Archive for understanding

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’)

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

Can Long Distance Relationships Work for Couples

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Since the start of the new year it has been noticeable how many more clients are requesting counselling sessions via three- way Skype (the couple are in two different places) or trying to arrange face to face sessions weeks in advance for the few hours or days that they know they are going to be together.

There are many reasons why couples find themselves in long distance relationships and it appears that the geographical distance is often seen as the reason why these relationships can be so problematic.
It is often suggested that long distance relationships (LDR) are less happy and satisfying and bring more difficulties and problems than couples’ that are geographically close. In fact recent studies show that those couples that have a strong emotional connection will function better with distance than those couples who are in a regular relationship and lack emotional connection. Only today I heard a couple describe their 30-year marriage as very lonely and emotionally disconnected despite having worked and lived together for so long.

What is it like for a couple to be in a long distance relationship?

Choosing to be in a long distance relationship can be tough and challenging and is often not a choice that is taken lightly. Long distance relationships can be short in duration or go on for years. In some cases it is not a choice but a necessity due to work commitments, job enhancement, opportunities, family commitments etc.
What is clear is that we can often find ourselves in long distance relationships without realizing the huge amount of patience and understanding being in one requires.

Here are some crucial points that clients bring to their counselling sessions that they have found useful to think about:
*The need for a very solid base to a relationship when you are long distance. To feel you can be open, honest and trusting with each other is vital in order to be able to manage the difficulties that you will encounter.
*Be prepared to work harder on your relationship than if you were together. Don’t take things for granted and show each other respect for the roles you find yourselves in.
* Feel confident in sharing any insecurities or shaky times you may have with each other
*Make sure you take time out to work out together the best way and times to communicate even if you are in different time zones. Make each other feel you are interested in what they are doing and care about them even when you are miles apart?
*The importance of knowing when you will next see each other and to take time planning where that might be and what you will do.
* Having a schedule for when you text, skype or call is essential. Checking that whichever mode of contact it is it works for both of you. It’s often easier to get caught up in text messages than take a risk and spend time talking on the phone.
*The pressure of being together again and what are your expectations? Do you spend all your precious time together or do you use the time to catch up with friends? Do you have close family who also expect to see you? If there is often a lot of pressure to feel the time you have together has to be “perfect” this will bound to lead to massive disappointment.
*Do you tend to put off talking about difficult things because you don’t want to end up rowing but then get resentful that you don’t feel that close?
*When you finally meet up knowing you are going to be apart again, don’t waste precious time fretting about the impending good-bye as this will prevent you enjoying every precious moment you have with each other.
*Always make time to check in with how you are both managing with the distance itself. At times it will feel manageable and at other times not. What’s important is you feel you can be honest with each other about how you feel otherwise this can build up into resentment.

So yes long distance relationships can be challenging but certainly with closer communication and shared understanding, couples can make it work
“Contrary to what the cynics say, distance is not for the fearful; its for the bold.
Its for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love”

Dawn Kaffel

The Festival of Chanukah – 8 candles 8 lessons

Last Sunday Jewish families around the world were celebrating the first night of Chanukah. The time of the year when this joyous festival of lights is celebrated with the kindling of an eight branch candelebra. Over the next eight days an additional candle is lit every night accompanied by singing special songs, eating oil based foods like doughnuts and exchanging gifts.

Rabbi Mark Levene says with the strike of a match the flames of the menorah can teach us eight powerful lessons. I believe we can also apply these lessons to our couple relationships:

CLARITY – there are often times in life when we can get overwhelmed with difficulties. It just takes one person to break that darkness and reach out to another to show love empathy and compassion

HOPE – no matter how impossible things may look at times, with patience, time and effort we can fight off the forces that often want to break us.

ADDITIONS – on each evening we light an additional flame and then go back to light the previous candles. In doing this we show that everyday we have another opportunity to add our own light into this world and improve what we bring to one another from the day before.

NOTICE – have we become so accustomed to routine in our lives and relationships that we fail to see the fascination in the familiar and mundane?

UNDERSTANDING- more about ourselves and how we behave helps us stay more connected to our partners and ensures we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes

KINDLE- regardless of how many candles we light our flame never diminishes. When we share our knowledge, time and energy with our partners we keep that light shining brighter

AWAKEN – to question our commitment to our relationships can reawaken the curiosity and interest in each other

HEAVENWARD – allowing ourselves to look inwards. However far we may travel the light of the flames teach us that our hearts and minds remain steadfastly committed to our relationships.

The festival of Chanukah enables us to look inwards and utilise the opportunities available to us. This year as we eat our doughnuts lets hope we can see the glow of the eight flickering candles and stand strong as we did over 2000 years ago and overcome our difficulties now as we did then.

Happy Chanukah

Dawn Kaffel