of quiet time to regroup. This is so different to doling out The Silent Treatment, which is borne out of inability to express feelings and is tantamount to withholding and over-harshly punishing the other.

Now for the good news, overcoming the worst of the Power Struggle Stage can lead to a healthier Commitment Stage and a far stronger and successfully tested relationship.
Here’s Huey Lewis to explain.

Christina Fraser

 

Change

At a time of seismic upheavals across the globe, we are currently dealing with changes that seemed unbelievable not long ago.
Change brings uncertainty and loss, and can sometimes be so unsettling that we can feel we lack the resources to know how to cope.
Twice in the last weeks, many of us have gone into a night expecting a political resolution which has been completely overturned by daybreak. And now we have to learn to live with realigned European systems and a movement in the USA, both of which recognise an anti-establishment feeling that has become so heightened that people have risen to take different controls.
In therapy, we see the uncertainty that seems to ripple out when the accepted norms are overturned.
First we have to accept what has happened and examine our worst fears. Shine a torch straight at the monster under the bed, don’t deny it but check what size it is – probably not as big as the imagined one.
Now, believe you aren’t alone. Others can understand what is happening, so talk your thoughts through with family and friends. Therapy can be a terrific sounding board and a safe place to unpick fear. Being vulnerable is normal and allows us to examine real feelings.
Humans have always changed and adapted to new situations, it’s part of life, but can be scary if we feel that the change has been imposed on us.
As the serenity prayer says:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference
(You can, of course adapt this to whichever God is yours)
Change will bring growth, it involves learning and seeing things in different ways. There are always other possibilities and it can be where the unexpected happens that things become interesting.
‘Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’ 
GB Shaw.
A client leaving today turned at the door saying ‘goodbye, and keep the faith’
Let’s do that together.

Christina Fraser

Couples and immigrants – looking at the similarities.

How often do couples choose each other, in part, for their differences?  In our therapy rooms we notice this choice is often a slice of the whole seduction.   Couples who work through these differences on their own or by choosing couple counselling find their bond and intimacy increases. Sometimes, these differences are too hard to surmount and drive the couple apart.  With therapy this is less likely when there is a third independent party present with no agenda with the couple other than looking for different ways to overcome the stalemate.

Immigration across the world has some similarities.  People cross borders searching for something different from where they landed at birth.  There are so many reasons for this that to define them would be wrong.  What is known is that the promise or hope, once achieved, might be disappointing in reality and far from the perceived expectations and dreams.

The similarity between couples and immigrants is about the fear and anger when the dream fades and a sense of loss, abandonment, rejection and unfairness arise. At Coupleworks, we try to look at all sides of peoples’ stories and work out together how to find a middle way which, in the end might be better than the unrealistic dream.  This takes compromise, mediation, conciliation, adaptability and acceptance.  It takes listening to the anger and fear and by respecting that, finding resolution.

Clare Ireland