Often, relationship counsellors will see individuals on their own. The huge advantage of coming to a couples counsellor, rather than one who deals with issues solely around individuals, is that a long and intense training allows us to ‘see’ them both, even if only one attends.
We always keep the other in our thoughts and over time, we develop a ‘Couple State of Mind’.
This may be more challenging for the client as sometimes there may appear to be a different version of events reflected back to them.
There can be two completely viable truths, and often seeing things from an alternative perspective is imperative, If a little galling, as long held beliefs may have to be reorganised and prejudices rearranged.
However, lockdown has brought so many challenges forcing couples to rethink their roles, often a situation neither of them really wants. Identities are threatened and there’s a loss of comfort and self in the ways we felt that we fitted in the world.
To begin with, back in March, we were all in a rather blind panic, unsure what to do, what might happen, and who would sort it all out.
Fast forward 6 months, and a rather overwhelming cloud of uncertainty still hovers around us, not helped by still not knowing who might sort it all out or if we may even backslide into another bout of restrictions and unease.
One of the themes that run through many of my sessions, is the difficulty many couples are experiencing in having to rethink the roles they had built up to keep a household steady.
Epidemics always have gendered effects, and those with caring responsibilities will be hardest hit. It seems that this pandemic can easily amplify inequalities. And couples are having to rethink the (often unspoken) bargain that they made to keep a level of trust and fairness between them.
For many households, the outside help that they relied on has had to be withdrawn. Problems now infiltrate that had been smoothed and carefully sorted.
One client told me that she now feels like a 1950s housewife. She has a caring partner and is reasonably solvent. But her life had turned upside down in March.
We had spent many previous sessions discussing her identity, her hopes and what could be a fulfilling career once her children become more independent.
She had finally found a business opportunity and spent time and money on a website, business cards, and built up a list of customers. She had successfully found her niche.
Sadly, this was not a business that could be sustained during the current time of restrictions and she is now dealing with the loss of her hopes for the creative part of herself that is unable to be utilised.
Her story could be told thousands of times all over the country. And we have to keep things in the present without losing a vision of the future.
Different parts of our identity are highly localised and used to have a predictable setting.
We were often changed by the context of who we were in the gym, office, restaurant or school gates.
It’s been hard to switch those contexts and
the lifestyle of so many families is now completely changed.
Without wanting to revert to stereotypes, in London where I practise, it is usually (tho not always) the man who was the main, or equal, breadwinner.
Work and office based life has changed completely, and possibly for ever. Many offices and workplaces are now shut or only partially open. Those with a busy commute are now rooted to an office chair and staring at a computer screen.
Huge amounts of outside social interaction is lost for everyone in a family.
Interestingly, I have yet to find anyone not absorbing their previous travelling time into their working day – adding hours to their workload.
With men often stressed and anxious about avoiding furlough or redundancy, quiet is needed around a home that often doesn’t have a designated office room.
Children have had to be occupied and kept as quiet as possible.
Women have, statistically, been hardest hit by increases in unemployment as they are often located in retail and the hospitality sector.
Now many of them have been reallocated to the roles of teacher, general housekeeper, carer, cook and all round bottle washer.
There are more meals to prepare and even with the childrens return to regular schooling, it’s a shaky and changeable situation.
It is imperative that couples talk together about their workloads and responsibilities. The enemy is very much outside and if tensions creep in, then it will seep into any crack in the relationship and cause real hardship.
Talk together about your fears and try to iron out grudges. Recognise that there has often been a titanic struggle to resolve how we fit these new life changes.
Often, the main tension that is brought up in my sessions seems to revolve around feeling unappreciated. Both partners are tired and usually overworked and the small gestures of thanks can get lost, leading to a scratchy competition of who is the most hard done by.
Both roles will have changed, and often neither party feels as if they are getting enough validation or acknowledgement.
Frustration over chores, especially the boring or unpleasant ones, can erupt into a row that lasts and festers because there’s no respite.
Recognise that there is fear lurking in the unknown and we need to admit our vulnerabilities and help our loved ones.
A little appreciation, an unexpected hug or little treat can go a long way.
There’s more isolation, less ability to refresh ourselves with outside resources and friends. Couples can feel claustrophobic.
Look at ways to keep healthy space between us with outside contacts, classes, sport, meditation, walks – whatever works.
And never get too busy for quiet dinner at the table with screens turned off, or a night on the sofa with a box set. Put the kids to bed a little early with the promise of a treat.
Change out of those trackie bottoms and comfy T-shirt and dress up to please yourself as much as a partner.
Remember to acknowledge, and vocalise, thanks for the tedious or stressful jobs the other is taking on…..
And always keep a ‘Couple State of Mind’