Archive for repair

Conflict in front of children – How much is too much?

When asking new clients why they have come to therapy, a common answer is to ‘improve communication’. On exploring further it often transpires that this is a euphemism for unresolved irritations bordering on rage.

It can be a brave and creative decision to begin couple counselling while there is still the energy and enthusiasm between them to tidy up the messier parts of a partnership, and to put in the effort to resolve differences in a better way.

Couples that realise endless bickering is tiring and usually unproductive can be helped to find resolution through negotiation. But anger is a symptom of other emotions, it’s part of the human condition and needs an outlet from time to time.

Opinions vary widely as to how much children are affected by witnessing their parents having arguments. But the realisation that conflict is part of human relationships is a valuable lesson for a kid, and there are useful tips to keep this safe

Children will pick up tension

The notion that rows can be ‘saved for later’ is a false hope as little eyes and ears are often hyper-vigilant and will pick up on a tricky atmosphere. Children will ruminate and their worst fear is that a calamity is lurking and the parents may even separate. And woven into this mix is usually an assumption that somehow, mysteriously they might be to blame.

Far better to allow parental differences the airtime they need, but there are rules:

Never allow a row to become a fight

This involves ensuring that voices can get passionate but never violently loud.

No yelling, no door slamming and no personal insults allowed.

Children won’t understand the context and can be bewildered and scared by seeing the symptoms of a very heightened atmosphere.

Tough though it may be, try to allow each other time to voice grievances and don’t interrupt by butting in. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the situation will get more loaded and what should be listening time, actually becomes just white noise that marks the gap until the other can blurt out their own side of events. It’s hard enough, but give each other time to express their opinion. Keep to a fair fight.

It’s fine to express negative emotions, we all have them, but let the family see that they pass. Anger comes and anger goes.

Never bring the children into the row

In therapy, I often hear one or other of the kids being used by warring couples as witnesses for the prosecution or the defence. Leave them outside the grievance and never put them in a position where they feel obliged to take sides. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make

Don’t raise voices in front of the tinies

Pre-verbal children will only understand noise and body language. Up to the age of 7 it’s also hard for them to grasp multiple emotions, so caution is needed with language and behaviours. After 10 years, there’s more understanding of complexity of feelings.

Also don’t forget that most healthy siblings will learn about vehement rivalry and arguments just amongst themselves and on a regular basis

Don’t use the silent treatment

No child is going to learn the art of healthy disagreements if they see one parent shutting down. This can be the tight lipped ‘I’m not discussing this any more’, or the permanent retreat into another room. Detaching from a row is likely to inflame the situation, one person will feel abandoned as if their feelings aren’t worth being heard, and the other is passively biting back grievances which, unaired, will just stick and smoulder.

There is often just one truth but two perspectives. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it shows respect for another point of view. This is an essential skill for any child to learn, both in the context of relationships, but it’s also a valuable lesson for better communication in other aspects of life.

Resolve is Imperative for everyone involved 

The most important part of conflict is for children to see that anger is not a deal-breaker. Couples who can row, but can also publicly show their affection are the ones offering up the healthiest message that difference is a part of life and that to care enough to want to be better understand and be understood is a foundation of good relationships.

The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s apathy.

The couple relationship underpins the family so let difference thrive but allow affection a bigger space in the relationship between parents.

Make sure that children see the reparative embrace, a loving look, and an affectionate squeeze or kiss.

The Legacy

When asking clients how anger was dealt with in their original families, the message that gives the most promise is the person who will smile and tell me that in their childhood, their parents could argue fiercely and vehemently, but that the repair was always seen in the hugs and laughter fondly remembered as the most prominent part of their parents relationship. This will be the internal model of couple conflict that children can carry into adult life.

The family that plays together, stays together, and the family that doesn’t shy away from problems, but gives each other time and consideration will allow their children to grow and develop a stronger emotional vocabulary

Christina Fraser

Couples Come in Many Surprising Ways

Traditionally, a couple is defined as two people involved in a committed relationship and who are (usually) in a sexual relationship. In the past few years, individual clients have asked if I could see them and a member of their family or a close friend in a therapeutic setting. The prospect of this both intrigued and slightly intimidated me. As a couple’s therapist I am trained to work with two people but had never worked with this type of dynamic. Of course, there have been issues that I’ve not encountered before with clients but I’ve managed to work through the ‘not knowing’ and managed to work reflectively through these issues. Because of this, I allowed myself to trust my instincts and agreed.

My first experience was with a client who wanted to tell her father a few things she found difficult to say to him. She felt ready to speak in what she believed was a safe environment, with the support from a therapist. We agreed on 5 sessions and in that time, they were able to disentangle some of their old narratives and heal deep historic wounds that had created distance between them. This helped my client feel heard in a way she had not experienced with her father and they were both able to begin to make sense of what happened between them and how this had impacted on their relationship. My admiration for this ‘couple’ was huge and it was to their credit that they managed to stay with the uncomfortable feelings and worked through their issues.

What struck me was that all people, no matter what kind of couple, share a sense of not being heard, not being seen, feelings of hurt and a fear of losing their relationship. The longing for repair and need for harmony between people is part of our drive as humans. We are born to connect and love but we don’t always have the tools to know how best to achieve this. This is when people reach out for help and therapy can be a tool that enables individuals to connect with themselves in order to connect with others. Couples bring their hope of creating a new understanding and better communication between the people they love.

There is clearly a difference between working with traditional couple issues and relatives or friendships. My own understanding of these differences has been informed by own experience, by my willingness to ask questions and to learn to not assume anything. As a therapist, I am disentangling and constantly trying to make sense of feelings and where they might be originating from. The dynamics between people, whether a romantic couple or between relatives or friends are usually based on a connection that has been severed in some way. In both cases, the work is the same, reestablishing that connection.

Shirlee Kay

Couples: Communication and Conversation

Coupleworks’ counsellors frequently meet couples desperate to improve their communication – and often start by asking about the beginning of the relationship.

‘You’re My World’ Cilla Black


The time of falling in love can be marked by fascinated curiosity, rapt attention, delving into inner worlds and gazing into one another’s eyes. It can feel like the discovery of a best friend and soul mate and taking the couple back to the memory of when they experienced such closeness can reignite hope.

‘Where Are You Now…?’ Justin Bieber


However, later down the line, busy lives can mean conversation is brief, occurring in snatched moments, and focussed on practicalities. Each can lose sight of the other’s dreams, desires and longings. More light-hearted moments of warmth, laughter and sharing can often take place with friends and colleagues and not with each other. The relationship can become irritable, joyless and serious – weighed down by pressure at work, decisions about running the home, parenting, finances, aged parents. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed, a sense of being alone, unsupported and short-changed – can create an atmosphere of complaint and criticism.

‘Mind the gap…’ Nabiha


Parallel lives can mean moments of intimacy grow fewer. In his book ‘The Relationship Cure’ John Gottman says that reconnection and repair lies not in the grand gesture but in the ‘turning-towards micro-moments’ that indicate how you are seen, valued, loved and cared for. Couples constantly reach out and make bids to one another for affection, attention and support but they are sometimes misunderstood and misread as demands. Gottman describes how each partner has a ‘sliding-door’ moment in how they choose to respond: to rebuff, turn away or draw closer. The squeeze at the dishwasher, the wink across a crowded room, the pause for a longer hug at the door, sharing the preparation for dinner, the back rub, switching off all screens when eating – all mean ‘You are special’. But these can be rejected with a shrug of annoyance or received with appreciation and a smile.

‘Love Hurts…’ Nazareth


If the love bank is depleted or empty there is nothing to call on when times are tough and the disappointment in each other can feel sharp and result in flashpoints of anger and blame.

‘Working my way back to you…’ Four Seasons


Consequently, the couple’s emotional reserve requires constant topping up. The positive ways in which the mundane tasks, the work of daily grind and tedium, are managed allows caring and intimacy to establish itself once more. What might appear to be insignificant moments of consideration and connection can quickly add up to an environment of safety, relaxation and warmth. Mistrust and defensive interactions dissipate and love expands.

‘Talk To Me…’ Stevie Nicks


Gottman suggests creating a regular, twenty minute, DAILY, couple conversation time that is prioritised above all else. It should be a time for connection, focused listening, not interrupting, checking out, reflection, going deeper. It can be reparative after an argument and generally replenishing for the relationship. It can guard against the thread that connects the couple becoming too thin and stretched – possibly to breaking point.

Kathy Rees