Archive for vulnerability

Couple Counselling and Ending a Relationship when there are children

‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity/Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.’ [W.B.Yeats]

Sometimes relationships come to an end.
And sometimes couple counselling is not about resolving issues, repairing the relationship, or reconnecting the couple.
Sometimes a couple starts therapy in order to manage their separation. Endings of any kind can unsettle, disturb and be profoundly upsetting. Couples seek counselling aware that they need to steady themselves and find a new equilibrium. They hope to uncover a different way of relating that will be as respectful and as amicable as possible. Recently Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were open about their commitment to the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of their relationship.

The old order has gone. Lives are different in so many ways and the repercussions ripple out. Moving out of ‘home’; dealing with the wider family and in-laws; managing old and shared friendships; stress; lack of sleep; health issues – all have an impact.
Lawyers will deal with the legalities. Mediators can help with finances. But the hurt and emotional disturbance needs to be addressed too.
In the face of the upheaval and feelings of vulnerability, there can be a preference for individual therapy. But, particularly when there are children involved, couple counselling can also be an important resource.

There is always a risk that children can get caught in the crossfire of unpleasant hostilities if a couple become adversaries. Frequently children overhear arguments when anger, frustration and resentment erupt and spill over. There are untold benefits in taking the time to communicate more calmly and effectively in front of them. Counselling can offer strategies for avoiding the open negative conflicts that have the potential to frighten a child.

Pulls of divided loyalties, feelings that they have to choose sides, can distress a child already confused and upset at the splintering of the family; and they certainly should not feel any responsibility to repair or be an intermediary.
Committing to keep in mind the best interests of the children, and to control any urges to score points, inflict hurt, or gain revenge, can be important agreed aims in the counselling when the future organisation of the family is being decided.

‘The point is not to end a marriage in some ideal or virtuous way… When breaking up… you need to do it in the best way you can. It is not in your interests to be still caught up in bitterness and anger ten years after breaking up, nor in passiveness and hopelessness… The more you can digest the emotional impact of a break-up, the freer you will be to move on… and it will leave you more emotionally open to help your children.’ [‘Breaking Up Blues – A Guide to Survival and Growth’ Denise Cullington]

The counselling room can be the ‘safe space’ where difficult conversations are contained so children are not overwhelmed by a fraught tension. They love both parents and it is frightening to witness parental hate and attack and difficult for children to evaluate and process adult rage. The separation may have already rocked the foundation of their world, they may feel shattered by the loss of the usual security, but they should not feel everything is out of control. Both parents have a role in supporting and guiding the children to manage the unavoidable grief and loss, and to navigate the changes in their lives as they know it.

However lives are organised after a separation, and however much the couple continues to see each other, their parental role means they will forever remain interconnected. It takes courage and resilience but, along with supportive couple counselling, the couple can find the resources to engage their adult parts in order to make that as flexible and as constructive a connection as possible.

Kathy Rees

Anger and the Couple

Like a sniffer dog recognising the scent of explosives, we all learn to be alert to any hint of danger to our psychological well-being. Whenever we have a suspicion that our partner may be behaving in a way that makes us feel vulnerable, we move to defend ourselves against the threat.

Deep in our brain, the amygdala is responsible for recognising and responding to the perceived danger. It sends out an alarm so that we can be prepared to protect ourselves. It is responsible for the ‘act first, think later’ response. We become all about ‘reaction’ – and it is so rapid that there is no time to think about our behaviour or consider the consequences.

There is an almost instantaneous physiological reaction as the amygdala triggers a surge of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. There is an immediate change in both our physical and mental state as a result.

Cortisol increases our muscle tension, breathing and heart rate, blood flow and blood pressure. Our focus becomes intense and fixed on the danger.

The next influence is our individual propensity to one of the stress responses of ‘Freeze’, ‘Flight’, or ‘Fight’.

So we might ‘go cold’ (freeze), avoid eye contact and close down, shrink inside, and be unable to think. We hope the danger will pass without us having to engage.

Or we might have an urge to escape and get away (flight). We might need actual physical separation and space; or our partner senses that we have become emotionally unavailable, become distant, and have withdrawn from actively engaging with them. We have retreated into our cave.

Alternatively, our default survival mechanism might be angry confrontation (fight). We become hostile or threatening (both verbally and physically); or we sulk and become passive aggressive. The assumption here is that ‘attack is the best form of defence’.

Sometimes anger is energising and allows us to recognise something is wrong. We can become assertive and work for change. But that can only happen when there is a balance of reaction from the cortex. This is the ‘rational’ part of the brain which is responsible for thinking and judgement.

Frequently, we lose the ability to think and the anger escalates and becomes destructive (and even violent and dangerous). Couples describe being caught up in a repetitive spiral of arguments that never get resolved. They easily lose control, and lose access to the competent, creative, problem-solving parts of themselves. It becomes all about ‘feelings’.

Because anger masks the fear and anxiety that has provoked the reaction, the partner is oblivious to the underlying feelings of vulnerability and the actual issues are never addressed. It becomes about ‘the dirty cups’ and not about ‘I feel you don’t care enough about me’.

There is a ‘Catch 22’ situation where describing those feelings would increase the sense of panic. After all, the person we love is the person who has the ability to hurt us the most. But they are also the ones who could soothe and reassure if only we could let them. But anger blocks that. When we are aggressive they stand up to us in return. Or they just want to get away from us, and we remain misunderstood.

Relationship counselling offers a calm space to uncover and understand the underlying issues. A couple can discover why they react to certain triggers and think about alternative ways of responding. Paradoxically, exposing the vulnerability can strengthen the relationship. It can become a safe place not haunted and overwhelmed by past hurts. The love, care, trust and generosity in the relationship can be used to heal emotional wounds. Counselling can offer the opportunity of experimenting with managing angry feelings – and equip the couple with constructive, supportive coping strategies.