Archive for vulnerability

Anxiety and Negativity in a Relationship

Relationship therapists often note that there is an increase of enquiries in January and it seems that 21st January was designated ‘Blue Monday’ – the most depressing day of the year. Is there a link? Apparently a mixture of the dark evenings and grey weather encourages Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and post-festive/party season depression. There seems not much to look forward to and Spring appears a long way off. Dissatisfactions in a relationship can breed, negatives become a focus, and joy feels in short supply.

However, booking an appointment for couple counselling, making New Year Resolutions, committing to Dry January, and even choosing Veganuary, can be seen as ways of recalibrating, attempting recovery, making improvement, and getting back in charge of ‘Life’. But how to manage the despair and hopelessness when motivational levels drop and good intentions stall?

‘Blue Monday’ may be a cynical PR ploy by the travel industry but the response by the Samaritans was interesting. Rather than accept a general blanket of gloom, they renamed the day as ‘Brew Monday’ and suggested a solution: Talk. Take the opportunity to reach out, share, and chat over a cup of tea – open up to vulnerabilities and CONNECT.

With a similar understanding that empathy can be reassuring and effective in soothing anxiety, Brene Browne, in her book ‘Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love and lead’, describes viewing  vulnerability as ‘the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and comfort. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity.’

John Gottman, the American relationship therapist, said that, ‘I believe that every person has areas of enduring vulnerability. For a relationship to succeed, these vulnerabilities need to be understood and honoured and an empathetic exploration of vulnerabilities offers a couple the opportunity to strengthen their relationship.’

Anxiety can be isolating and leave us feeling misunderstood and alone. We can feel shame and humiliation that we are perhaps overwhelmed and that we are not coping as everyone else seems to be. A flash of envy created by an Instagram picture can spiral into FOMO, then a feeling of being not-good-enough, then worthlessness. We can internalise dark thoughts and get stuck in a toxic place of harsh criticism, disappointment and blame. We are super vigilant to the possibility of threat and reactions of ‘flight, fight, freeze’ play out destructively in our relationships. 

‘Some of the worst things in my life never even happened…’ wrote Mark Twain when describing his tendency to catastrophism and worry and, to varying degrees, we are all programmed to be alert to the presence of danger. Tara Brach explains that it is as if, at birth, the brain received the telegram, ‘Start worrying. Details to follow.’ An emotional trigger, a perceived attack, can strike at any moment. Insecurity wreaks psychological havoc in relationships and can result in reactions of deep despair, or hot fury, or icy withdrawal – creating confusion too. 

So, American therapist, Rick Hanson, encourages clients to change the FBI motto of ‘Follow the money’ (when detecting organised crime) to ‘Follow the anxiety’ when unpicking the cause of relationship distress.

Counselling can help this process and offers an opportunity to reflect on how disappointments and irritations are filling a field of vision. A couple can understand how they have become habituated to a focus on the difficulties and differences. Choosing to lift their heads, feel the warmth of love and core connection, can change perspective. The couple can explore why they have continued stuck in negative behaviour patterns of mistrust, defensiveness and hostility – counterintuitive when faced with the resulting hurt and sadness. Of course it can be difficult to break a loop of chronic pessimism when it has become a default relationship dynamic. But it is true that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ positively too. Creating kinder, gentler, more generous and compassionate interactions can offer an optimistic alternative way of relating.

Counselling can help challenge the negative beliefs that drive fear – and help a couple to wake up out of a trance of anxiety. Although beliefs can be deeply ingrained, they are not ‘facts’. A challenge of ‘what would you think, and who would you be, if you did not believe this?’ offers the possibility of explanation, understanding, discussion and choice. The realisation that we all have agency helps us to get in touch with our own resilience and determination. We are then free to embrace empathy and choose affection, admiration, consideration, loyalty, respect which can be transformative and healing. Do we dare to be happy?

‘Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…’

Kathy Rees

Relationships and Stress

As a therapist I often see how powerfully external factors in life can influence the stability of a couple’s relationship.  Sometimes these can stem from events happening to a friend or family member – illness, death or marital breakdown can all have significant knock-on effects.  Redundancy and financial pressures of course can impact the couple directly.  But at other times the pressures can come from much further afield – Brexit may be causing a particular tsunami in Parliament at the moment but the shock waves of dis-ease seem to be being felt by pretty well every individual in this country, and as a result, by couples as well.

A key question that emerges therefore for every couple is how they deal with such pressures and how they can build resilience to ride out the low patches of life.  Here it is vital that each partner can recognise what strategies they resort to in times of trouble for themselves initially and, mirroring that, in their partner’s reaction as well.  Behavioural patterns often come from learnt strategies in our family of origin, or ways in which we adapted to survive difficult or traumatic times when we were young.  Did it feel safer for a person to withdraw to what seemed like a calmer place within themselves?  Or did they prefer to fight and express distress by being angry?  Or did they freeze and hope that whatever was causing their discomfort would simply go away?  

All of us respond to external pressures in different ways and there is no ‘right’ way of doing this – but sometimes differences in how each partner responds to such pressures can set up a negative cycle of interaction within the couple. For instance if the cycle is one of both being withdrawers, or a combination of a fighter and one who freezes and denies the problems, then this can lead to alienation and distress in the couple relationship.  By being unable to understand another’s reaction to stress effectively prevents the couple from supporting each other and providing comfort.

The fight, flight or freeze responses to external threats can easily result in negative communication and don’t in themselves lead to good connections in a relationship.  In the immediate threat, these are often our innate and learnt responses – we cannot avoid these but it is crucial that we appreciate them both in ourselves and in our partner.  To build a more solid and sustaining relationship through such troubles each then needs to express their underlying feelings of vulnerability.   This means owning their own fears and anxieties and talking them through with their partner.  The relationship can then become a supportive and caring place rather than one that simply adds to further distress. 

When things become too overwhelming, couple therapy can help relationships to regain stability and become a source of comfort for each partner to survive the lows, as well as to enjoy the better times in life.

Sarah Fletcher

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.