‘Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space.

And in this space, lies our power and our freedom’

(Victor Frankl)

It is mid-October, a time of change as leaves turn red and the evenings draw in. It is half term, an interim period, a time to take a breath, when summer is over but the freezing grey has not yet arrived. We are back in routine and yet, despite memories of lockdown fading, all is not quite as it was. We continue to adjust to new ways of managing family commitments, working, socialising, and travelling. As we look ahead it is perhaps to an unsettled winter with the virus still in our midst and difficulties with deliveries and shortages of supplies. There feels a low-level generalised uncertainty in the air and, perhaps not coincidentally, the therapists in Coupleworks have noticed an increase in enquiries from couples considering counselling.

The arrival of Covid meant we were all forced to crisis manage the various situations in which we suddenly found ourselves. Many had to dig deep into their resilience bank to cope with extra but necessary tasks. Those alone sometimes found enforced solitude difficult and lonely. Meeting a new partner meant launching into unknown territory with unexpected pressures and constraints.

Dealing with regular everyday survival created a stress that made it seem a luxury to take time out to care for relationships. The demands left us so exhausted that self-care, too, although essential, was hard to prioritise. There was grief and confusion as lives were upended and many found themselves running on adrenaline with the tank on empty. Not many had it easy but, with hindsight, there were also opportunities for strengthening close bonds, team building, embracing new openness, and a recognition of resourcefulness and adaptability too.

And now many people are beginning to take stock. They want to take a breath and explore where they are now. How do they make sense of the ways in which things are different? Can they stop, pause, and assess how the chips have fallen? Yes, there were significant losses but can they count the gains as well as take on the further adjustments that may be required?

‘The quieter you become, the more you can hear.’(Rumi)

There is a meditation exercise where, in a moment of stillness you focus with intentionality on your senses and your surroundings. What can you hear? What can you feel, smell, taste? How much do you notice when you pause and pay attention? Life has been busy, frantic at times, and counselling can similarly offer the time and space to centre, listen, reflect and share.

The ‘Why Now?’

Sometimes a couple discovers that their usual modus operandi has not been working so well and their habitual methods of relating seem lacking and insufficient in the face of new challenges.

The thought that this could mean that they have lost the firm secure base of their relationship can loom large and frighten the most loving of partners. Counselling can help to regain a firm footing.

The How

As well as exploring the issues that are causing distress, I find it is important to spend time at the beginning of therapy understanding the couple’s unique relationship dynamic and uncover the explicit and unconscious couple mindset. A mindset is a collection of thoughts and beliefs that orientates the way we navigate life. Anxiety and insecurity can flare when we suspect our core beliefs are misaligned, or disrespected, or dismissed by a partner.

In order to discover the ways in which a couple is stuck, a deeper investigation can reveal their attachment to the problem, as well as the source of their anxieties.

Of course, there is productive anxiety, which can give us the energy, creativity, drive and focus to tackle a problem. A couple can harness their love, and the value they place on their partnership, to face up to a difficulty and find the determination to seek help. I believe that a supportive therapeutic environment then encourages them to unite, collaborate, and move from a position of ‘I’ to a stance of ‘WE’ and combine strengths and skills for problem solving.

However, if we are embedded with a host of unrealistic beliefs, unproductive anxiety can get a grip and, unless thoughtfully examined and challenged, can maintain a powerful influence on our interactions. A fixed and rigid outlook for example can become such an emotional straight jacket that it limits relationship growth and development. We need confidence and flexibility in order to trust and relax but, when these are missing, we can become overloaded with an anxiety that is unproductive and toxic and becomes a breeding ground for anger, attack and defensiveness. We feel helpless, often hopeless, and unable to effect constructive change. 

The pandemic was profoundly uncomfortable in the way it seemed to magnify the idea that, really, we have limited control, and we are always, somewhat, blown by the winds of fate. But how often do we pause, check-in and review where our agency actually lies and discover that, frequently, control lies in our attitude to events: ‘We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails’(Manson)

Making the choice to look change in the eye 

Lao Tzu’s quote, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ has echoes in psychologist Nathaniel Branden’s observation that ‘The first step toward change is awareness’ (Branden)

Therapy allows us the opportunity to understand the ways in which we feed our anxiety demons, and explore the many alternative strategies at our disposal. We have an inbuilt vigilance to threat, and an active negativity bias that is meant to keep us safe from danger. However, this can easily shift into overdrive and wipe out more rational cognitive thinking. We need to notice our ANT’s (Automatic Negative Thoughts) and consciously replace them with PAT’s (Positive Alternative Thoughts). 

It can be liberating to decide to step away from a stuck pattern of behaviour and choose something that will open a door to making a difference. We can turn our backs on the temptation to lapse into the role of victim for example. Instead of blaming and accusing others, and feeling resentment that we have not been rescued, we can change our focus to self-empowerment. 

The ‘Dirty Window Syndrome’ takes the premise that we look straight through a clean window at the view outside. But a dirty window distracts. The smudges bother us and we focus on the flaws. We shorten our gaze and no longer look at the sky.

Susan Gillis Chapman describes how the development of awareness can lead to a more mindful communication. Encouraging the pause, staying curious, noticing, naming. Then recognising when and why we feel emotionally safe and open up. Understanding when and why we feel vulnerable and harden offers up a choice of responses. We can train ourselves to take time-out and reflect. Or bite our tongues rather than launching into an angry attack. Or perhaps come out from absenting ourselves behind cold withdrawal and stay present.

She uses the metaphor of changing traffic lights as a short hand indication of a state of mind. 

Is it Green Light and flow is easy and relaxed?

Is it Red Light with the rush and flood of hot reaction that stalls the dialogue and stops us from listening?

Or can we stop at an Orange Light

This does not mean a blocking or stalling, but is an active state that requires us to do the work. It is the space between the trigger and the reaction. It helps us to hold onto our seats, extend a breath, and hold steady. If we are willing to be curious, bear not knowing, the orange light allows for a softening and the choice to react differently.

Can we feel compassion for the other person’s flaws and frailties, as well as our own, and be more forgiving? 

Adele’s new release makes a heartfelt plea for us to go ‘Easy on me’ 

We need to believe that it is in our power to grow, choose a different outcome. That painful feelings are not permanent, everything is fluid, and this too will pass.

A scenario:

It’s snowing outside, the environment is harsh, and I have several choices:

  1. Do I take sensible precautions? Do I keep as warm as I can when I go out, my activities are not so badly impeded by the temperature, and I can connect with others?
  2. Do I limit my activities and not go out at all because its cold? Stay warm and cosy, hunker down, close all the doors and windows, but perhaps stay small.
  3. I go out but wrap up so tightly with so many protective layers I cannot breathe, feel or move effectively? The true me is hard to see, find, or know.

How to choose?

Kathy Rees